The Doctrine of Discovery justified everything from slavery to the residential school system
The concept of a Doctrine of Discovery came into the consciousness of many people during the Pope’s visit to Canada in July 2022. Indigenous protesters unfurled a large banner in Quebec City that read, “Rescind the Doctrine.”
Francis clearly heard these concerns, and, on March 30, the Catholic Church released an official statement repudiating the 15th-century teachings that were used to justify colonialism and deny the humanity of billions of people.
One may ask why a series of 500-year-old papal bulls (essentially, decrees from the Vatican) are so significant. The reason is that they formed the basis of law and practice in much of the world, even in states that are not Catholic. In 2005, for example, United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (considered by many to have been a progressive) used these documents to justify denying land claims to the Oneida Nation in New York State.
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The Papal Bulls of Discovery were used to justify everything from taking away people’s homes to slavery, as well as the residential school system. They were in clear violation of natural law, which the Church embraces as central to our common humanity and the basis of any form of morality.
Nowhere is this contradiction more evident than in the Arab world. European colonizers, who, according to these bulls, saw non-Christians as inferior, were confronted with the fact that descendants of Jesus’s own lineage populated these areas. They tried to justify their colonizing efforts by saying that Christians (and later Jews) in the area were somehow not really Arabs, an absurd concept, especially to the people of the region.
One may rightly question the significance of repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery in 2023. Essentially, to maintain integrity, Pope Francis had no choice other than to make a statement because the old teachings have done incalculable harm throughout the centuries. Although we cannot turn back time, we can make reparations to the descendants of the people who were victimized.
We also need to consider the scope of the Pope’s statement. The Catholic Church is the world’s second-largest religion, and 30 per cent of the population of Canada is Catholic. Just as Canadians ask, “How do I embrace the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?”, every Catholic in the world is now asking, “How do I repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery?”
My answer is that it impacts every aspect of my life, from the way I think and pray, to the way I treat my neighbours, to the way that I do my job, to the way that I shop, to the stand I take on Canadian domestic and foreign policies. It goes without saying that I must challenge the institution of the Church to be accountable for living up to its expressed ideals.
The timing of this statement in the weeks leading up to Easter is also significant. Catholics believe that the suffering and death of Jesus did not only occur two thousand years ago. They believe that whenever anyone in the world suffers due to our actions or inaction or those of our society, whether intentional or unintentional, the Son of God is crucified. The March 30 statement from the Vatican should make it clear to Catholics that every person who suffered and continues to suffer due to the crimes of colonialism is Christ crucified.
It is even more significant, however, that Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning. Suffering and even death do not destroy us. We can learn from our mistakes and do better. This is not just a question of hoping for a better world; it means actively living to bring about justice, knowing that positive transformation is inevitable.
Just as the Doctrine of Discovery had a profoundly negative impact on the world, its repudiation can be a turning point in history. It is up to us and our descendants to bring that about.
Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust.
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