A few days ago Religion News Service (RNS) ran an article by Jack Jenkins on Douglas Lucia, the Bishop of Syracuse, New York. Lucia has denounced something called the “doctrine of discovery,” and has called on the US bishops to draft a statement apologizing for the harm done by the Church to indigenous people in the United States. He hopes to meet with Pope Francis to discuss a formal apology and repudiation from the Vatican. I believe that such a repudiation would be immensely beneficial, perhaps even necessary, to the Church’s ongoing reckoning with its past—and, in some parts of the world, present—abuses of non-European indigenous populations.
The doctrine of discovery was the idea that the Catholic powers of Europe had the moral right, perhaps even the obligation, to politically and militarily subjugate the parts of the globe that lay outside the “known world” as it had been understood before the Age of Exploration. The papal bull Inter Caetera, signed by Pope Alexander VI in June 1493, granted Spain and Portugal the right to divide and claim the land in the “unknown world” between them. Through the authority of the papacy, Alexander gave these two European powers the “holy and praiseworthy undertaking” of full authority over these lands and the people living there.
In probably the best-known example of this idea in action, the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas codified the arrangement, dividing the entire non-European world evenly between Spain and Portugal. It informed the entire European expansionist and imperialist project and was picked up in modified forms by Protestant powers such as the Netherlands and England as well. As the RNS article points out, as late as 2005 a nearly unanimous US Supreme Court cited the American version of the doctrine in City of Sherill v. Oneida Nation of New York, finding that the Oneida’s repurchase of traditional tribal lands did not return tribal sovereignty to those lands. In Australia, the similar “terra nullius” doctrine was in force until repudiated in the 1992 case Mabo v. Queensland.
The Catholic Church, like Australia (and unlike the United States), has abandoned the doctrine over the centuries; however, as is also pointed out in the RNS article, the Church’s abandonment of the doctrine happened piecemeal over many years. For example, Querida Amazonia contains a footnote that makes no sense if the doctrine of discovery is to be held as valid. Footnote 17 in the exhortation lists several Magisterial documents through the centuries that repudiate many of the assumptions that underlie the doctrine of discovery. But it’s just that—a footnote. The result is that the impression is given that the Church has not formally repudiated the doctrine, only quietly shuffled it offstage. It is this impression that Bishop Lucia now asks the universal Church to correct with formal and explicit repudiations of this fallible—and obviously failed—tradition of past ages.
While Bishop Lucia isn’t the real story here compared to the doctrine itself and the history of Catholic mistreatment of indigenous populations, I do think it’s notable and heartening that he is the one proposing this. The Diocese of Syracuse is in Upstate New York, and indeed contains the traditional lands of the Oneida nation that were under dispute in Sherrill v. Oneida. Many Oneida and members of other components of the Iroquois Confederacy still live in the area, and Bishop Lucia says that he has been in communication with them about the doctrine of discovery and its effects on Native American life and culture. So the doctrine of discovery is certainly not a thing of the past in the Diocese of Syracuse.
Upstate New York is in some respects a peripheral part of the world these days. However, it is of key importance to understanding relations between the Catholic Church and the indigenous peoples of North America. It’s not only the Oneida connection that makes the region important for understanding this. Many of the North American Martyrs, whose stories were used to such dubious effect in the American Conservative’s astonishing exercise in genocide trivialization, were martyred in either the Diocese of Syracuse or that of Albany, depending on which archeological argument one follows. St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first indigenous North American to be canonized, was born somewhere in the region as well, and was baptized on the grounds of what’s now a shrine to her in the predominantly white working-class town of Fonda. I’ve been to the shrine in Fonda many times myself and I know and like many of the people who work and preach there; its parish community is a great example of an unselfconscious blend between European Catholic and Native traditions, the kind of blend that in most other such places is much more obviously fraught.
For this reason, the fact that an Upstate New York bishop is leading this intervention against the historical doctrine of discovery is, to me, both fitting and welcome. In many ways dioceses like Syracuse are a microcosm of all the reasons many Americans are sick of Catholicism. It’s been hit hard by the second wave of the sex abuse scandal over the past several years, the demographics of the area are dubious-to-unsustainable, and, to my knowledge, no Bishop of Syracuse has ever become a national figure. This is exactly the sort of place out of which efforts to reckon with the past sins of churchmen should be coming. In the way that ideas such as the Jewish deicide charge have already been rejected by today’s Church, I hope that Pope Francis will respond to Bishop Lucia’s invitation and refute the doctrine of discovery with a thorough and definitive statement.
 Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission ruled in 2015 that, while it was not empowered to make legal judgments about Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples as genocide under international law, it constituted cultural genocide under current Canadian domestic definitions.
Image: Map by Spanish chronicler, historian, and writer, Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas (1548–1625) showing the meridian established under the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas to define land entitlements between Spain and Portugal. Public Domain.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.