I have written several times for Where Peter Is about issues facing Indigenous communities, including regarding the so-called “doctrine of discovery” and, in collaboration with my close friend Meredith Dawson, regarding related problems that emerged during Pope Francis’s visit to Canada last year. These are issues about which I care very much and that are directly relevant to my theological and, yes, activist work. Thus I was very happy earlier today to see, finally, a formal repudiation of this alleged doctrine, issued jointly by the Dicastery for Culture and Education and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
The strongest language in the statement, which is originally in English as opposed to the usual Italian or (these days) Spanish, appears in its seventh paragraph:
In no uncertain terms, the Church’s magisterium upholds the respect due to every human being. The Catholic Church therefore repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political “doctrine of discovery”.
Despite the continued use of evasive Vaticanese turns of phrase elsewhere in the document, this complete repudiation, or disavowal, is a major step in Catholic moral theology. It is also a major step for the two dicasteries, which have previously not been understood as producing teaching on faith or morals. In addition to the bailiwicks of the dicasteries themselves, I believe their prefects’ personal backgrounds may be instructive when it comes to the doctrine of discovery. José Tolentino de Mendonça, the Culture and Education prefect, is Portuguese; Michael Czerny, the Integral Human Development prefect, is Canadian. So Cardinal Mendonça comes from the country that the doctrine of discovery formulations in Dum Diversas and related documents were primarily intended to benefit, Cardinal Czerny from the country where much of the Indigenous activism against this past theological current has taken place.
I suspect that the two dicasteries’ insistence that Dum Diversas and its progeny never reflected Church teaching will lead to mixed reactions, as is understandable given that this type of position is more philosophical than historical. Even so, the document as a whole decisively ends any possible remaining dispute regarding whether the Church today considers the supposed doctrine justifiable even in retrospect. It does not, and Catholics should take care to avoid the underlying ideas when thinking about the lights and shadows of our faith’s role in human history.
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.
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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.