Vatican is distorting history around doctrine of discovery, says Professor Emeritus Kent McNeil in Globe and Mail op-ed

Photo of Kent McNeil
Professor Emeritus Ken McNeil

On March 30, the Vatican announced that it was repudiating the doctrine of discovery that has been used to justify the colonizing European powers’ assertions of sovereignty and land acquisition in the Americas. This doctrine was supported by a series of decrees, called bulls, issued by Pope Alexander VI in the 1490s. In the centuries since those bulls, the doctrine has been relied on by judges of the Supreme Courts of Canada and the United States – as recently as 2005, by the latter. Hopefully, its dismissal by the Vatican will encourage today’s judges to follow suit.

The Church’s statement, which says that the doctrine of discovery “is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church” and rejects the argument that the doctrine’s basis can be found in papal bulls from the 1450s and 1490s, is a significant step in the right direction. But it is only a step – and a problematic one at that, as its carefully worded repudiation of the doctrine provides a distorted vision of the historical context.

While it is true that these documents were issued to Portugal and Spain after they “discovered” West Africa and the Americas, the bulls nonetheless provided papal approval for their colonizing ventures. Instead of being decrees produced “in a specific historical period and linked to political questions” that “have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith,” as the Vatican’s statement claims, they were in fact part of a deliberate, centuries-long Church mission to Christianize the whole world, by war and enslavement if necessary. This effort was actively pursued from the time of the first Crusade in 1095 up to and including the bulls authorizing colonization of the Americas in the 1490s.

And though the Church claims that the bulls were “manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities,” the Vatican is wrong to depict itself as being so passive. The bulls empowered Portugal and Spain to further the Church’s Christianizing policy by forcibly acquiring the lands of Indigenous peoples and subjecting them to the control of the Catholic monarchs of these countries.

The 1455 bull Romanus Pontifex, which relates to West Africa, is one document mentioned in the statement. In that bull, Pope Nicholas V asserted that, as successor of St. Peter and vicar of Christ, he had a responsibility to Christianize the world. Toward this end, he authorized King Alphonso V of Portugal “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed,” seize their property, and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”

The 1493 bull Inter Caetera, authorizing Spain’s colonization of the Americas, starts by asserting that the highest-ranking work of the pope is that “the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” After praising King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for recovering “Granada from the yoke of the Saracens” and for discovering lands previously unknown to Europeans, Pope Alexander VI’s decree purports to grant the Catholic monarchs “all rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered,” west of a line in the Atlantic Ocean from pole to pole 100 leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. The stated purpose of this grant is religious – namely, to spread the Christian faith and convert the inhabitants of these distant lands.

This bull, unlike Romanus Pontifex, does not include powers of conquest and enslavement. But another 1493 bull, Eximiae Devotionis, did grant the Spanish monarchs all the rights and powers given to Portugal by previous bulls. Moreover, as is well known, the Spaniards viciously engaged in war and conquest, though more in pursuit of riches than conversion of the heathen.

It is thus disingenuous for the papacy to claim today that these bulls “were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers.” They were part of a deliberate religious policy aimed at subduing and converting non-European peoples to Christianity.

So while it is good that the Vatican has repudiated the doctrine of discovery, the Catholic Church is still not taking the responsibility it should for what was done to the peoples of Africa and the Americas. To be meaningful, Church statements should acknowledge its role in colonization, rather than provide distortions of history in an attempt to reduce its own responsibility.

(Published in The Globe and Mail, April 4, 2023.)