Pope’s statement remarkable but means little


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From 1452 to 1493, the Catholic church set the stage for a 500-year genocide.

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From 1452 to 1493, the Catholic church set the stage for a 500-year genocide.

In 1452, Pope Nicholas V decreed Dum diversas, which pronounced that God authorized King Alfonso V of Portugal “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ.”

In 1455, Nicholas V issued the Romanus Pontifex, giving King Alfonso V the right to seize lands inhabited by non-Christians and enslave them.

<p>People protest as Pope Francis meets young people and elders at Nakasuk Elementary School Square in Iqaluit in 2022. (The Associated Press files)</p>

People protest as Pope Francis meets young people and elders at Nakasuk Elementary School Square in Iqaluit in 2022. (The Associated Press files)

Subsequent popes endorsed these “papal bulls” until Pope Alexander VI, who added his own “bull” in 1493 — shortly after Columbus’s arrival in the so-called New World.

In the Inter caetera, Alexander VI decreed that Spain and Portugal have the right to colonize the Americas “by the authority of Almighty God.”

Christians who “discovered” non-Christian lands and people in the West would thus become “lords of them with full and free power, authority, and jurisdiction of every kind.”

Insert the African slave trade, the murder of millions of Indigenous peoples in North America and the brutal colonization of the Western Hemisphere.

These papal bulls would be coined the “doctrine of discovery.” Over the next few decades, multiple popes came to realize the destruction the church had unleashed.

In an attempt to stop the murder and theft, Pope Paul III issued the Sublimis Deus in 1537, declaring that, “Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the Christian faith; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved.”

God had already signed off on the genocide, however.

As a result, nearly every single law in Canada is built on the doctrine of discovery.

King George III used it in a 1763 Royal Proclamation to declare all the lands in North America were his.

The British North America Act of 1867, which created Canada, used it as the foundation for federal constitutional control of “Indians and lands reserved for Indians.”

The treaty process was therefore manipulated by the “doctrine of discovery,” causing Indigenous peoples to be declared subjects of the Crown, with virtually no rights.

The doctrine of discovery is the cause of the residential school system, poverty, suicide epidemics, boil-water advisories — and much, much more.

The immense wealth of the Catholic church in Canada and across the world is because of the doctrine of discovery.

Whether they are aware of it or not, Canadians benefit every single day because of the doctrine of discovery.

Lawyers and judges frequently cite the doctrine of discovery in land claims cases, Indigenous rights battles and constitutional debates.

Nothing represents the foundation for Canada more than the doctrine of discovery.

This week, Pope Francis issued a statement saying the Catholic church “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.’”

This is not remarkable and means very little. Multiple papal statements have said the same thing (alongside the Canadian Council of Bishops, which condemned the doctrine of discovery in 2016).

It’s also not remarkable for Pope Francis to argue that the words of his predecessors have been “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.”

It’s hard to manipulate words such as “capture, vanquish, and subdue.”

A pope blaming governments built on the doctrine — while the Catholic church in Canada continues to refuse to pay residential school survivors adequate compensation or return stolen lands — is hypocritical at best.

Sure, Canada might now feel some pressure to repudiate the doctrine of discovery. Would this result in lands being returned, or Indigenous rights being recognized, or the constitutional foundation of the country falling apart?

We’ll see.

Still, one thing about the statement from Pope Francis is remarkable: He listened.

During last July’s papal visit, Pope Francis met with multiple residential school survivors. He witnessed activists waving banners. He heard voices demanding he rescind the doctrine.

For an institution very slow to change, a pope taking eight months to issue a direct response to something he witnessed during a visit is fairly impressive.

It’s also the first time in more than 500 years that a pope listened to Indigenous people like they were human beings and took action.

In this, Pope Francis might have given Canadians, Catholics and the world a view of what the end of the doctrine of discovery actually looks like.

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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