After an historic papal apology, the legacy of a 15th century Church doctrine looms
Pictured: Pope Francis speaks to an audience alongside Indigenous leaders on July 25th, 2022 near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Image credits to AP/Gregoria Borgia.
In late July, Pope Francis met with government and tribal leaders in Canada to apologize for the role of members of the Catholic Church in the abuse committed against Indigenous children within the Canadian residential school system.
Amongst those gathered near Edmonton to hear the Pope’s words were residential school survivors, representing some of the over 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children who were taken from their homes between the late 18th century and the 1970s and placed into assimilationist government and church-run schools. Severe abuse was rampant in the schools, as were policies deliberately aimed at wiping out Indigenous languages and traditional ways.
Reactions to the apology amongst Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors were mixed: While some described the apology as an important and necessary step in the healing journey for survivors of residential school abuse, others noted the absence of concrete steps being taken by the Catholic Church to unseal documents related to this history and to invest in forming relationships with Native communities in Canada.
Pictured: An Inuk child at a residential school in Iqaluit, Northwest Territories in 1958. Pope Francis visited Iqaluit as part of his papal journey to Canada. Image credits to Ted Grant / National Film Board of Canada and the Phototheque Collection / Library and Archives Canada.
Many also emphasized the failure of the papal apology to specifically name the Catholic Church as a perpetrator of residential school abuse and criticized the Pontiff for not taking the opportunity to revoke the Doctrine of Discovery, a concept established by the Catholic Church shortly after Columbus’ arrival to the Western hemisphere that was subsequently used to justify the widespread seizure of Indigenous lands.
The Doctrine, born out of several papal bulls issued by Pope Alexander VI in the late 15th century, is a legal principle under which European conquerors claimed a right to annex land on the basis of discovery. The principle was even applied to the “discovery” of territories already inhabited by other nations - so long as the inhabitants were not Christian. Within a few years of the Doctrine’s establishment and the arrival of Europeans to the Western Hemisphere, 50% of the Native population of the Americas had died due to violence and disease. And in the five centuries since, Indigenous peoples have been subject to ongoing loss of land and culture stemming from the legal invocation of the Doctrine of Discovery across their traditional territories.
In addition to its role in a staggering loss of Indigenous lands, what the Doctrine did more indirectly was to feed into a grim narrative that conquerors - not the original peoples of a given land - somehow have a monopoly on culture, civilization and the authority to govern. As the Doctrine of Discovery was compounded by continued imperialism over Native peoples in the Americas, this mode of conceptualizing and actualizing the new society that began to take shape in the Western Hemisphere created an environment in which Native cultural lifeways and traditions were devalued in favor of European ideals - setting the gruesome stage for the establishment of residential schools and the suffering inflicted on the Indigenous children forced to attend them.
Several Christian denominations have formally denounced the Doctrine of Discovery in recent years, and in the wake of Pope Francis’ visit to Canada, Indigenous leaders are calling on the Pope to officially rescind the Doctrine himself. Activists are hoping that deeper efforts towards justice for residential school survivors on behalf of the Catholic Church will continue to take shape.
Additional resources on this topic listed below.
On Pope Francis’ official apology and his visit with Indigenous leaders in Canada:
Full text of Pope Francis’ July 25th apology to residential school survivors:
“Papal Visit: Apology at Last in Canada” from Indian Country Today:
“Pope Francis takes leave of Canada in Nunavut amid criticism” from The Washington Post:
On the history of Residential Schools in Canada and the United States:
Information on Residential School History from the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation: https://nctr.ca/education/teaching-resources/residential-school-history/
Parts 1 & 2 of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report on the history of the nation’s residential schools:
Part 1 -
Part 2 -
“Death by Civilization” by Mary Annette Pember for the Atlantic:
On the Doctrine of Discovery and its Troubling Legacy:
The Doctrine of Discovery as explained by the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University:
“This 500-year-old Catholic decree encouraged colonization. Will the pope revoke it?” from National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/doctrine-of-discovery-how-the-centuries-old-catholic-decree-encouraged-colonization
“Pope faces calls to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery at the heart of colonialism” from CBC Canada: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-the-tuesday-edition-1.6532503/pope-faces-calls-to-renounce-the-doctrine-of-discovery-at-the-heart-of-colonialism-1.6532787
This blog post is a part of our Reconciliation through Education series. To learn more about this and other issues related to the Tipi Raisers mission, please email email@example.com to sign up for our newsletter.
Sources include: Coverage of this topic from Indian Country Today, the Legal Information Institute at Cornell, NPR, National Geographic Magazine, The Associated Press, NBC, CNN, the Washington Post, The Conversation, and the National Post.
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