In the 15th century, the Roman Catholic Church issued several papal bulls announcing what became known as the doctrine of discovery that authorized various European powers to conquer the lands of non-Christians. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the bull Dum Diversas, which authorized King Alfonzo of Portugal to “subjugate the Saracens and pagans and other unbelievers and enemies of Christ” and “reduce their persons to perpetual servitude” and “to take their belongings, including land,” and “to convert them to you, and your use, and your successors the Kings of Portugal.” In 1455 Pope Nicholas V issued Romanus Pontifex, which extended Portugal’s authority to conquer the lands of infidels and pagans for “the salvation of all’ in order to “pardon. . . their souls. This document also granted Portugal a specific right to conquest in West Africa and to trade with Saracens and infidels in designated areas.
As discussed below, in March 2023 the Roman Catholic Church rejected this doctrine.
Church’s Rejection of the Doctrine
The doctrine in more recent times has been subjected to criticism from indigenous peoples, and on March 30, 2023, the doctrine’s rejection came in a joint statement by two of the Vatican’s departments or dicasteries: the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development.
After confessing that “many Christians have committed evil acts against indigenous peoples for which recent Popes have asked forgiveness on numerous occasions,” the Joint Statement said, “In our own day, a rewed dialogue with indigenous peoples, especially with those who profess the Catholic Faith, has helped the Church to understand better their values and cultures. With their help, the Church has acquired a greater awareness of their sufferings, past and present, due to the expropriation of their lands, which they consider a sacred gift from God and their ancestors, as well as the policies of forced assimilation, promoted by the governmental authorities of the time, intended to eliminate their indigenous cultures. As Pope Francis has emphasized, their sufferings constitute a powerful summons to abandon the colonizing mentality and to walk with them side by side, in mutual respect and dialogue, recognizing the rights and cultural values of all individuals and peoples. In this regard, the Church is committed to accompanying indigenous peoples and to foster efforts aimed at promoting reconciliation and healing.”
In these conversations with indigenous peoples, “the Church has heard the importance of [our] addressing the concept referred to as the ‘doctrine of discovery.’ The legal concept of ‘discovery’ was debated by colonial powers from the sixteenth century onward and found particular expression in the nineteenth century jurisprudence of courts in several countries, according to which the discovery of lands by settlers granted an exclusive right to extinguish, either by purchase or conquest, the title to or possession of those lands by indigenous peoples.
The Joint Statement then said, “The ‘doctrine of discovery’ is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church. Historical research clearly demonstrates that the papal documents in question, written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions, have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith. At the same time, the Church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples. The Church is also aware that the content of these documents 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. It is only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon. Further, Pope Francis has urged: “Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.” (Emphasis added.)
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.’” (Emphasis added.)
Reactions to the Rejection
This papal action was applauded the same day by the Roman Catholic Bishops for the U.S. and Canada.
The U.S. Bishops said, “The Joint Statement is yet another step in expressing concern and pastoral solicitude for Native and Indigenous peoples who have experienced tremendous suffering because of the legacy of a colonizing mentality. We welcome the statement’s renewed repudiation and condemnation of the violence and injustices committed against Native and indigenous peoples, as well as the Church’s ongoing support for their dignity and human rights.”
The U.S. Bishops also expressed ‘deep sorrow and regret” for the “times when Christians, including ecclesiastical authorities, failed to oppose destructive and immoral actions of the competing colonial powers.” In recent dialogues, “Tribal leaders have illuminated more aspects of this painful history, and, with humility, we wish to offer our continuing solidarity and support, as well as a further willingness to listen and learn. We will continue to support policies that protect the poor and vulnerable, and that will offer relief to Native and indigenous families who are struggling.”
The U.S. Bishops also noted that “the centuries of history are complex, and the term ‘doctrine of discovery’ has taken on various legal and political interpretations that merit further historical study and understanding.”
After endorsing the Vatican’s Joint Statement, the Canadian Bishops noted that “numerous and repeated statements by the Church and the Popes over the centuries have upheld the rights and freedoms of Indigienous Peoples” and that “Popes in recent times have also sought forgiveness on numerous occasions for evil acts committed against Indigenous Peoples by Christians.” The Canadians also reported that that the Canadian and U.S. Bishops and the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences are exploring the possibility of organizing an academic symposium with Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars to further deepen historical understanding about the “Doctrine of Discovery.”
The Canadians closed with the following July 2022 quotation from Pope Francis in Quebec City: “ [N]ever again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.”
U.N. Special Rapporteur on Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The U.N. Special Rapporteur, JośeFrancisco Cali Tzay, acknowledged that the doctrine of discovery “was a theory that served to justify the expropriation by sovereign colonizers of indigenous land from their rightful owners” and “is still an open wound for many Indigenous Peoples around the world.” Therefore, this doctrine ‘must be addressed as part of a reconciliation process between Indigenous Peoples and colonial States.” Therefore, Tzay welcomed the Vatican’s rejection of the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ and hoped that other governments would follow its lead.
In the 19th century the doctrine of discovery was incorporated into U.S. law by the U.S. Supreme Court, a topic for exploration in a subsequent post.
 Papal bulls, Wikipedia; Discovery doctrine, Wikipedia.
 Joint Statement of the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development on the “Doctrine of Discovery,” Bollettino Pubblico (Mar. 30, 2023); Povoledo, Vatican Repudiates ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ Used as Justification for Colonization, N.Y. Times (Mar. 30, 2023); Cardinal Tolendtino, Statement on “Doctrine of Discovery,” a sign of reconciliation, Vatican News (Mar. 30, 3023); U.S. and Canadian Bishops welcome Vatican Statement on Doctrine of Discovery, Vatican News (Mar. 30, 2023); Church defends indigenous peoples: “Doctrine of Discovery’ was never Catholic, Vatican News (Mar. 30, 2023).
 USCCB, Statement on “Doctrine of Discovery,” (Mar. 30, 2023); CCCB, Statement by the Permanent Council of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops on the Joint Statement of the Dicastery for Culture and Education and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development on the “Doctrine of Discovery,” CCB (Mar. 30, 2023):Lubov, UN rights expert hails Vatican’s rejection of ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ Vatican News (Mar. 30, 2023);
 E.g., Doctrine of discovery, Legal Infor,. Institute (April 2022); /Johnson v. M’Intosh, Wikipedia.
One thought on “Roman Catholic Church Rejects Doctrine of Discovery”
I read it and learned things I wish I had heard as a Grinnell History major. Thank you.
I note that our Protestant ancestors did not need the bull to justify their colonization that later got the label Manifest Destiny. My Aldrich progenitor helped found Mendon, MA in the 1660’s. By 1866, it was the site of the first Aboriginal uprising in MA if I heard right. The white settlers returned after a 3 year absence.
I will send you a related column I wrote by separate e’mail.