A Legacy of Domination in Catholic Church Decrees

Steven Newcomb

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) is comprised of four Catholic organizations across Canada. On March 19, 2016 the CCCB issued “The ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ and Terra Nullius: A Catholic Response.” Written partly in response to Calls to Action #46 and #49 in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Catholic statement is said to “repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.”

Twenty four years ago, my friend and mentor Birgil Kills Straight (Oglala Lakota Nation) and I kicked off a global campaign against the Doctrine of Discovery. We began by calling for Pope John Paul II to revoke the Inter Caetera papal decree of May 4, 1493. Why? It was one of several Vatican documents which called for the domination of non-Christian nations. Because we are continuing with our international work on those documents, we have something to say about the Catholic Church’s recent statement on the doctrine of discovery.

Unfortunately, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report does not include the focus of our campaign; the report does not once use the word “domination.” For two decades we have been using the papal bulls of the fifteenth century as a way to educate Indigenous nations and peoples and others around the world about current patterns of domination and dehumanization which are traced to the texts of those ancient Vatican documents. For centuries, dominating patterns of thought and behavior have been woven into the political and legal systems of countries such as the United States and Canada (and elsewhere), where they persist. What is typically and somewhat inaptly called the doctrine of discovery is an ongoing language system of domination that is still being used against our Original Nations and Peoples today.

On March 24, 2016, Bishop Donald Bolen, of the Roman Catholic Diocese in Saskatoon, was interviewed about the CCCB public statement. His interview and the CCCB statement reveal that the Catholic Church does not acknowledge the papal bulls to be documents of domination. What’s more, when he was asked, “What is the relationship between the Doctrine of Discovery and papal statements going back to the 15th century,” he answered, “there is no direct relationship.” He continued: “[T]here were several papal bulls in the late 15th century which effectively granted to European countries the right to other peoples’ territories.” Bishop Bolen’s claim of “no direct relationship” between the papal bulls and the doctrine is contradicted by the specific wording of those documents: a papal “grant” to “discover” and “dominate” other nations’ territories was a claimed right of domination explicitly premised on our nations not being Christian.

In May, 2013, Dr. Debra Harry (Paiute Nation), attorney Sharon Venne (Cree Nation), and I traveled to Seville, Spain. While there, we visited the General Archives of the Indies. The archives director kindly gave us permission to see two of the original 1493 velum parchment papal decrees, issued by Pope Alexander VI. It was five hundred and twenty years to the day from the issuance of the May 4th papal bull. On the back of one of the two documents we saw a notation written by the Royal Secretary of Spain more than five centuries ago.

The royal notation says in Spanish that the papal decree is a grant from Pope Alexander VI “ganaran y conquistaron de las Indias” (“to win and to conquer [dominate] the Indies.” When understood in the context of the original Latin text, that notation enables us to grasp the pope’s intention that the Catholic monarchs would go in search of non-Christian lands “to be discovered,” with the goal of “dominorum Christianorum” (Christian dominators) forcibly putting the lands of “barbarous nations” under Christian domination. Our nations are now living with the legacy of Christendom’s tradition of seeking a “new world” and new lands to invade and dominate.

Bishop Bolen’s claim of “no direct relationship” between papal decrees of the 15th century and the doctrine of discovery leads to one important conclusion: The CCCB has failed to understand that Christendom’s use of domination as a means of attempting to destroy non-Christian nations has led to the grinding present day problems experienced by our Original Nations and Peoples. The ongoing trauma that has resulted from the papal decrees (e.g., the dehumanization and death for the children of our Original Nations in the residential schools), is one of the factors that led to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission being convened in Canada. The word ‘truth’ in the commission’s title ought to be about truth-telling in history, not dissembling history.

Bishop Bolen also said that the papal bulls “were addressed to a conflict between Spain and Portugal, not to those who colonized what is now Canada.” He does not seem to realize that England was still Catholic in 1496 when King Henry VII imitated the papal bulls of 1493 by issuing a royal charter to John Cabot to “subjugate” (dominate) the lands of “heathens and infidels.” That document resulted in the assumption of “crown sovereignty” (i.e., “domination”) still being claimed today in relation to what is now typically called “Canada” and “North America.” France was Catholic when Pope Clement VII gave permission to King Francis I to engage in his own voyages of Christian colonization (e.g., Jacques Cartier’s voyage in 1534 to the area now typically called the St. Lawrence River).

\The Catholic Church lacks an Original Nations’ historical perspective about the domination found in the papal decrees of the fifteenth century. It is time for a major international conference about those documents in relation to our Nations. Such an event will create an opportunity for a deeper dialogue between the Holy See and our Indigenous Spiritual Leaders, together with our Indigenous scholars, and scholars of the Vatican’s own choosing. We don’t need reconciliation, we need decolonization.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of the bestseller, Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, and a co-producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, which is based on his book and his body of research. The movie, with narration by Buffy Sainte Marie, is available at 38Plus2Productions.com.

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