Pope Francis, as the first pontiff from the so-called New World, appears to be attempting to come to grips with the sins that his own church visited upon indigenous peoples across the Americas in the five centuries since Europeans first sailed across the Atlantic on an unholy mission of economic exploitation and evangelism.
“I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for the crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” Pope Francis told the faithful during a Mass this summer in Bolivia.
The Pope did not just blame the conquistadores who rampaged through indigenous nations. He properly put the onus on the church itself for providing the evangelical and legal justification for the genocidal campaign of death, cultural devastation, disease and subjugation that those explorers carried out.
But Francis did not take the most important step he could have taken to begin the process of cleansing the world of the continuing devastation of native peoples. He did not rescind, renounce or even mention the Doctrine of Discovery.
That doctrine derives from a series of 15th century papal bulls issued as Europeans began their campaigns of conquest and colonization, first in Africa and later, after Christopher Columbus’ voyages, in the Americas. It declared that any European powers that “discovered” lands unoccupied by Christians could consider them empty, and seize the land of the “barbarous nations” in the name of their sovereign.
The doctrine remains the basis of Indian land law in the United States to this day. So, despite protestations from the papal nuncio at the United Nations that it is ancient history, it remains a living pathogen infecting indigenous peoples’ rights of self-determination and justice.
As recently as 2005, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in denying an Oneida Nation claim to land within the original footprint of sovereign territory set aside in treaties, wrote, “Under the Doctrine of Discovery, fee title to the land occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign — first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.”
Left out of that equation of sovereignty were the peoples who had lived here for millenniums before the Europeans’ arrival.
Sister religions — including the Episcopal and Methodist conventions, the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the World Council of Churches — have urged the Catholic Church to renounce and rescind the doctrine and begin the process of dismantling its effects.
The World Council of Churches denounced the doctrine as “fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ” and urged governments “to dismantle the legal structures and policies based on the Doctrine of Discovery and dominance, so as to empower and enable indigenous peoples to identify their own aspirations and issues of concern.”
Catholic voices have joined the call to justice as well.
“We humbly and respectfully ask Pope Francis to lead us in formally repudiating the period of Christian history that used religion to justify political and personal violence against indigenous peoples’ cultural, religious and territorial identities,” the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an association of nuns, said.
We have taken this campaign to the Holy See itself, and hope Pope Francis has an opportunity to think long and hard about it during his historic first trip to the United States.
We are encouraged by Francis’ acknowledgment of other historic sins, and his call to heal the environmental scars humankind continues to inflict on Mother Earth.
But he must not fail to dismantle still-living proclamations propagated by his church and relied on to this day by governments across this hemisphere and beyond. He must rescind and renounce the Doctrine of Discovery.
Lyons, a citizen of the Snipe Clan of the Onondaga Nation, is president of the American Indian Law Alliance.