Doctrine of Discovery: Still relevant when covering Pope Francis' outreach to indigenous tribes

In both Chile and Peru last week, Pope Francis addressed the plight of those two nations’ indigenous tribes that have been on the losing end of interactions with European colonizers since the dawn of the Age of Discovery.

In Chile, he spoke about the Mapuche tribe’s struggle, which has turned violent at times, to gain back some of its ancestral land in that nation’s south. This Associated Press piece (published here as it appeared in the Seattle Times) provides the background necessary to understand the issue.

It was in Peru, however, where the pontiff’s words about the worsening plight of the Amazonian tribes, received greater media attention.

That’s due in part to his equal emphasis on the ever-increasing intrusion by miners, ranchers and others intent, often with government complicity, on exploiting the Amazon basin, the world’s largest tropical rain forest.

Given the Amazon’s critical role in the debate over climate change, any mention of it by Pope Francis is sure to draw headlines.

But I wonder: Why did I find no mention in the mainstream news reports I read about the papal trip of Rome's huge role in the early colonization of the tribes and their land? Why no mention of the, to me, confused status of the Doctrine of Discovery, the papal documents by which the Vatican first officially blessed the ruthless takeover of newly “discovered,” non-Christian lands and any of their inhabitants in the New World?

Because just as the church's sex abuse scandal won't disappear, Vatican relations with indigenous peoples can't fully heal until Pope Francis -- or some future pope -- confronts the lingering anger over the doctrine’s unilateral claim to lands inhabited by non-Christian tribes.

The doctrine, you may argue, has a confusing history dating from a premodern mindset. Nor can it's damage simply be reversed -- so why dwell on it?

Such an argument may be made. But so can an argument be made for its further debate. After all, other Christian churches and even bodies within the Catholic church have repudiated the doctrine or asked that Rome officially take that step.

Here’s a look at how two Catholic publications, the right-leaning National Catholic Register and the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter have covered the issue in the past. Which to believe, given how opposite the two pieces are in their convictions?

Please read both pieces to appreciate the complexity of the issue. Rather than bog down this post with a myriad of details, I’m depending upon you, valued readers, to act interactively and fulfill the Web’s social media promise. (I say that hopefully but somewhat tongue-in-cheek.)

A personal aside: I have a special interest in the Amazon, part of which I traveled through as a freelance journalist for several months in 1974. I did so with the help of evangelical Protestant missionaries attached to what was then known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics, and American oil company officials. Once I gained some knowledge of the region, I employed indigenous guides to take me to even more remote tribal groups.

Ever since, I've stayed abreast of news from the region. I've also contributed financially  to international aid organizations that seek to assist the indigenous tribes in legal disputes over land usage with their governments and private business interests.

In short, I have a bias supportive of the tribes and critical of the Catholic Church’s history with New World indigenous peoples. So while I appreciate that Pope Francis now speaks on behalf of Amerindian tribes, I wonder why the doctrine was not addressed -- by the pontiff; I don't expect mainstream reporters to be church historians (nor am I).

This critical piece from Cultural Survival, a journal published by an international pro native-rights group, underscores the issue’s continued resonance among indigenous peoples.

The 2015 piece was published following an earlier attempt by Francis, while in Bolivia, to apologize to tribal groups. And yes, this excerpt is printed here as published -- meaning one fat graph.

The Church was responsible for a variety of abuses during the conquest and colonial period, justified by the Doctrine of Discovery, written by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, which said all lands not inhabited by Christians were available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers. The Doctrine of Discovery was the basis for all European land claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the westward expansion of the United States. During the same era, Catholic missionaries facilitated the Spanish encomienda system, which subjected thousands of Indigenous people to forced labor and untold suffering. The Doctrine of Discovery has been condemned as a violation of the fundamental human rights of Indigenous Peoples by the United Nations, who criticized the policy as “racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.” The doctrine has never been repealed and is still cited today as evidence that nomadic American peoples do not own the land they occupied; in 2005, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the Doctrine of Discovery in a land claim ruling against the Oneidas.

It's certainly true that Catholic Church officials today are generally as protective of indigenous rights as not (I’d say that goes for evangelical Protestant mission groups as well.) This New York Times article from 1975 -- just one year after I visited the same Yarinacocha SIL base camp -- attests that attitudes have certainly changed. (Sorry, it has a paywall.)

Nonetheless, journalistic awareness and published references to past attitudes beg for inclusion if some semblance of full healing is ever to occur.

Please respect our Commenting Policy