Amazon basin

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

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.

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