(RNS) — The Catholic bishop of Syracuse, New York, is speaking out against the Doctrine of Discovery and revealing plans to ask Pope Francis to repudiate theological teachings used for centuries to justify the subjugation of Indigenous peoples.
In an interview with Religion News Service on Wednesday (June 30), Bishop Douglas J. Lucia explained he is exploring a possible meeting with the Holy See to discuss a series of 15th-century papal bulls, or decrees, used by European Christians to rationalize colonizing Indigenous people and their land.
“Since they were papal bulls in the beginning,” Lucia said, there should be “a public acknowledgment from the Holy Father of the harm these bulls have done to the Indigenous population” as well as some kind of statement “to repudiate” the Doctrine of Discovery.
The Doctrine of Discovery draws from a series of papal documents that date back to Pope Nicholas V, whose 1452 “Dum Diversas” initiated a lineage of bulls Europeans used to justify various aspects of colonization. It found its way into future documents as well: Indigenous peoples were read the “Requerimiento” by Spanish conquistadors, which proclaimed their land belonged to Spain and demanded they abide by the authority of the monarchy and the pope.
More to the point, activists and scholars argue, the bulls allowed Europeans to insist Christian rulers can, among other things, seize the land and possessions of non-Christians.
“This particular doctrine has been used to justify both political and personal violence against Indigenous nations, Indigenous peoples and their culture — their religious and their territorial identities,” Lucia said.
The doctrine even showed up in 2005 in the Supreme Court ruling Sherrill v. Oneida, in which justices declared that repurchasing traditional tribal lands does not “unilaterally revive (the tribe’s) ancient sovereignty” over it.
Lucia said he was introduced to this history — which has garnered increased attention in recent years after efforts by Indigenous activists — shortly after being elevated to bishop of Syracuse in June 2019. It was then that the Rev. David McCallum, a Jesuit priest who worked in the region at the time, suggested Lucia meet with leaders of the nearby Onondaga Nation on the topic. McCallum also suggested a visit to the Vatican.
“I’ve been trying to bring attention to this question of how the church, if it really wants to seek restorative justice, can’t just issue apologies,” said McCallum, who now serves as executive director of the Discerning Leadership Program in Rome. “It has to reckon with this historical context.”
Their plans were stalled by the pandemic, but Lucia encountered the issue of the Doctrine of Discovery again in mid-June during a planning meeting to establish a heritage park in Syracuse to replace a Christopher Columbus statue scheduled for removal.
Pope Alexander VI’s papal bull “Inter Caetera” from 1493. This papal bull gave Spanish explorers the freedom to colonize the Americas and to convert Native peoples to Catholicism. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
Lucia said he carried these experiences with him later that day as he met virtually with his colleagues during the spring meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. When clerics began discussing a new statement regarding ministry to Native Alaskans and Native Americans, Lucia staged what he called an “intervention”: He asked about residential schools for Indigenous children and the Doctrine of Discovery.
“I brought it up because I didn’t want it to get missed in production in the creation of this (statement),” he said. “They were speaking about the residential schools — of course, we’re very conscious of that right now. But the Doctrine of Discovery has everything to do with even what happened in the residential schools.”
The legacy of residential schools — many of which were run by churches — has made headlines in recent weeks following the discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves at three former schools in Canada.
The revelations prompted Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau to ask Pope Francis to apologize personally — on Canadian soil — for the church’s role and spurred the U.S. Department of the Interior to launch an inquiry into similar schools once established in the U.S. Up to 60% of the 139 residential schools in Canada were run by the Catholic Church, according to a report from that country’s 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
An Indigenous delegation fro Canada is now slated to meet with Pope Francis in December “to foster meaningful encounters of dialogue and healing.”
The USCCB, for its part, released a statement saying leaders are watching the investigation “closely” and pledged to “look for ways to be of assistance.”
McCallum explained that, technically, the various papal bulls that constitute the Doctrine of Discovery were largely rescinded or nullified by the Catholic Church centuries ago. But he said that fact does little to address the “enormity of the trauma and generational impact” the teachings had on Indigenous peoples.
“When the church says today, ‘Well, those papal bulls were legally abrogated. They were officially nullified,’ it cannot nullify the impact created by those bulls,” he said. “The legitimacy it gave for the Western monarchs to use coercive military power and, in fact, remove indigenous peoples from the land in order to take it.”
Asked how fellow bishops reacted to his questions at the USCCB meeting, Lucia replied: “I haven’t had any reaction.”
Indigenous activists have also struggled to garner responses from Catholic hierarchy regarding the Doctrine of Discovery. Lucia’s proposed Vatican meeting on the topic wouldn’t even be the first: Steven Newcomb, the Shawnee/Lenape co-founder of the Indigenous Law Institute, was part of a delegation that traveled to Rome in 2016 to press the Vatican about the Doctrine of Discovery. There, Newcomb and a slate of Indigenous representatives convened a two-hour meeting on the topic with Silvano Maria Tomasi, an archbishop since elevated to cardinal who was a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (since renamed the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development).
Newcomb also briefly met with Pope Francis and handed him a copy of his book, “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.”
But Newcomb told RNS those efforts haven’t resulted in a full-scale rebuke or an acknowledgment of responsibility by Catholic leaders, saying: “There have been responses, but the responses have mostly been sidesteps. … They’re not taking responsibility for anything.”
Consequently, he celebrated apparent shifting on the subject among Catholic hierarchy.
“Any effort on the part of Bishop Lucia of Syracuse to address this issue of the domination that was unleashed by the Vatican over many, many years … I welcome that,” he said. “I think that’s terrific.”
Other religious groups have already rebuked the Doctrine of Discovery, including several mainline Protestant Christian denominations. The United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist Association, United Church of Christ, Community of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a number of Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) meetings have all passed resolutions condemning the teachings. They were joined last week by the Evangelical Covenant Church, which passed a similar resolution on Friday.
In addition, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization representing an array of Catholic nuns in the U.S., also called on the pope to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery in 2014.
Lucia stopped short of condemning Catholic missionaries who operated during the Doctrine of Discovery’s peak, saying, “I do believe missionaries did want to share the good news of Jesus Christ to people.”
Newcomb, however, argued “the mission of the mission system was domination.”
It remains to be seen when Lucia will approach the Vatican, as well as how it will respond. It’s also not clear what reconciliation with Indigenous communities would look like, although many advocates contend statements are not enough.
“Simple apologies are not sufficient,” Newcomb said. “There needs to be a real reckoning.”
No matter what, Lucia insisted, the issue merits more attention from the Catholic Church. To drive his point home, he connected the Doctrine of Discovery to a topic that has attracted far more attention: a USCCB Communion document involving “Eucharistic consistency,” which is widely seen to be part of a heated debate over whether to deny Communion to President Joe Biden and other Catholic politicians who back abortion rights.
“I think sometimes there are things we keep putting on the back burner,” Lucia said. “(But) when people are looking for Eucharistic consistency in the sense of living the gospel, this is one way of responding to it — that we’re not turning our back on the problematic moments of the church. But from there we seek reconciliation, we seek reparation. Even as church we are called to conversion. I think this might be one of those conversion moments.”
Claire Giangravé contributed to this report from Rome. Emily McFarlan Miller contributed from Chicago.