Goodbye, Doctrine of Discovery

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, March 31, 2023

We should all applaud the Vatican, after almost six centuries, repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery.

Exactly two centuries ago, the Doctrine of Discovery was put into U.S. law in the same year in which the Monroe Doctrine was created.

The Doctrine of Discovery is, in short, the idea that a European nation can claim any land not yet claimed by other European nations, regardless of what people already live there. It was put into U.S. law in 1823, the same year as Monroe’s fateful speech. It was put there by Monroe’s lifelong friend, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. The United States considered itself, perhaps alone outside of Europe, as possessing the same discovery privileges as European nations. It’s not clear that such thinking has altogether vanished.

Montreal for a World BEYOND War points out that:

“The Doctrine of Discovery is so ingrained in the psyche and the laws of Canada that the Canadian government continues to push through extractivist projects on native land without consent.

“During his visit to Canada last July, Pope Francis came under pressure from Indigenous groups for a formal repudiation of the 15th-century decrees, known as papal bulls, which European powers used to justify stealing indigenous land. The Doctrine of Discovery, also known as Terra nullius, is the subject of number 49 of the 94 Calls to Action springing from the Truth and Reconciliation hearings of 2015. It reads,

“49. We call upon all religious denominations and faith groups who have not already done so to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.

“Just what do these terms mean? Terra Nullius is Latin for ‘Nobody’s Land’ and designates a principle sometimes used in international law to justify colonization. Terra Nullius has, until this day, allowed the Western world to dismiss as illegitimate communities that are not part of their ideological world view, and to use its own religion to excuse the theft of land belonging to someone else. In other words, the West invoked its own God as the justification for taking someone else’s property, and killing them to do so, and over time this ideological justification made its way into international law in 1823 as the Doctrine of Discovery.

“The Vatican statement states that in recent years the Catholic church has sought out indigenous peoples’ stories in an attempt to foster reconciliation. Significant events on this journey were the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in 2015 and Pope Francis’s visit to Canada in July 2022.

“With regard to the Doctrine of Discovery papal bull, the Vatican states,

“‘The Church is also aware that the contents of these documents were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities. It is only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon. Furthermore, Pope Francis has urged: “Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.”‘

“Speaking to the Catholic publication Crux, Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny said the statement, jointly issued by his own Dicastery for Integral Human Development and the Vatican Dicastery for Culture and Education, ‘will contribute greatly’ to satisfying the requests of Indigenous Peoples regarding the Doctrine of Discovery. Czerny added that is is essential ‘to recognise that the real question is not historical but contemporary:’

“Montreal for a World BEYOND War shares Cardinal Czerny’s conviction that there is still much work to do. For example, projects happening in Canada right now, like the Coastal gaslink (CGL) pipeline don’r raise eyebrows because at some level Canadian settler people have internalized the Doctrine of discovery and all that it implies. It is time to change that!”

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