ROME – Both ecclesial leaders and Indigenous groups have praised a Vatican statement disowning the so-called Doctrine of Discovery as an important step on the path to healing and reconciliation in light of past wrongs.

In response to repeated calls from Indigenous communities in Canada for the Church to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, the Vatican Thursday disowned the position, saying it never formed part of the Catholic faith, and, while not necessarily rescinding it, rejecting the underlying principles of the concept.

RELATED: Vatican disowns, but does not rescind, ‘Doctrine of Discovery’

Speaking to 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.

The “Doctrine of Discovery” is not an official church doctrine, but rather consists of a series of edicts published in the 15th century endorsing the colonization of West Africa and the Americas.

Over the years, some scholars have argued that the basis for the concept of Discovery is found in several papal bulls that the Catholic Church has never formally revoked.

Rescinding the Doctrine of Discovery was one of the primary requests of Indigenous communities during the pope’s visit to Canada last year, when he apologized for the Church’s role in the country’s residential school system, and during a visit of Indigenous delegations to the Vatican several months prior.

However, rather than rescinding the Doctrine of Discovery, the Vatican in its statement Thursday said the papal bulls in question were linked to political issues of that era, and “have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith,” but were rather misused to justify seizing Indigenous land for political ends.

The Vatican did acknowledge that the bulls failed to “adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples,” and that church leaders had at times been silent when these bulls were used to justify “immoral acts” against Indigenous Peoples.

“Despite its title, it is not a Church doctrine or belief or teaching. Rather, it was invented by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1823 and reiterated in 1832,” Czerny said, saying the point of the statement was to both reject the “idea of Discovery” and explain why the papal bulls in question “in no way expressed the Church’s faith.”

“No word or deed that fails to recognize the inherent dignity of all people can legitimately express the Catholic faith,” he said, saying the Holy See, as well as the American and Canadian bishops, regret what happened, and hope Thursday’s statement helps the healing and reconciliation process.

“This document does not close the book and end the process, but is an important step along the path of healing and reconciliation,” Czerny said.

Bishops in both the United States and Canada voiced support for the Vatican’s statement, which Czerny said was drafted after having received feedback from Indigenous groups in Canada.

In a March 30 statement, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) held firm in the position that the 15th century papal bulls never formed the basis for the Doctrine of Discovery, and noted that “numerous and repeated statements by the Church and the Popes through the centuries have upheld the rights and freedoms of Indigenous Peoples,” including a 1537 bull titled, Sublimis Deus.

“Indeed, Popes in recent times have also sought forgiveness on numerous occasions for evil acts committed against Indigenous Peoples by Christians,” they said, saying the Vatican’s statement “further repudiates any concepts that fail to recognize the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

In their own March 30 statement, bishops from the United States said the Vatican’s statement Thursday “is yet another step in expressing concern and pastoral solicitude for Native and Indigenous peoples who have experienced tremendous suffering because of the legacy of a colonizing mentality.”

“We welcome the statement’s renewed repudiation and condemnation of the violence and injustices committed against Native and Indigenous peoples, as well as the Church’s ongoing support for their dignity and human rights,” they said, noting that many popes since the 15th century bulls were issued have apologized to Indigenous communities and defended their rights.

At the same time, as a church “we must also confront those moments when individual Christians lacked such boldness or clarity,” the US bishops said, admitting there were times when both lay Christians and ecclesial authorities “failed to fully oppose destructive and immoral actions of the competing colonial powers.”

They voiced hope that dialogue with Catholic bishops and Tribal leaders would continue, and said they will continue backing policies aimed at protecting the vulnerable and supporting Indigenous communities.

They also voiced support for making residential school archives and historical records “more easily accessible,” which was another main request of Indigenous communities during last year’s papal visit to Canada.

To further efforts toward healing and reconciliation, the Canadian and American bishops said they are working with the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences and other Vatican departments to organize an academic symposium with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars to deepen in the “historical understanding” of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Indigenous communities themselves also praised Thursday’s Vatican statement but said a more careful reading is necessary to understand its full implications.

In a statement Thursday, Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council in Canada, and who was part of the Vatican delegation that visited Rome last spring, said the Vatican’s statement “signals a renewed commitment by the Catholic Church to walking together in a good way.”

“The Métis National Council is taking time to fully understand its nuances and potential implications, so that they can inform our collective next steps forward,” she said, but voiced hope that these next steps will go beyond words and consist of “real, tangible actions” for residential school survivors and their families.

Among the most prominent requests of both the Métis Nation and other Indigenous communities has been compensation to survivors and their families and opening of school archives in the church and by the Canadian government.

“We look forward to meeting with representatives of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops at a bilateral summit” to discuss further efforts toward reconciliation, Caron said.

Similarly, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in Canada on Thursday welcomed the Vatican’s statement, saying they are “taking time to fully understand the implications of this decision.”

“When we hosted Pope Francis on our traditional Territory in July, rescinding the Doctrine of Discovery was our Survivors’ most prominent request,” they said, calling Pope Francis’s apology to residential school survivors on Canadian soil “an important first step towards our Peoples’ road to healing.”

“The announcement today is another significant step on our journey to reconciliation,” they said.

Yet despite Czerny’s assertion that the Doctrine of Discovery was an invention of the the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1800s, the AFN insisted that the concept was established by the authors of the 15th century papal bulls in question, Pope Nicholas V and Pope Alexander VI.

Saying the Catholic Church once described their lands as terra nullius, or ‘nobody’s land,’ the AFN said, “Despite the claims of the Church, Indigenous Peoples have always known these lands have belonged to us since time immemorial.”

“As the moral conscience of Europe, the Vatican enabled Christian empires to commit genocide, starve, relocate and dispossess Indigenous Peoples from these lands in the name of the Doctrine of Discovery.”

The papal bulls in question, they said, were “used to justify the creation of what is now called Canada and its national, settler-colonial laws imposed on Indigenous Peoples. Without this document, Canada has no historical mandate in their control of Indigenous Peoples and territories.”

In his comments to Crux, Czerny voiced hope that dialogue with Indigenous communities would continue and that Thursday’s statement would further the healing and reconciliation process.

“The Indigenous People of Canada and indeed of all the Americas have been asking for a formal response, and so the Statement is formal. It provides much clarification,” he said, and stressed the importance of mutual listening.

One of the most essential things to do, Czerny said, is “to recognise that the real question is not historical but contemporary: the effects of colonisation today, together to recognize them, comprehend them, cooperate to overcome them.”

“Respect for the identity, language, cultures and rights of Indigenous Peoples is essential to the process, and also the goal. No single step that can eliminate the legacy of colonialism,” he said, saying bishops, believers, and citizens alike “must work every day, not only to condemn the false ideas that have infected too many attitudes, but to learn to walk in honest solidarity.”

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