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ROME – It was twilight on the evening of Oct. 12, 2000, during Pope John Paul II’s Great Jubilee Year featuring an historic Day of Pardon asking forgiveness for sins of the Catholic Church, and also the 508th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, when a small delegation of Indigenous persons approached a Swiss Guard at the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace for what was supposed to be an act of high drama.
The group had traveled to Rome to present John Paul II with a request to formally rescind a 1493 papal bull called Inter Caetera, which had justified the European colonization of the Americas by insisting that the “barbarous nations” of the New World must “be overthrown and brought to the faith.”
The delegation was composed of nine native persons from Hawaii, Oregon and Puerto Rico who sought to remind the Vatican of the record of conquest, disease and slavery in the Americas, often justified in the name of Christianity and given moral cover by papal authority.
“In the name of Christ, horrible things have been done,” said Naniki Reyes Ocasio of the Taíno people in Puerto Rico. “We’re offering the Vatican a chance to cleanse that, to say this is not what Jesus stood for.”
On that fateful October evening, a spokesperson for the group offered a brief recitation of the request, asking that it be delivered to the pope, and then solemnly handed the document over. The perplexed Swiss Guard, clearly not quite grasping the gravity of the moment, looked at the piece of paper in his hands, paused, and then spoke.
“Do you have an envelope?” he asked.
That was it by way of a Vatican response. So far as we know, the request either never reached John Paul II or, if it did, was not deemed worthy of a formal reply.
Yet more than two decades later, Pope Francis’s trip to Canada this week, aimed at reconciliation and healing with the country’s Indigenous population following revelations of appalling abuse at church-run residential schools, is a reminder that just as the Vatican thinks in centuries, so too do many native peoples.
When Francis celebrated Mass at the Church of Sainte Anne de Beaupré near Quebec City on Thursday, two protesters held up a sign reading, “Rescind the doctrine.” The reference was to the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery” that backed seizing lands from non-Christian peoples, which critics trace to Inter Caetera as well as two earlier papal bulls, Dum Diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1455).
The call for repeal came up repeatedly during the Canada trip, although Francis never directly addressed the issue.
The request to formally reject the Doctrine of Discovery dates at least to 1992, when the Indigenous Law Center of Eugene, Oregon, a research and advocacy group for native persons, wrote the pope asking that Inter Caetera be revoked. Beginning in 1997, Indigenous persons gathered each Oct. 12 in Honolulu to burn copies of the bull.
Last year, the Canadian government adopted a law formally disavowing the Doctrine of Discovery, which had been used as a precedent in the country’s own legal system. The measure called the doctrine “racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.”
Among other things, this slow-burning ferment over these papal bulls from almost six hundred years ago illustrates a certain incomprehension on both sides of the relationship between the Vatican and Indigenous persons.
Most Vatican-watchers would be tempted to say that anyone pressing Francis to revoke these documents doesn’t understand how the church works. When the church wants to change gears, it doesn’t disavow previous papal edicts so much as ignore them. It puts out a new text that usually begins “as the Church has always taught,” which anyone schooled in ecclesiastical verbiage will realize signals a sea change.
When the Second Vatican Council embraced the principle of church/state separation in the mid-1960s, for example, it didn’t formally abjure Pope Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” from a century before, in which the last Pope-King defiantly condemned the proposition that “the Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.” It simply elaborated a different teaching, without feeling the need to repeal anything.
In effect, Pope Francis already has done much the same thing vis-à-vis the Doctrine of Discovery, through his persistent rejection of colonialism, his ardent advocacy of the rights of Indigenous peoples and his celebration of their cultures, sometimes to the point of controversy – for instance, remember the Pachamama?
As far as Indigenous persons go, they often insist that Catholic leaders don’t understand that the legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery isn’t simply in the past. It’s also in the present, in the way Indigenous persons are treated both by secular systems and by the church, and as long as it’s on the books, it’s a permanent reminder of their oppression.
What happens going forward is anyone’s guess.
Pope Francis has never been a slave to custom, and he’s demonstrated a willingness to take earlier papal rulings off the table when he deems it necessary – one year ago, for instance, he revoked the 2007 apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum of Pope Benedict XVI liberalizing permission for celebration of the old Latin Mass. Of course, in that instance Francis had to repeal the earlier ruling because he was making a change in law – repealing Inter Caetera would not have the same effect, since the era in which secular powers felt the need for papal approval has long since passed.
A spokesperson for the organizers of the papal visit nevertheless told Reuters the Canadian bishops intend to work with the Vatican on the issue.
“Galvanized by the calls of our Indigenous Partners, and by the Holy Father’s remarks, we are working with the Vatican and those who have studied this issue, with the goal of issuing a new statement from the Church,” Laryssa Waler said in an email Thursday.
“Canada’s Bishops continue to reject and resist the ideas associated with the Doctrine of Discovery in the strongest possible way,” she said.
Perhaps, one day, there will be some sort of formal revocation. In the meantime, Pope Francis almost certainly will continue pressing for a different sort of “Doctrine of Discovery,” one in which the goal isn’t to subjugate native cultures but to defend and preserve them.
Whether that’s enough for Indigenous persons, who are as expert in thinking in centuries as the most old-school Vatican monsignore, remains to be seen. On that fateful October evening 22 years ago, when the request for a repeal was first delivered to a pope, Eric Po’ohina from Hawaii’s Kanaka Maoli people made a vow.
“This is only the beginning,” he said.
As it turns out, he was absolutely right.