CRFP: Indigenous Peoples express hope and concern at Vatican’s repudiation of Doctrine of Discovery

“[…] In what could have been a ground-breaking and historic repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, the Vatican instead released a series of political statements that sought to rewrite history, shield the Catholic Church from legal liability and shift the blame for the Doctrine of Discovery to governmental and colonial powers.

“If you truly see yourself as a representative of Christ to this world, you absolutely […] need to do better…”

The following is a press statement by the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project, signed by several local NGOs and civil social organisations, in response to Pope Francis’ repudiation of the Vatican’s infamous Doctrine of Discovery:

Pope Francis meets with indigenous Amazonic peoples in Puerto Madonado, Peru, 19 January 2018.
(Copyright Vatican News)

On 30 March, the Vatican announced it had “repudiated” the Doctrine of Discovery, an international legal principle and moral framework derived from a series of 15th and 16th century papal decrees, or bulls, which called for non-Christian peoples to be invaded, captured, vanquished, subdued, reduced to perpetual slavery and have their possessions and property seized—starting in Africa in the 1400s.

The decision came after decades of demands by Indigenous peoples across the Americas, including those in Trinidad and Tobago, to rescind the bulls Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera (1493) among others, which provided the basis of agreements between competing European nations for land not yet inhabited by them, identifying such lands as free to be “discovered”.

Demands reached their peak last year when Pope Francis, visited Canada to apologise to Indigenous communities who had burnt and vandalized dozens of churches in protest over the Vatican’s role in ​the country’s notorious, residential school system ​​(1880’s to 1990’s) in which thousands of Indigenous children were physically and sexually abused, and in some cases, killed and buried in unmarked graves which are still being found.

An image of the painting, The Discovery of Okanagan Lake by George H Southwell.

The forced assimilation initiative had its counterpart in the Catholic Missions which spread across the Caribbean from the 1680’s. The most well known in Trinidad are Santa Rosa de Arima established in 1789 and San Francisco de Arenales (San Rafael), where the indigenous people revolted in 1699 killing the priests and the Spanish Governor.

The joint statement from the Vatican’s development and education offices stated that the Church “repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of Indigenous peoples”.

Pope Francis is quoted as saying: “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.”

An artistic depiction of the encomienda system, under which the indigenous population was forced into servitude to the Spanish crown.

Civil society in Trinidad and Tobago joins Indigenous peoples across the world in welcoming this historic development, but also in expressing reservations. Mark Charles, a Navajo Christian pastor and author, described the statement as a “missed opportunity”.

Charles took issue with the Vatican’s claim that the papal bulls were “manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers,” and that, the papal decrees “have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith”.

“In what could have been a ground-breaking and historic repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, the Vatican instead released a series of political statements that sought to rewrite history, shield the Catholic Church from legal liability and shift the blame for the Doctrine of Discovery to governmental and colonial powers,” said Charles. “If you truly see yourself as a representative of Christ to this world, you absolutely […] need to do better.”

Pope Francis.
(Copyright Andrew Medichini/ AP)

Philip P Arnold, a professor of religious studies at Syracuse University and the founding director of Skä·noñh — Great Law of Peace Center, was interviewed on the Emancipation Support Committee’s radio show Indaba, on Wednesday 12 April, along with his wife Sandy Bigtree.

Their position is that: “the Vatican’s statement reads in part like an attempt at damage control” and that it, “falls short of the kind of full accountability required to heal past wounds”.

Additionally, they argue that it does not compare favourably with other Christian repudiations:  the Episcopalians 2009, the World Council of Churches 2012, and myriad other Roman Catholic bodies throughout the 2000’s.

The Vatican has taken the position over many years that it does not need to rescind the notorious bulls that underpin the Doctrine as they have been “abrogated” by Sublimis Deus (Devine God)—a 1537 bull which declared that, “the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the Christian faith.”

Then 99-year-old Paul Navarro, Chief Moruga and surrounding regions and Trinidad and Tobago’s oldest active chief, performs a traditional dance during the First Peoples parade on Pro Queen Street, Arima on 13 October 2017.
(Courtesy Annalicia Caruth/ Wired868)

This position was reiterated in the latest statement.

Philip and Sandy described this argument as “an attempt to hide behind a wall of Papal obfuscation”.

They explained that encomenderos and conquistadors petitioned Charles I, as King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, to rescind the bull and its accompanying Pastorale Officium, which outlined the punishment of ex-communication for disobeying it and that this was effectively done less than a year later through another bull, Non Indecens Videtur (Let it not be seen as indecent) which ensured that Sublimis Deus “did nothing to slow the enslavement, exploitation, and extraction taking place across the world in the name of church and crown.”

Christopher Columbus leads a Spanish mission to the “new world”.
(Copyright Latina American Studies)

The Caribbean Freedom Project and the undersigned Civil Society organisations in Trinidad and Tobago applaud the Church’s call for the abandonment of the “colonising mentality” and for its solidarity with indigenous peoples, but agree with Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, who says the Vatican needs to do more:

“The formal repudiation comes without reparations or tangible actions to account for the systemic violence, destruction of land and culture, and genocide which were propagated by this deadly weapon of colonisation.”

We also share the sentiments of the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest organization representing Indigenous peoples in the United States, which expressed hope that this denunciation of the Doctrine would be the beginning of a full accounting for the legacies of colonialism—not only from the church, but also from governments that used it to justify the mistreatment and disrespect of Indigenous peoples.

A “tribute” to explorer Christopher Columbus.

Finally we support the view of the Shaman of the Warrao People of San Fernando Raould, Keith Simon, who believes that “our perceptions and treatment of Indigenous peoples are still influenced by the Doctrine of Discovery” and that there needs to be local action to give fuller meaning to the repudiation.

Simon is calling for the immediate removal of all statues of Christopher Columbus, “the ultimate symbol of the Doctrine,” and for the removal of the three ships from the country’s Coat of Arms, which is in effect a, “celebration of his invasion and genocidal occupation of the Caribbean.”

Editor’s Note: This press statement from the Caribbean Freedom Project was described as a joint submission signed by: The Network of NGOs for the Advancement of Women, Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration, The Black Consciousness Festival, The Movement for Social Justice (MSJ), The Assembly of Caribbean People (Trinidad and Tobago Chapter), The Emancipation Support Committee, and the Artist Coalition of Trinidad and Tobago.

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