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Official Statement Responding to the Vatican’s Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery

April 5, 2023

The Parliament of the World’s Religions joins Indigenous Peoples and all those affected by the Doctrine of Discovery in affirming its formal repudiation by the Vatican, through an official statement released jointly on March 30 by the Dicastery for Culture and Education and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

A great number of Indigenous peoples, Catholic institutions, other religious bodies, civil society organizations, and individuals have advocated for many years for this much-needed repudiation. We join all those who have worked for this in commending the Vatican’s important action.

At the 2009 Melbourne Convening and the 2015 Convening of the Parliament, declarations by Indigenous participants – “An Indigenous People’s Statement to the World” and “An Indigenous Peoples’ Declaration for Action” – included a call for Vatican repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery and were adopted in plenary by the entire Convening. These statements were reaffirmed at the 2018 Toronto Convening. The Parliament also submitted an internal statement to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development in 2020.

The “Doctrine of Discovery” is an international legal construct that some scholars contend originated with papal bulls or decrees of the 15th century in which the Pope granted to rulers of Christian nations permission to conquer non-Christian lands and have dominion over them, take their resources, enslave their inhabitants and convert them to Christianity – on the condition that those lands had not yet been “discovered” by some other Christian power. If the inhabitants of a territory were not Christian, the land was considered “uninhabited” and could be seized at will. These principles were incorporated into the law of colonizing powers and subsequently permeated culture as well as legal systems; they have continued to be cited in legal decisions into the 21st century in different countries, including in U. S. Supreme Court decisions as late as 2005.   

The Vatican statement says, “In no uncertain terms, the Church’s magisterium upholds the respect due to every human being. The Catholic Church therefore repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery.’” 

The Parliament of the World’s Religions stands with those most affected by the Doctrine and honors the advocacy that made this a significant first step in addressing the damage done by the Doctrine of Discovery over the ages to cultures and land holdings. This is the beginning of a journey toward healing and righting what was wrong.