Friday, January 1, 2016

Pope should rescind 'Doctrine of Discovery'

Pope Francis blesses a child during a trip to Brazil in 2013.
Pope Francis blesses a child during a trip to Brazil in 2013. FELIPE DANA / Associated Press

As Pope Francis prepares to come to Philadelphia this month for the 2015 World Meeting of Families, the first pontiff from the so-called New World has the attention of indigenous peoples. They hope that finally there is a leader of the Holy See who understands the Catholic Church's role in the devastation visited upon native peoples in the five centuries since Europeans first sailed across the Atlantic on a mission of conquest and evangelization.

"I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for the crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America," the pope said this summer during a Mass in Bolivia.

The pope did not just place blame on conquistadores for the genocidal campaign of subjugation, massacres, starvation, displacement, and disease. He properly put blame on the church itself for providing the spiritual and legal justification for those crimes. But the pope stopped short of the most important step he can take to heal wounds that continue to fester more than 500 years after that conquest began. He did not renounce and rescind the Doctrine of Discovery.

The series of 15th-century papal proclamations that form the doctrine directed European explorers who "discovered" lands unoccupied by Christians to consider them empty and seize them in the name of their sovereigns.

We urge Pope Francis to listen to the leaders of world religions, including the Quakers, who benefited from William Penn's establishment of a colony along the banks of the Delaware, on land of the Lenape Nation, under a 1681 royal charter that traces its legitimacy to the doctrine.

"The Discovery Doctrine was the justification of European monarchs to send royal representatives, explorers, and colonizers forth in a conquering manner to take over indigenous lands and possessions, and to enslave, kill, or subject the indigenous peoples they encountered," the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's Indian Committee declared in 2010. "For us to continue to remain silent would be tantamount to our giving continuing approval to these abusive acts of theft and cultural genocide."

The Quakers joined the Episcopal Convention and the World Council of Churches in calling on the Holy See to rescind the doctrine.

Catholic voices are speaking out as well. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an association of nuns, has called on the pope "to lead us in formally repudiating the period of Christian history that used religion to justify political and personal violence against indigenous nations and peoples and their cultural, religious, and territorial identities."

The Leadership Conference urged the pope to "issue a pastoral statement to the courts of settler nations, urging them to change those elements of their laws that derived from these papal bulls and that harm indigenous peoples even to this day."

The sisters are correct, despite protestations by the papal nuncio at the United Nations that the doctrine is merely ancient history.

As recently as 2005, in a case rejecting the Oneida nation's claims to upstate New York land that had belonged to it under treaties with the United States, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, "Under the Doctrine of Discovery ... fee title to the land occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign - first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States."

It is clear who was left out of that equation: the people who had lived here for millennia before the Europeans' arrival.

That is why indigenous peoples from around the Western Hemisphere will converge on Sept. 24, the day before the pope's arrival, in downtown Philadelphia. This gathering will call on the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization to confront the doctrine's legacy in the Americas and ask the pope to rescind it. We hope that Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, the son of a Potawatomi mother and the only Native American bishop in the Church, will join the call for justice.

The gathering will also be an affirmation of indigenous nationhood. No matter how hard the conquerors tried to eliminate indigenous culture and peoples over the centuries, they remain strong and proud witnesses to history and the demands of justice.

The ills of globalization so widely debated in the 21st century began for indigenous peoples in the 15th, with European invaders' unholy merger of economic exploitation and evangelical justification. Indigenous peoples, called by history and belief to heal the Earth, cannot do so on this continent so long as the doctrine remains a pathogen infecting the world.

The first pope from the Americas must complete his mission to create a true new world. It is time to rescind, renounce, and dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery.

Enrique Acosta is a member of the Nahuatl nation and firekeeper for the Continental Confederacy of Original Nations.

Patricia Shore and Paul Ricker are clerks of the Society of Friends (Quakers) Indian Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.


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