September 23, 2015 Faith

Press Release: National Call for Pope Francis to Revoke Doctrine of Discovery


The Romero Institute is urging Pope Francis to revoke the Doctrine of Discovery as the first step toward combatting the greed and idolatry he so forcefully condemns in his recent encyclical Laudato Si.

In his letter, Pope Francis asserts transnational corporate capitalism has brought environmental devastation to the planet, led to a subversion of human value, prioritized unfettered consumption and consigned a large segment of the global population to poverty and marginalization. But the Romero Institute asserts that the roots of these problems are inextricable from the Church’s own history — particularly its promulgation of the Doctrine of Discovery.

“A revocation of the Doctrine of Discovery would unequivocally demonstrate that Pope Francis is reversing the moral and legal authority granted by the Vatican to colonial explorers, resulting in the deaths of millions of indigenous people and in the ongoing loss of their land and resources,” said Sara Nelson, executive director of the Romero Institute. “These injustices continue today as the Doctrine is imbedded in the laws of the United States and in hearts stained with racial prejudice. It fuels the theft of sustainably stewarded indigenous lands and drives the emergence of depleted soil, water, clean air and environmental toxicity.”

The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle outlined in three papal bulls, written and enacted in the 15th century Church, wherein sitting popes provided European conquerors the legal and moral rationale for the extensive seizure of indigenous lands.

The Doctrine dictates that any land not inhabited by Christians is available to be “discovered” and that inhabitants of those lands should be forcibly converted to Christianity or else enslaved or killed should they refuse.

Pope Nicholas V, in the 1452 papal bull, entitled Dum Diversas, said the growing colonial empires were granted the right to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever … and reduce their persons to perpetual slavery” and then further claimed that any king who captures such lands “doth possess these islands, lands, harbors and seas.”

Succeeding popes in the latter half of the century issued edicts similar in nature and colonial zeal, which together provided foundation for the rise of the Global Slave Trade in the 15th and 16th century and the extensive murder of Indigenous Peoples in North and South America.

Similarly, the steady appropriation of Native lands occurred as a result of the desire to extract natural resources such as gold and other minerals, and later fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas.

“The Christian explorers’ idea that any land they arrived at belonged to them is not unlike the mindset of transnational corporations, who pillage and exploit land and people for the sake of money,” said Chase Iron Eyes, board member for the Romero Institute.

The legacy of colonial avarice continues to manifest itself on Wall Street, the international banking industry and the resource extraction industry, all of which have resulted in the human family’s precarious perch causing irreversible damage to the Earth’s ecosystem, a fact acknowledged by Pope Francis.

“Combating climate change is not only the scientifically prudent and environmentally beneficial course of action, but Francis makes the case that it is a moral obligation to alter our entire system of transnational corporate capitalism so as to be better stewards of the Earth and more compassionate to our fellow man,” said Daniel Sheehan, Chief Counsel for the Romero Institute. “While many journalists and media outlets have made Laudato Si exclusively about climate change, this is much larger. Pope Francis is calling for the human family to comprehensively reassess how we interact with each other and the natural environment. Part of that reassessment is to acknowledge the ravages that unfettered capitalism has wrought on the natural world, as well as the spiritual and moral facets of human beings.”

The Romero Institute believes that a revocation of the Doctrine of Discovery would acknowledge that the foundational moral rationales leading to the present systems are corrupt and should be dispatched.

As of November 2013, 18 faith groups have publicly requested Pope Francis to issue a formal revocation of the doctrine. The Loretto Community said the doctrine permitted “patterns of dominance and dehumanization” and the World Council of Churches said it is “fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The Romero Institute is gathering petition signatures throughout the country urging Pope Francis to renounce the Doctrine.

As Pope Francis prepares to visit the United States this week, we believe his previous comment and comportment are a demonstration that he is uniquely positioned, as a pope attempting to return the Church to its moral roots, to officially condemn this doctrine.

Pope Francis apologized in July for the atrocities committed by the Church against Native people in a speech he gave in Bolivia. “Many grave sins were committed against the Native peoples of America in the name of God,” he said. “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the Native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”

The Romero Institute believes a revocation of the Doctrine will represent an enormous first step in reconciling the crimes committed against the Native inhabitants of the Americas and assist in the removal of the Doctrine from its entanglements in our laws. It will also serve to decidedly side with the more integrative approach to nature espoused by the Native people for centuries, while calling into question the avarice of those who perceive nature as a thing to conquer and plunder.

The Romero Institute, successor of the Christic Institute, is a nonprofit law and public policy center that combines investigation with high-impact litigation, public education and grassroots organizing. Based in Santa Cruz, Calif., the Institute engages in nationwide legal consulting, litigation and public education. The Institute is led by Chief Counsel Daniel Sheehan and Executive Director Sara Nelson.