Vatican Issues Long-awaited Repudiation of Doctrine of Discovery

Today, Thursday March 30, 2023, the Vatican finally responded to demands from Indigenous peoples of Canada and throughout the world to rescind the papal bulls that underpinned the doctrine of discovery.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a concept used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands, on the basis that the only true ownership was European ownership (ownership by Christian people). “Underlying these arguments was the belief that the colonizers were bringing civilization to savage people who could never civilize themselves.”[1] The Doctrine arose from the papal bulls granting most of North and South America to Spain, and was used by many European powers to justify colonization worldwide.[2]

For decades, Indigenous peoples have been calling for the Pope to rescind the papal bulls. In its 2015 report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for repudiation of the doctrine by the Church and by the Government of Canada.[3]

The statement from the Vatican today acknowledges that the Doctrine “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples.” It goes on to say “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”.”[4]

Still, the Vatican refused to take responsibility for the harms wrought on Indigenous peoples, reaffirming that the blame belongs to “colonial powers” who “manipulated” the papal bulls for political purposes. The Vatican also refused to actually rescind or abrogate the 15th century papal bulls, instead citing its later statements, including one 1537 papal bull, that uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Similarly, in 2022, Pope Francis pleaded for forgiveness for “the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,”[5] but placed ultimate responsibility on government policy, not the Catholic Church.

We know that the Catholic Church was deeply involved in the colonization efforts in Canada. The Church’s efforts, including playing a crucial role in the creation of Church-run residential schools, were made possible by the Doctrine of Discovery. Mission-run schools opened in Canada in the 1600s, the precursor to residential schools.[6] By some estimates, nearly three quarters of the 130 residential schools in operation between 1831 and 1996[7]  were run by the Roman Catholic Church.[8] For hundreds of years, the Vatican’s Doctrine of Discovery was instrumental in pulling children away from their families and erasing their Indigenous identity. Steps taken by the church in the name of the Doctrine leaves behind a legacy of intergenerational trauma in Canada that will continue to impact this population- and their Nations for decades.

We are pleased to see the Vatican repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and to link it with the indelible effects of colonialism. This development is the result of decades of dedicated activism by Indigenous peoples all over the world. At the same time, we are disappointed that the Church did not take this opportunity to unreservedly take responsibility in its own role in perpetuating colonialism in Canada and beyond.  Indigenous peoples across the world have also called on the Vatican to return the cultural property putatively provided to the Pope as “gifts” currently housed in the Vatican’s museums.[9] The Vatican has yet to respond to this request.

We will continue to watch for the Vatican to accept this responsibility and to return the cultural property of indigenous peoples.


[1] TRC Executive summary, p 46


[3] Recommendations #45 and #58,