Challenging the “Doctrine of Discovery”

Religious Roots of Cultural Imperialism and Environmental Destruction

Philip P. Arnold

The beginning of the invasion of the Americas by Europeans. From 1492: What Is It Like to Be DIscovered? (Deborah Small with Magie Jaffe, Monthly Review Press).

The “Doctrine of Discovery,” which legiti­mizes the enslavement of non-Christians by Christians in the Western Hemisphere and the taking of their lands, is a religious and legal concept that originated with Papal Bulls (letters from the Pope) issued in the 15th century. In particular, two bulls, the Law of Nations of 1452 and the Inter Caetera Bull of 1493 (written only a few short months after Columbus’ return to Spain), authorized the Kings of Portugal and Spain to exploit Africa and the Americas for slaves and lands to enrich the Catholic Church. At the time it was understood that Christianity had to be promoted throughout the known world at all costs.  

In May, 2005 I attended a meeting at the United Nations organized by Indigenous people from across the US to discuss the devastating consequences of the “Doctrine of Discovery.” The panel included Tonya Gonella Frichner, founder of the American Indian Law Alliance; Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation; Esmeralda Brown, Southern Caucus of Non-Governmental Organizations; Alex White Plume, Oglala Nation; Birgil Kills Straight, Oglala Nation; and Steven Newcomb, Indigenous Law Institute. Because those Papal bulls were rooted in cultural imperialism, the Holy See of the Vatican has been called on for twenty years to rescind them. The evidence is clear that, even though these bulls were written over 500 years ago, it is of urgent concern to all Indigenous people that they be rescinded.

Basis of US Law

US law rests on the “Doctrine of Discovery,” particularly around issues of land title. The Doctrine justified the taking of land from the original inhabitants of the Americas. Writing in 1823 for the Supreme Court rul­ing in Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall said the doctrine meant that “unoccupied lands” were those “lands occupied by Indians, but unoccupied by Christians.” Since then the “Doctrine of Discovery” has been regularly cited by legal scholars (Henry Weaton, B.A. Hinsdale, and George Grafton Wilson) and in court decisions.

Another key decision was Tee-Hit-Ton v. United States (1955), which evoked the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” justifying Protestant immigrants taking land in the name of their Christian god. Then, in the Supreme Court decision Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation (March 29, 2005), Justice Ginsberg, arguably the most liberal justice on the court, wrote the decision against the Oneida Nation’s claim that their purchasing land which had been illegally taken by New York State could restore it to their aboriginal territory. The first citation in that decision was the “Doctrine of Discovery.”

Enormous Consequences

The 15th century Papal Bulls assumed the superiority of Christianity over all other religious options. Although the precedent of religious intolerance had been set in Christian’s interactions with Jews and Muslims previous to the “Age of Discovery,” intolerance rose exponentially when Europeans engaged with Indigenous ­people. Interactions with non-Christians in the Americas were never genuine inter-cultural exchanges but cultural appropriations. The Europeans’ first action on landfall was taking possession of the land on behalf of European monarchs. They placed two flags in the sand—one for the King and one for the Church.  

The legacy of the “Doctrine of Discovery” has been devastating. Intractable social problems of racism, religious intolerance and a bourgeoning en­vironmental crisis are directly tied to it. The varied belief systems of people throughout the world are becoming homogenized into a single, imperialist worldview. The traditional Christian world­view that humans are to dominate and subdue the earth has lead to environmental degradation at an alarming rate of speed.

Rescind the Bulls

While calling for the revocation and rescinding of these 15th century bulls is clear for the Indigenous peoples of the world, it is just as clear a necessity that those of us who are Immigrant people join in this appeal to the Vatican. Europeans, escaping tyrannical rulers in Europe by coming to the Americas, ben­efitted profoundly from their associations with Native Americans. For example, bless­ings of new foods, new forms of leader­ship (including our democratic principles), and ideas about women’s rights flowed to European-American inhabitants from their Indigenous neighbors.

Unfortunately, I predict that the Vatican will not seriously entertain the call to rescind the 15th century Papal Bulls. It would be seen as a sign of weakness to admit that Christianity is just one religious option among many others. Most religions in the world readily acknowledge that there are wide divergences of worldviews. Diversity is a fact of life which allows life to continue. The Church only demonstrates its weakness by promoting a single authentic religious view. All genuine inter-cultural interaction proceeds from the humble assumption that no human being, no culture, no religion has all the answers to life’s questions.

Phil is a Professor of Religion at Syracuse University and a member of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation.