In 2009, the Episcopal Church repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery.

In 2012, The Unitarian Universalist Association followed suit. Other religious groups — the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the World Council of Churches, New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, the United Methodist church, to name a few — have also repudiated it.

But the Vatican has refused to publicly address Catholicism’s role in bringing about the Doctrine of Discovery, or revoke the papal bulls that articulated it. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising to find that most Catholics know almost nothing about it.

Libby Comeaux, a lawyer and co-member of the Loretto Community, recalls the first time the Loretto sisters were confronted by the history. It was January 2012. Comeaux was participating in an environmental conference in the Denver metro area, of which the Loretto community was a sponsor.”*

“A number of Loretto sisters and members were at the gathering,” Comeaux said, “and one of the themes was the rights of nature, public trust, that sort of thing, as it applied to water. And a law professor from Denver University stood up and started giving us some feedback that was fairly uncomfortable to hear. … He was saying, ‘You’re talking about rights of nature as if you invented this term, and you’re Catholics. What do you think about the Doctrine of Discovery? What are you doing about it?’

“I may have been the only Catholic in the room who knew what he was talking about,” she said.

In November 2013, the Loretto community sent a letter to Pope Francis.

The letter called on the pope to “formally and publicly repudiate and rescind the Dum Diversas Bull of 1452, and other related bulls, which grant the Pope’s blessing ‘to capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ and put them into perpetual slavery and to take all their possession and their property.’ We also call upon the Pope to repudiate and rescind the Inter Caetera Bull of 1493 that granted authority to Spain and Portugal to ‘take all lands and possessions’ so long as no other Christian ruler had previously claimed them. These bulls instilled the Doctrine of Discovery, the papal sanctioning of Christian enslavement and power over non-Christians.”

The letter stated the papacy had done some positive work regarding the rights of indigenous peoples — such as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s supporting the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Pope John Paul II’s asking of forgiveness for the misdeeds “of the sons and daughter of the church” — but not nearly enough.

(Recently, Pope Francis asked forgiveness in South America “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 Loretto letter included a message from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Religious Friends (Quakers), which stated:

“You [as Pope] have the power and responsibility to do more, by issuing a new papal bull that formally, directly, unequivocally rescinds and revokes the Doctrine of Discovery and the horrible, cruel, un-Christian language in those bulls that denigrates entire peoples with no justification.”

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