Papal Condemnation of the Doctrine of Discovery

Pope Francis’s recent pilgrimage of penance to the First Nations of Canada has renewed calls in some quarters for him to formally revoke or rescind the "doctrine of discovery.”[1] This has left a lot of Christians, theologians among them, asking, “what is this 'doctrine of discovery' and why have I never heard of it?” Even Pope Francis was apparently not familiar with the term when asked during an on-board press briefing.[2] Outside of Canada and some academic circles, the term is not widely known, though that is now rapidly changing, thanks to the pope’s pilgrimage.[3]

There remains a lot of myth and misunderstanding surrounding “discovery,” not least of which is the assertion that it is the pope’s to revoke or rescind. In fact, this is a bit like asking Queen Elizabeth II to revoke Jim Crow or Prohibition in the U.S. The “doctrine of discovery” is a) not primarily the pope’s to begin with, b) has been “revoked” already, condemned, and rejected repeatedly over centuries, and c) is not “still on the books” in any way, even as a technicality. In sum, neither the doctrine, nor the papal bulls to which its origins are popularly traced, have any moral or legal force in the Catholic Church, nor in any Christian communion, and has been both explicitly and implicitly condemned time and again over five centuries.[4]

What Is the “Doctrine of Discovery”?

The “doctrine of discovery” is not a Christian theological doctrine, but a political and legal doctrine, claimed first by nominally Christian monarchies of the Age of Exploration, and later by “post-Christian” secular authorities, all of whom repeatedly ignored papal condemnations and ecclesial excommunications. With the United States Supreme Court case Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823, the doctrine became legal precedent not only in the U.S. but also in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and elsewhere. As recently as 2005, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—not exactly a conservative Christian imperialist—cited the Doctrine of Discovery in denying the Oneida Nation of New York sovereignty over ancestral land that the tribe had repurchased.[5] 

But this nineteenth-century legal definition was merely a codification of what had been international law—though perhaps better understood as a friendly international gentlemen’s agreement among European monarchies—dating to the dawn of the Age of Exploration:

The United States have unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule by which its civilized inhabitants now hold the country . . . . They maintain, as all others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest; and gave also a right to such a degree of sovereignty, as the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise.[6]

Associate Justice Joseph Story (1779-1845), a Unitarian, later wrote: “As infidels, heathens, and savages, [the Indians] were not allowed to possess the prerogatives belonging to absolute, sovereign, and independent nations.”[7] This well encapsulates what is popularly understood today to be the core of the “doctrine of discovery”: the permission to enslave and/or deprive sovereignty and private land ownership from indigenous inhabitants because they were not (white, European, and) Christian.

Attribution to the Popes

While the history of “discovery” is primarily one of monarchial interests and secular judicial precedent, protests today focus on the Christian and specifically papal sources for the body of decisions and laws that came to be associated with the idea. For example, the opening paragraph of one site says:

Papal Bulls of the 15th century gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they “discovered” and lay claim to those lands for their Christian monarchs. Any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited. If the “pagan” inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.[8]

The papal bulls usually associated with the roots of this legal doctrine are:

  • Nicholas V Parentucelli, Dum Diversas (1452): Issued to gain Portuguese support in defense of Constantinople against the Ottoman Empire, it offered exclusive land and trading rights in parts of West Africa, granting permission to dispossess and capture, as prisoners of war, any local “Saracens, pagans, and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ.”
  • Nicholas V, Romanus Pontifex (1455): Confirmed the Portuguese rule over the African coast and forbade other nations from engaging in trade with the Saracens.[9]
  • Alexander VI Borgia, Inter Caetera (1493): Issued immediately after Christopher Columbus returned from the West Indies, established the famous Line of Demarcation between Spanish and Portuguese exploration and missionary efforts, 100 leagues (about 320 miles) west of the Azores.

Neither of the bulls of Nicholas concerned the Americas nor the treatment of indigenous peoples. In the moral theology of the time, there was only one form of justified slavery, the capture and indenture of belligerents as prisoners of war, and then only during a just war. Further, these were practical decisions delimited by time and circumstance, not universal moral declarations.[10]

Inter Caetera is more precisely relevant, but its concern is with missionary evangelism, that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be brought to the faith itself.” Utterly absent is any excuse or justification for slavery, the deprivation of properties and freedoms, or inhumane treatment; only the briefest mention is made of trade, and none of land rights. As a source of international law, the bull was abrogated by the Treaty of Tordesillas in June 1494. Inter Caetera was barely in effect for thirteen months. As far as the Church is concerned, it was formally revoked when Julius II grudgingly ratified the treaty, as a fait acompli, in 1506.

The Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal, divvying up the New World between them, is better acknowledged as the genesis of the doctrine of discovery.[11] Where the papal bull was concerned with Christian evangelization, Tordesillas is concerned with discovery, colonization, and wealth. As European colonial expansion progressed, so did the debate around discovery. With the English expeditions of John Cabot, it became clearer that other European powers did not see themselves bound by the Spanish-Portuguese treaty, and the papal bulls, in the words of Sir Walter Raleigh, “could not gore so well as they could bellow.”[12]

Some confusion arises from the fact that there was a spectrum of interpretation of the rights of “discovery” accrued to exploring European powers. On the one end, promoted by popes and theologians, is the idea that indigenous inhabitants truly own and have the right of possession to their lands, and are free to sell or transfer it to whomever they please, and certainly could not be enslaved or deprived of any such freedoms by European “discovery.”[13]

At the other end were those more motivated by profit and imperialism, arguing that indigenous persons have no rights to freedom or property, and any payment made to them by discovering powers was to expedite their removal, not a recognition of previous ownership. In the middle were claims either that discovering powers had “first right of refusal” to purchase lands from natives, or that the natives were legitimate tenants but had no sovereignty. It is in the middle of this spectrum that most European powers, and later colonies, understood and applied the doctrine of discovery.[14] The Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See Economic and Social Council sums it all up this:

The fact that [secular] juridical systems may employ the “doctrine of discovery” as a juridical precedent, is therefore now a characteristic of the laws of those states and is independent of the fact that, for the Church, [Inter Caetera] has had no value whatsoever for centuries. The refutation of this doctrine is therefore now under the competence of national authorities, legislators, lawyers, and legal historians.[15]

Papal Condemnation of the Doctrine of Discovery

When Pope Paul III was presented with the news that some were claiming that indigenous Americans could be enslaved or deprived of their property because they were not Christian, he called it “a lie perpetuated by Satan!” and issued Sublimis Deus in 1537, which begins by declaring unequivocally that God so loved the whole human race that he gave all people the ability to know him and come to faith in him. It then responds directly to the claims, which were not present in any papal teaching but put forward by those whose motives were other than evangelism, that the native peoples were subhuman and that they could be enslaved and their property stolen.

We define and declare . . . that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.[16]

What Paul III articulates is definitive, and at a level of authority far exceeding the relatively low-level practical and disciplinary (not doctrinal) decisions communicated in the so-called bulls of discovery discussed above. Anything contrary to this solemn condemnation is abrogated, revoked, or overruled. Could anyone calling on the pope to “revoke the Doctrine of Discovery” ask for stronger or more unambiguous language? As far as the Magisterium is concerned, this definitively and decisively resolved the question, though most in the Church thought this already obvious.

Condemnation and Excommunication Repeated

The Church’s concern with this was twofold: first, and most obviously, direct condemnation of the evil and immorality of unjust slavery and violations of human dignity; second, the assertion that these could in any way be justified by previous papal texts was scandalous and endangered missionary efforts. In too many instances it was reported that the treatment of indigenous persons was so bad that others “learned such horror of the name of Christian that they took refuge in caves and mountain strongholds where they died of hunger, cold, and hardship.”[17] The Church wanted converts, but not by force: violence would only harden hearts against Christianity. In addition to Paul III’s definitive repudiation in 1537, popes and councils through the centuries have repeated the condemnation and expanded the Church’s teaching against slavery and violence, often specifically in the Americas:

  • An apostolic brief of Gregory XIV, Cum Sicuti, was issued in 1591 to the bishop of Manila, which called on the Spaniards of the Philippines to emancipate all slaves on pain of excommunication and to make restitution for personal injury and property damage.
  • In 1622, a Church synod on the Island of Dominica prohibited unjust warfare against the Taíno and others, who had been unjustly captured and taken from their homes by Spaniards on false pretexts. The synod ordered the emancipation of the enslaved, the restitution of property, and the verdict of excommunication on slave raiders and slave traders—even in “just” wars.
  • Pope Urban VIII issued the papal bull Commissum Nobis in 1639, which condemned the abuse of indigenous peoples under Portuguese rule, especially in Brazil, Paraguay, and Amazonia. The pope reiterated the excommunication of anyone engaged in any kind of slavery, on any kind of pretext or title, or in the trade thereof.
  • The Holy Office of the Inquisition took up the question in the 1680s, ruling against any slavery of indigenous peoples except as legitimate prisoners of war, first in West Africa, then in Ethiopia. The Inquisition repeated that restitution as well as freedom was owed to anyone unjustly enslaved. 

  • In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV issued the brief Immensa Pastorum to the bishops of Brazil and other Portuguese dominions, again condemning the enslavement of indigenous persons (whether Christian or not) and their inhumane treatment.

The focus in the period of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries was on abuses against indigenous peoples in the Americas; little attention was given to the transatlantic slave trade of Africans until Pope Pius VII’s support of the Congress of Vienna’s condemnation in 1815. This was reiterated in Gregory XVI’s 1839 constitution In Supremo Apostlatus, which called the entire practice unchristian and immoral and forbade Catholics from defending the slave trade, much less participating in it. No pretext or excuse allowed for the treatment of human beings as if they were animals.

Pope Leo XIII reiterated the abolition of slavery in the encyclical letter In Plurimis, addressed to the bishops of Brazil in 1888. He recalled that his predecessors had censured those neglecting human rights and international law, had issued and reinforced penalties (such as excommunication) against those involved in slavery and inhumane treatment, and enjoined all nations to “cease from and abhor the disgrace and brutality of slavery” (IP §17).

Two years later he again addressed slavery in his 1890 encyclical Catholicae Ecclesiae, addressed to all Catholic Missionaries in Africa, in which he claims that “the Church from the beginning sought to completely eliminate slavery, whose wretched yoke has oppressed many people,” and that many predecessors that he lists by name “applied every effort to eliminate the institution of slavery wherever it existed. They also took care lest the seeds of slavery return to those places from which this evil institution had been cut away” (CE §1).

In the modern era, it hardly seems necessary to point out the consistency of the Church in rejecting slavery and depravation of property, regardless of the religious or ethnic identity of the dispossessed or enslaved. In the words of the Council Fathers at Vatican II:

Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator (GS §27).


The Church’s condemnation of slavery has not been quite as consistent and universal as Leo XIII would have it, but it has been consistent in this: simply being non-Christian, non-white, or non-European was never an acceptable excuse for inhumane treatment, deprivation of property, or slavery. The only time non-Christians were permitted to be deprived of their freedom was as prisoners of war in a just war, and even that “loophole” was closed centuries ago.  

Cries for “rescinding the doctrine” have spiked after the discovery of cemeteries at Canadian residential schools for First Nations children in 2021. While the Church has been making formal apologies for over thirty years for its part in staffing many of those schools—most recently by Pope Francis in July 2022—confusion remains about the origin, role, and application of the “doctrine of discovery.” To that end, the Canadian bishops have requested a new and updated statement from the Holy See summarizing the Church’s repudiation of the ideas associated with the doctrine, which is currently in preparation.

To be certain, there is much to condemn. And Pope Francis has done so clearly and unambiguously during his recent trip.[18] The whole purpose behind the indigenous residential school system—designed by the Canadian government to force cultural assimilation—was likened by the Bishop of Rome to a kind of genocide (or ethnic cleansing, to be more precise). [19] By its own theology and understanding, the Church should never have been involved in such a project. Neither the principle of subsidiarity nor of inculturation was respected.[20]

A clear acknowledgment of how various papal bulls and briefs have been misused to justify the discovery doctrine is a worthy endeavor. That the pope called the ideas central to the doctrine “a lie perpetuated by Satan” and definitively condemned them is worth repeating again. In the words of Archbishop Don Bolen of Regina when asked about this same question,

It has been rescinded. From the Church’s perspective they are “off the record” and have been since 1537. The fact that colonizing powers appealed to the previous bulls is a reality, that indigenous lands taken by colonizing powers certainly a reality, but from the Church’s perspective they are rescinded; it would be good if the pope could make this even clearer.[21]

[2] Thomas Reese, “Pope Francis was not fully briefed prior to Canadian visit” in National Catholic Reporter.

[3] Modern scholarly interest was sparked with Vine Deloria, Jr., who included a critique of the doctrine of discovery in his book, Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence (1974). The first movements calling to “revoke” the doctrine began in the mid-1980s, but almost the entirety of popular awareness has come from the work of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which held hearings from 2008-2015 and published its final reports in 2015. See Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action (2015), paras 39.i, 46.ii, 47, and 49.

[4] For a broader treatment of the history of the Church’s teaching on and engagement with slavery, see, e.g., John Francis Maxwell, Slavery and the Catholic Church (1975) and Pius Onyemechi Adiele, The Popes, the Catholic Church, and the Transatlantic Enslavement of Black Africans 1418-1839 (2017).

[5] U.S. Supreme Court, City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation, 544 U.S. 197 (2005).

[6] U.S. Supreme Court, Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823).

[7]What is the Doctrine of Discovery” in Unitarian Universalist Association.

[8] Indigenous Values Initiative, “What is the Doctrine of Discovery?,” Doctrine of Discovery Project and, “Papal Bulls,” Doctrine of Discovery Project.

[9] Saracens, at the time, often indicated Muslims generally, and more specifically to Arabs and Turks, as distinct from “Moors,” Berbers of North Africa.

[10] E.g., apostolic briefs Dum Diversas, Nicholas V in 1452 and Calixtus III Inter Caetera in 1456

[11] Cf. Vine Deloria, Jr., Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence (1974).

[12] As quoted in Vine Delora, 88.

[13] See, e.g., Francisco de Vitoria, De Indis, 1532 and Paul III Sublimis Deis, 1537. Vitoria explicitly makes his argument based on Inter Caetera and “the law of nations” (international law): “Discovery” expressly only applies either to land that is truly uninhabited or goods with no owner, and there was no undermining the ownership of the Native Americans.

[14] B. A. Watson, “The Impact of the American Doctrine of Discovery,” in Seattle University Law Review, 2011, 516–17. No less than Christopher Columbus was one of the most outspoken proponents of this extreme view.

[15] Statement by Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See Economic and Social Council, 9th session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues On Agenda Item 7: Discussion on the reports “Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal construct known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which has served as the Foundation of the Violation of their Human Rights” and “Indigenous Peoples and Boarding Schools: A Comparative Study.”

[16] Paul III, Sublimis Deus, 1537.

[17] John Francis Maxwell, Slavery and the Catholic Church (1975), 72.

[18] Pope Francis, Apostolic Journey to Canada, Meeting with Indigenous Peoples: First Nations, Metis, and Inuit. 25 July 2022.

[19] Pope Francis, Apostolic Journey to Canada, Press Conference on the Return Flight to Rome, 29 July 2022.

Featured Image: Luigi Gregori, The Reception at Court, 1880-1884; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Andrew Boyd

Andrew "A.J." Boyd is an adjunct professor of theology in Rome, specializing in ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and ecclesiology. He is currently working on a book on the ecumenical reception of sources on the diaconate and other ministries.

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