Joe Gunn


March 9, 2015

Do 15th-century edicts from Rome stand in the way of reconciliation with indigenous people in Canada today?

The Hon. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), recently suggested that the commission's final report may demand that the Vatican repudiate papal bulls which many feel are the basis of the inhumane treatment aboriginal people have received in Canada.

Also grappling with this question are Vatican officials, Canadian bishops, members of many religious congregations as well as the leadership of other Christian churches in Canada and abroad.

At issue is an international legal principle known as "the doctrine of discovery."

In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Romanus Pontifex, directing the king of Portugal to "capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ," to "put them into perpetual slavery" and "to take all their possessions and property."

Portugal thus continued to traffic black slaves in lands it "discovered" and claimed on Africa's western coast. Then, on May 3, 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull Inter Coetera, granting – at Spain's request – the right to conquer the lands which Columbus had just found. The "discovered" people were to be "subjugated and brought to the faith itself."

Following Christopher Columbus' 'discovery' of America, Pope Alexander VI issued a bull stating that discovered people were to be subjugated and brought to the faith.

Following Christopher Columbus' 'discovery' of America, Pope Alexander VI issued a bull stating that discovered people were to be subjugated and brought to the faith.

When Portugal protested this concession, Pope Alexander stipulated in a subsequent bull that Spain could not attempt to establish its dominion over lands which had already "come into the possession of any Christian lords."

The pope drew a line of demarcation between the two poles, giving Spain rights of conquest and dominion over one side of the globe, and Portugal over the other.

Protestant nations – England, France, and Holland – also adopted versions of the doctrine of discovery as a divine right and permission to hold and dominate geographic regions and peoples.

By 1823, the doctrine of discovery was even adopted into U.S. law, thus ceding Christian settler peoples ownership of indigenous lands there. Useful to the "doctrine of discovery" is the legal fiction of terra nullius, which held that "discovered" lands were "empty" – and thus available for ownership by Europeans.

In 2012, the United Nations' Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues called the doctrine of discovery "racist," "morally condemnable" and "socially unjust."


Canada's TRC was established by the 2007 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (between former students, the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit, the federal government and the Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches which ran schools).

The TRC held seven large national events across Canada, hundreds of community events, established a national research centre at the University of Winnipeg, and collected relevant documents from the churches and federal government.

The commission will complete its six years of work and a final report in early June with three days of education and ceremonies in Ottawa.

Of course, some 16th-century Catholic scholars like Franciso de Vitoria said indigenous peoples should not be treated as slaves, and used Thomas Aquinas' arguments of the dignity of the human person to try to limit violations committed by Spain in "the New World."


Worthy of our consideration today, Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th-century Dominican, charged that the salvation of the Spanish Christians was in peril (rather than the souls of the "infidels") given the outrages of colonialization.

Several international religious congregations, including the Oblates, the Sisters of Charity and the Congregation of St. Joseph have already asked Pope Francis to revoke these bulls.

To date, the Vatican seems to feel that such a request is unnecessary. In 2010 the Vatican's UN representative stated that "circumstances have changed so much that to attribute any juridical value to such documents seems completely out of place."


The Holy See holds that these texts were abrogated by other papal bulls, like Sublimis Deus (1537) which stated, "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; . . . they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property."

Unfortunately, subsequent papal teachings from popes and Vatican II often went unheeded. Canadian Catholics could advance the path to reconciliation if our Church's leadership reiterated their repudiation of the doctrine of discovery.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)