Why Pope Francis may be hesitant to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery

Pope Francis's apology for the Catholic Church's role in Indigenous residential schools in Canada has raised questions about whether he would formally rescind the church's Doctrine of Discovery.

Papal bull issued in 1493 used to justify colonization of Indigenous land

Two people hold up a banner in front of a large crowd in a church.
Moments before he delivered mass at the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica outside Quebec City on Thursday morning, protesters unfurled a banner calling on Pope Francis to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, the centuries-old edict that was used to justify colonizing Indigenous lands. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

Pope Francis's apology for the Catholic Church's role in Indigenous residential schools in Canada has raised questions about whether he would formally rescind the church's Doctrine of Discovery.

The doctrine, dating back to the 15th century, included a series of edicts known as papal bulls, that were later used to justify colonizing Indigenous lands.

But any hesitation by the Pope to renounce it may stem from the Vatican's view that the church has already done away with and replaced those edicts, some observers suggest.

"In some sense, from the church's point of view, it doesn't need to be rescinded because it is, in fact, abrogated," said Darren Dias, a theology professor at St. Michael's College in Toronto. "It has no standing."

On May 4, 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull known as "Inter Caetera" that provided Portugal and Spain the religious backing to expand their territories in Africa and the Americas for the sake of spreading Christianity. The papal bull said that land not inhabited by Christians could be claimed, while "barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself." 

WATCH | Calls to rescind the doctrine:

Protesters urge Pope to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery

1 year ago
Duration 3:24
Featured VideoTwo young First Nations activists brought a powerful banner to the Pope’s Quebec mass. Their demand to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed colonization reflected a day of surprises, and, for some, growing impatience for concrete actions.

While the doctrine justified the colonization, conversion and enslavement of Indigenous peoples, and the seizure of their lands, scholars say it also laid the foundation for Canada's claim to land and the Indian Act, which laid the groundwork for residential schools.

Dias says other edicts soon replaced the Doctrine of Discovery. For example, by 1537, Pope Paul III had issued his own decree that opposed the enslavement of Indigenous peoples. He wrote that they should "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."

Despite that, churches kept colonizing and forcibly evangelizing, Dias said.

'Circumstances have changed'

The Vatican did address the doctrine in a statement to the United Nations Ninth Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in April 2010.

The doctrine, the Vatican argued, had been abrogated as early as 1494 and that "circumstances have changed so much that to attribute any juridical value to such a document seems completely out of place."

The Doctrine of Discovery had also been abrogated by other papal bulls, encyclicals, statements and decrees, it said.

A man sits in a wheelchair.
Francis attends a silent prayer at the cemetery during his meeting with First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities in Maskwacis, Alta., on Monday. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

"The bull Inter Caetera is a historic remnant with no juridical, moral or doctrinal value," the statement said.

"The Holy See confirms that Inter Caetera has already been abrogated and considers it without any legal or doctrinal value." 

However, there continue to be calls for an official renouncement, not only from the Indigenous community, but  from some members of the Catholic Church.

An umbrella organization of U.S. female Catholic religious orders, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, formally asked Francis to do so in 2014, saying he should repudiate "the period of Christian history that used religion to justify political and personal violence against Indigenous nations and peoples."

Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, said he was surprised Pope Francis's team wasn't better prepared for this issue.

"Because they knew that this issue was what was coming up," he said.

As for an official rescinding of the doctrine, Faggioli noted that the church doesn't issue formal documents that declare past edicts are no longer valid. 

"In the Catholic Church, there is no formal mechanism for rescinding a past teaching," he said.

Instead, the Catholic Church will focus on "teaching something new that's different from what was taught before."

Dias agrees that, traditionally, popes don't rescind.

Instead, "a [new] teaching replaces the old teaching. This is certainly what's happened with the Doctrine of Discovery," he said. 

In an email to CBC News, Jonathan Lesarge, a spokesman for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, echoed that the Vatican has previously clarified that the papal bulls associated with the Doctrine of Discovery have no legal or moral authority in the Church.

"However, we understand the desire to name these texts, acknowledge their impact and renounce the concepts associated with them," he said.

"The Bishops of Canada are working with the Vatican and those who have studied this issue, with the goal of issuing a new statement from the Church." 

WATCH | Francis apologizes to survivors:

Pope 'deeply sorry' for 'colonizing mentality' of many Christians

1 year ago
Duration 3:53
Featured VideoDuring his visit to Maskwacis, Alta., Pope Francis apologized to survivors of residential schools for the ways in which members of the Catholic Church co-operated in the cultural destruction of Indigenous life.

Meanwhile, Matteo Bruni, the director of the Vatican press office, at a briefing just days before the Canada visit, acknowledged that "a reflection is underway in the Holy See on the doctrine of discovery," according to America magazine.

But Steve Newcomb, an Indigenous scholar who has spent much of his career studying the Doctrine of Discovery, says he believes the Pope's potential hesitation to rescind the doctrine comes from his reluctance to remind the world of the type of language used by his predecessors. 

"[They] issued language of that sort that has had a destructive, devastating impact for centuries on all of our original nations and peoples," Newcomb said.

"Because what it does is it rips the veneer off the Vatican to reveal the true nature of the institution," he said. 

Newcomb also suggested subsequent edicts released by the church following the papal bulls of 1493 had little impact, and that the original doctrine of discovery served for decades as the basis of "the most horrific genocidal acts against the original nation."

He said, despite its statement to the UN in 2010, the Vatican continues to try to evade responsibility for the doctrine.

"They have never publicly acknowledged what's in those documents.They simply want to refer to the titles of the documents, but not the substance."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters