Doctrine of Discovery


The Doctrine of Discovery is not well-known to most people. In short, the Doctrine of Discovery dates back to 1452 in Europe and are a legal concept which states that Christian nations (primarily Spain and Portugal at the time) have a right, if not obligation, to rule over all non-Christian nations. It gave Christian nations the right to take land away from indigenous peoples.  This was especially true in the Americas.


The Catholic papal bull Dum Diversas instructed the Portuguese monarchy “to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ, to put them into perpetual slavery, and to take away all their possessions and property.”  The basic legal premises contained in this document formed the foundation for U.S. Indian law and continue to this day.


Several prominent legal cases have been decided based on the Doctrine of Discovery.  In 1823 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against several Indian nations.  Even though Indian nations had the right of occupancy to land on which they lived, Christian nations, such as England and the United States, had superior rights over the assumed inferior culture and religion of the Indians. 


In 1954 again the Supreme Court ruled against Indian nations in the Tee-Hit-Ton case. It was argued that under international law Christian nations can acquire lands occupied by heathens and infidels.  The U.S. government used the papal bulls of the 1500s to support their position.


Up to 2005 the Doctrine of Discovery was used by the Supreme Court against the Oneida Indian Nation of New York in reference to “fee title” to the lands occupied by the Indian nations.


Similar cases in law courts ruling against Indian nations can be sited in Canada, Mexico and other countries in Central and South America. Indigenous peoples throughout the world have suffered because of this doctrine.


As a reader of history, especially “American” history, we were taught that the United States expansion westward called Manifest Destiny was hailed as a natural right to expand the nation and spread freedom and democracy.  Of course this freedom was restricted to certain groups and did not include Indians, African Americans, Mexicans and others deemed less deserving or desirable.  Countless peoples have suffered mistreatment, poverty and death in the name of Manifest Destiny or the Doctrine of Discovery.


Today, many Catholic religious groups are petitioning the Catholic Church to issue a formal rescission of these papal bulls.  Various denominations have disowned or repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery as the World Council of Churches, Episcopal House of Bishops, and United Methodist Church.

The LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious) in the United States has joined their voice in a resolution this year to call upon the Catholic Church papacy “ to repudiate the period of Christian history that used religion to justify political and personal violence against indigenous nations and peoples and their cultural, religious, and territorial identities.”                                                        Ann Kasparek