National (Roman) Catholic Reporter has two stories about the Doctrine of Discovery that raise intriguing questions for those who put their hopes in papal supremacy, authority, antiquity, and infallibility.
First, the Doctrine (which is not what attorneys do):
The first bull of consequence was issued in 1436 and titled Romanus Pontifex, he said. It concerned “the concession of the right of domination over the Guanches people” and the Canary Islands, which was taken over by the crown of Castile, a medieval state in the Iberian Peninsula.
The bull marked the first time the papacy “made it look as though no one was living there,” or had any ownership over the land being pursued by European powers, “because there were no Christians there,” Newcomb said.
That “pattern of thought” then began marching through history.
In 1452, the papal bull Dum Diversas instructed the Portuguese crown “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.”
In 1454, another bull titled Romanus Pontifex furthered that thinking, sanctifying the seizure of non-Christian lands in parts of Africa and restating the legitimacy of enslaving non-Christian people.
In 1493, after Christopher Columbus’ fateful voyage, Inter Caetera granted Ferdinand and Isabella “full and free power, authority, and jurisdiction of every kind,” over almost all of the Americas, save for a portion of modern-day Brazil and a few island outposts.
Notice again that the social teaching of the church was going on a long time before Leo XIII, but it’s not always so congenial to modern sensibilities, so Roman Catholic social thought winds up being predominantly a 20th-century concern.
Second, what the progressive Roman Catholics want the papacy to do:
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.”
Comeaux said the Loretto letter was sent to the Vatican and to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She said the Loretto community received no response from the Vatican. U.S. bishops’ conference president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz sent a note with a “polite thank you for including me,” she said.
The sisters have contacted Kurtz, who heads the Louisville, Ky., archdiocese, and “he’s expressed interest in getting more information,” she said, “and we’re preparing [that] for him.”
The important question is why a pope should be believed in apology when we haven’t believed the truth of an earlier utterance. If the encyclicals supporting the Doctrine of Discovery were wrong, why isn’t the papal statement that says the Doctrine of Discovery was wrong and asks for forgiveness also erroneous? How do you know when the pope is right? When he conforms to modern notions of fairness and equality? But what if in 500 years, in some sort of Mad Max world, when the current civilization has collapsed and another phase of globalization is starting, with certain people discovering people previously unknown, and the former interact with the latter the way that Europeans treated natives in America, it makes sense to colonize and enslave? If those explorers and exploiters discover papal apologies for the Doctrine of Discovery and judge those apologies to be out of synch with the times, might a pope apologize for the apologies?
One last thought, do the progressive Roman Catholics always think that what comes latest (what is up-to-date) is the best guide to truth? In other words, since we moderns find Christopher Columbus barbaric (even though in Columbus’ day he was considered civilized), is whatever is most recent the way things are supposed to be? That’s an odd view for people who are looking for a papal apology since the papacy is (apparently) an ancient institution. If you really want Roman Catholicism to be up to date, don’t you get rid of the papacy altogether? Who actually believes in ecclesiastical monarchs (except perhaps the gospel allies in their most celebrated status)?