Revoke the Papal Bulls

In response to the Papal Bulls issued
530 years ago today and tomorrow (3 and 4 May 1493):
Indigenous Law Institute 
and Original Nations Advocates

“Revoke the Papal Bulls”

A View-from-the-Shore Analysis of the
Vatican’s 30 March 2023 Statement on the Doctrine of Discovery

by Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape)


The Context

Let us set the context for this discussion. The context begins with the free existence of our Native nations and peoples, extending back to the beginning of our time through our oral histories and traditions, contrasted with the system of domination that was carried by ship across the ocean and imposed on everyone and everything. From that starting point we end up with a non-Christian view-from-the-shore with our Ancestors looking out at the invading ships sailing from Western Christendom, and a view-from-the-ship perspective, with the colonizers moving toward our Ancestors with the intention of establishing the Christian empire’s system of domination where it did not yet exist. Below we discuss the recent Vatican Statement on the Doctrine of Discovery with a view-from-the-shore perspective, while realizing that the Vatican officials wrote their statement with a view-from-the-ship (church) perspective.

The Indigenous Law Institute 

In 1992, Birgil Kills Straight (1940-2019) (a traditional Head Man and ceremonial leader of the Oglala Lakota Nation) and I founded the Indigenous Law Institute (ILI), and began a global campaign regarding the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery.” We began of efforts by calling upon then Pope John Paul II (JPII) to formally revoke a 1493 papal bull, Inter Caetera, which Pope Alexander VI issued shortly after Columbus returned to Western Christendom from the Bahamas. In 1993, we presented our call for a revocation of the papal bull of May 4, 1493 to the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and assisted with the drafting of a resolution titled, “Declaration of Vision: Toward the Next 500 Years.”

Guided by our deep appreciation of Birgil’s wisdom and mentorship, we continue with our efforts, and we are maintaining our call for the Holy See to revoke the papal bull of May 4, 1493. We continue to carry on our global campaign against the patterns of domination unleashed on the planet by those ancient Vatican documents, which have been imposed on Indigenous nations and peoples and incorporated into U.S. federal Indian law and Canadian Indian law.

After thirty years of effort and momentum, the Vatican Dicastery for Culture and Education, and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, issued a “Joint Statement” on the “Doctrine of Discovery.” The Vatican stopped short of a revocation of the May 4th papal bull, issuing instead a “repudiation of the doctrine of discovery.” The following analysis is intended to take a closer look at the Vatican statement, while explaining some usually overlooked connections between the Bible and what we prefer to call the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination.

Matthew 28:18-20 in the Bible Expresses a Mandate to Baptize All Nations. That, and the Mandate of Genesis 1:28, are Traced to a Number of Papal Bulls Issued During the Fifteenth Century

The opening sentence of the Vatican’s March 30th statement refers to a “mandate received from Christ.” That mandate is sometimes known as “the faith-sharing mandate” and “The Great Commission.” In that biblical passage from the Vulgate Bible (Matthew 28:18-20), Jesus is quoted as saying, “All authority [potestas, in Latin] in heaven and on earth has been given to me [Jesus Christ]. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (emphasis added) In other words, baptize them and make them followers of Christ. This has been described as “the Lord’s world-wide commission.” (A New Commentary on Holy Scripture, Ed., Gore, Goudge, and Guillaume, 1928, p. 204)

Some Vatican officials might say that the reference to a “mandate” in the March 30th Statement is not “reducible to a single text” from the Bible, otherwise that specific text would have been quoted. They might say that the reference to “the mandate received from Christ” is “a general summary mandate that reflects Scripture, as well as the evolving understanding of the Church’s mission.” Nonetheless, the word “mandate” is accurately interpreted as being inclusive of what has been expressed as the “world-wide commission” found in Matthew 28:18-20.

In the context of a world-wide mandate, the phrase “Go therefore” is accurately interpreted as, “to move forward and proceed on a course or path toward the fulfillment of an intention or a destination.” In order to fulfill the biblical mandate (intention) to make disciples of all nations, baptize them, and teach them to obey (be properly subordinate to) the commandments of Jesus, certain popes understood that it was necessary to identify or discover the distant and remote location of all non-Christian nations of the world.

No Pope was going to set sail on a voyage of “discovery.” However, certain popes did issue documents purporting to give or grant Christian monarchs the divine right to “discover and conquer” the distant lands of infidels. This pattern demonstrates how the Catholic Church’s Great Commission, based on Jesus Christ’s directive to make disciples of, and baptize all nations, logically resulted in a papally authorized effort to “discover,” “conquer,” and establish domination over distant non-Christian nations and their lands.

Pope Francis’s Environmental Encyclical, Laudato Si

In 2015, Pope Francis issued his Encyclical Laudato Si, which is regarded as the most comprehensive papal statement on the environment. Although we only have space to reference it in passing, we do want to acknowledge the Encyclical as being applicable to this discussion. Laudato Si begins:

  1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”.In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
  2. 2. This sister [the Earth] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. [emphasis added]

While the above style of writing sounds positive, it appropriates without attribution the “Indigenous” expression “Mother Earth,” and the words of the above passage lack both historical context and any acknowledgment of Indigenous peoples. Use of the third person “we” and “our” is ambiguous. To whom do “we” and “our” refer? No doubt the Holy See has used those words with the intention of referencing humanity as a whole. The document is written in a manner that implies that the Vatican and the Holy See have always subscribed to St. Francis of Assissi’s view of nature.

What seems odd about the above use of language by Pope Francis, however, is that it fails to acknowledge the worldviews and perspectives of Indigenous peoples, and the fact that they do not consider themselves to be “lords and masters” of the Earth, or consider themselves entitled to “plunder” the Earth at will. These are Christian European conceptions that include the Vatican papal bulls of the fifteenth century (three of which we quote below), and the doctrine of Christian discovery and domination.

The Book of Genesis in Laudato Si

Chapter Two of Laudato Si, is titled “The Gospel of Creation.” There we find the subheading: “II. The Wisdom of the Biblical Accounts.” At paragraph 66, Pope Francis states:

“The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain . . . profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality.” Pope Francis says that “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.” He further says that “three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us.” He continues:

This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19).

Harmony is defined in Webster’s as, “agreement between the parts of a design or composition giving unity of effect or an aesthetically pleasing whole.” (emphasis added) Webster’s also defines harmony as, “A systematic arrangement of parallel passages, as of the Gospels, to show their agreement.” The opposite of “agreement” is “disagreement,” “a state being at variance.” To disagree is “to fail to agree, to differ.” Webster’s defines “genesis” as, “to be born,” and “The coming into being of anything,” as well as, and in a biblical context, “a first account of creation.”

In a sense Genesis of the Bible forms the premise of the story of creation and of the Christian European universe. Strangely, however, part of the mandate from God which is portrayed in Genesis 1:28—to subdue and dominate—assumes a position of hostility, enmity, and opposition toward the Earth, and, by implication, and eventually, toward the Indigenous nations and peoples of the Earth. The term subdue suggests “to conquer and bring into subjection” which are terms of war.

Pope Francis’s claim in Laudato Si that there was an original “harmony” between “the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole” is contradicted by the Latin words in Gen. 1:28 found in the Vulgate Bible: “. . .Crescite et multiplicamini [grow and multiply] et replete terram [and fill the earth], et subicite eam [and subdue [i.e., dominate] it], et dominamini piscibus maris [i.e., dominate the fish of the sea], et volatilibus caeli [and the birds of the air] et universis animantibus [and all living things], quae moventur [which are moving] super terram [above ground].”

Laudato Si refers to Genesis 1:28 as a “mandate.” Pope Francis says that humans “presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations”
was what “distorted our mandate [from God] to ‘have dominion’ over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to ‘till it and keep it’ (Gen2:15).” To distort is “to wrest from the true meaning; to pervert.” He appears to be saying that the mandate to “subdue” and “dominate” the Earth is a mandate to have a “harmonious relationship” with the Earth. Laudato Si suggests that this “correct” interpretation of “subdue” and “dominate” has wrongly portrayed humans as being in conflict with the Earth.

However, the Latin words for mandate (imperatum, iussum, and mandatum) definitely convey a sense of domination and conflict, as do the words “subicite” and “dominamini” from Genesis 1:28 in the Latin Vulgate Bible. It thus makes no sense to conceive of a God-given mandate to subdue and dominate the Earth (and “all living things which are moving above ground”) as creating a harmonious relationship between humans and nature. Given God’s command to subdue and dominate the Earth (“nature”), in that context the biblical story of creation portrays humanity as being inconflict with the Earth, and by extension in conflict with the Indigenous peoples of the Earth. We see this manifested in the history of Christendom invading war against non-Christian nations and peoples and waging war against them.

The Collective Punishment and Domination of Women in the Bible

In Chapter Two, Laudato Si cites Genesis 3:17-19, thereby conveniently avoiding Genesis 3:16, according to which “a loving God” condemns Eve, and, by extension, all women after her, to an everlasting collective punishment: “To the woman also he [God] said: I will multiply thy sorrows, and thy conceptions; in sorrow shall thou bring forth children, and, thou shalt be under thy husband’s power [“potestate” in Latin], and he shall have dominion [dominabitur, in Latin (i.e., domination)] over thee.”

All across the planet women have suffered and continue to suffer from the application of this kind of theologically backed thinking and behavior toward them, based on the belief that God condemned womankind to existing “under” the potestate (power) of the husband and subject to the idea that “the husband shall have dominion [domination] over his wife” as ordained by God. As a present-day example, think of the murdered and missing Indigenous women in both Canada and the United States.

Genesis 3:16 quoted above, and 3:17-19 quoted below, tell us that the deity of Genesis does not behave in the dignified manner of an Indigenous Elder, but instead judges and condemns, for the God of the Bible is depicted as saying to Adam: “Because thou hast hearkened to the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat, cursed is the earth in thy work; with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life.” (emphasis added) Genesis 3:18 states: “Thorns and thistles shall it [the earth] bring forth to thee; and thou eat the herbs of the earth.” And, at Genesis 3:19, we find: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to earth, out of which thou was taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return.

Paragraph 66 of Laudato Si refers to “sin” as being “manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.” The Holy See produced documents repeatedly during the fifteenth century that authorized and encouraged “wars, [and] various forms of violence and abuse,” as well “attacks on nature.” It’s March 30th statement fails to acknowledge this.

Paragraph 67 states “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.” Laudato Si continues: “This allows us to respond to the charge that Judeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man ‘dominion’ over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church,” says the Pope. Laudato Si continues:

Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. [emphasis added]

“Nowadays” is the key word. This is evidently an updated way of understanding the Bible. However, it is not the interpretation of the Bible that was used as the basis of the papal decrees from the fifteenth century, which are traced to the story of the Chosen People and the Promised Land.

The Chosen People Promised Land Narrative Used Against Indigenous Nations and Peoples

At Genesis 15:7 we find “the Lord” [Dominus, “he who has dominated” in Latin] telling Abram “I am the Lord who brought thee out from Ur of the Chaldees, to gibe thee this land, and that thou mightest possess it.” The deity does not merely give the land to Abram; he is also giving the Indigenous peoples who were already living in the “promised land” of Canaan. Thus the Old Testament deity says to Abram (who becomes Abraham):

That day God made a covenant with Abram, saying: To thy seed will I give this land, from the river of Egypt even to the great river Euphrates.

The grammatical colon indicates that a list of items is to follow, and, in this case, the items listed are the Indigenous peoples living in the land the Old Testament deity is promising to Abram: “The Cineans and Cenezites, the Cedmonites, And the Hethites, and the Pherezites, the Raphaim also, And the Amorrhites, and the Chanaanits, and the Gergesites, and the Jebusites.” (King James version: “The Kenites, and the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites, And the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Rephaims, And the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”)

Abram and his descendants are to receive from the deity the land and the Indigenous peoples, as it states in Psalms 2:8: “Ask of me, and I will give thee the Gentiles for thy inheritance, and the utmost parts of the earth for thy possession.” (King James version: “Ask of me and I shall give to thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.”) Given that an inheritance is a form of property, which has been defined as “the first establishment of socially approved physical domination over some part of the natural world” (Liebman and Haar, Property and Law, 1986, p. 1), Psalms 2:8 presupposes a right of domination [“property”] over the Indigenous peoples.

Additionally, in Deuteronomy 20:10-18, the Old Testament deity commands the Hebrew soldiers to apply a genocidal logic and behavior toward the Indigenous peoples living in the lands the deity promised them:

But of those cities that shall be given thee, thou shalt suffer none at all to live: But shalt kill them with the edge of the sword, to wit, the Hethite, and the Amorrhite, and the Chanaanite, the Pherezite, and the Hevite, and the Jebusite, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee. [emphasis added]

King James version: But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: but thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perrizites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, as the Lord thy God has commanded thee. [emphasis added]

This command to “utterly destroy” and thereby nullify Indigenous peoples is also a biblical mandate. During the fifteenth, sixteenth, and later centuries, the Holy See and monarchies of Christendom, lifted the Old Testament narrative of the chosen people and the promised land from the geographical area of the Middle East and began carrying it over, metaphorically, to the rest of the globe, particularly to the western hemisphere. Key biblical passages provided a mental basis for the globalization of the Chosen People-Promised Land model of thought and behavior during the so-called Age of Discovery.

Attitudes from the Old Testament covenant tradition have had a tremendous ability to persist in Christian European thought over time. In 1557, for example, four and a half centuries after the sacking of Jerusalem in 1099 A.D. during the First Crusade, Pedro de Santander, an official of the Catholic Church, advocated for Philip II, emperor of Spain, to apply the Old Testament conceptual tradition of the Promised Land in his treatment of the Native peoples in Florida:

This is the Land of Promise, possessed by idolator, the Amorite, Amulekite, Moabit, Canaanite. This is the land promised by the Eternal Father to the Faithful, since we are commanded by God in the Holy Scripture to take it from them, being idolators, and, by reason of their idolatry and sin, to put them all to the knife, leaving no living thing save maidens and children, their cities robbed and sacked, their walls and houses leveled to the earth.

The Right of Discovery

In his 1888 article, “Right of Discovery,” B. A. Hinsdale elaborated on this Catholic way of thinking that considered it acceptable to genocidally nullify or negate the original nations and peoples of the continent. He explains the emergence of the category “nullus,” which, he says, Francis Lieber traced to the Catholic Church. As Hinsdale explains:

Practically, discovery, when consummated [by possession], was conquest [domination], but theoretically, it was something very different. An enemy overcome in battle was nullus according to the Roman law, but another definition, and one more consonant [in keeping] with the temper of the times, was now adopted. This definition was supplied by the Roman [Catholic] Church.

The new definition of nullus was, a heathen, pagan, infidel, or unbaptized person. “Paganism, which meant being unbaptized,” says Dr. [Francis] Lieberdeprived the individual of those rights which a true jural morality considers inherent in each human being.” The same writer [Dr. Lieber] also states that the Right of Discovery is founded “on the principle that what belongs to no one [may] be appropriated by the finder,” but this principle becomes effectual only when supplemented by the Church definition of nullus. That definition supplied the lacking premise in the demonstration. Grant that res nullius is the property of the finder; that an infidel is nullus; that the American savage is an infidel, and the argument is complete. That the Church, one of whose great duties is to protect the weak and helpless, should have supplied one-half the logic that justified the spoilation and enslavement of the heathen, is one of the anomalies of history.

In his essay, Hinsdale follows Francis Lieber’s lead in making a direct connection between the Roman law concept of res nullius, the Catholic Church’s religious concept of nullus (notice the different spelling of the two terms), and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Johnson v. McIntosh ruling of 1823, which distinguishes between “Christian people” and “natives, who were heathens”. Nullus is the basis of what we are able to accurately term the Doctrine of Pagan or Infidel Non-Existence. It isn’t that the peoples don’t exist physically. It’s that the intellectuals of the Christian world mentally refused to allow non-Christian peoples to be regarded as possessing a right of domination (i.e., “sovereignty,” “property,” and “dominion”) that could enable them to block and protect themselves against the Christian monarchs’ claim of a right of domination against them.

A number of Catholic theologians such as Bartolome de Las Casas, and Juan Sepulveda,  and Francisco de Vitoria followed these lines of argumentation in their leading positions in the intellectual world of Western Christendom during the so-called Age of Discovery. In his amazing book Imperialism, Sovereignty, and the Making of International Law(2004), international law scholar Antony Anghie points out that Francisco de Vitoria, for example, “based his conclusion that the Indians are not sovereign on the simple assertion that they are pagans.” Anghie further says:

The distinction [that Vitoria made] between the Indians and the Spanish was . . . emphatic and well developed. Indeed, in the final analysis, the most unequivocal proposition Vitoria advances as to the character of the sovereign is that the sovereign, the entity empowered to wage a just war, cannot, by definition, be an Indian.

Anghie continues:

Since the Indians are by definition incapable of waging a just war, they exist within the Vitorian framework only as violators of the law. [emphasis added] The normal principles of just war, which would prohibit the enslaving of women and children, do not apply in the case of the pagan Indians:

Anghie then quotes Vitoria as follows:

And so when the war is at that pass [point] that the indiscriminate spoilation [plunder] of all enemy-subjects alike and the seizure of all their goods are justifiable, then it is also justifiable to carry all enemy-subjects off into captivity, whether they be guilty or guiltless. And inasmuch as war with pagans is of this type, seeing that it is perpetual and they can never make amends for the wrongs and damages they have wrought, it is indubitably lawful to carry off both the children and women of the Saracens into captivity and slavery. [p. 27]

This Christian “logic” of treating non-Christians as enemies provides a rationale for the theft and kidnapping of Indian children from their families, and wrongfully forcing them into deadly boarding “schools” and residential “schools” as part of the genocidal process of intentionally destroying whatever holds a People together (e.g., their language, culture, and spiritual traditions) as a distinct nation. Anghie continues: “Once fault is established” [based on an imposed framework of domination] “as the above passage suggests, the war waged against the Indians is, in Vitoria’s phraseology, ‘perpetual’. Similarly, in his discussion of whether it is lawful and expedient to kill all the guilty, Vitoria suggests that this may be necessary because of the unique case of the unredeemable Indian. Vitoria further states:

and this is especially the case [in a war] against the unbeliever, from whom it is useless ever to hope for a just peace on any terms. And as the only remedy is to destroy all of them who can bear arms against us, provided they have already been in fault. [emphasis added]

Anghie sums up by saying: “These conclusions stand in curious juxtaposition to other parts of Vitoria’s work, where he emphasizes the humanity of the Indians.” And, “it is the Indian who acts as the object against which the powers of sovereignty [domination] may be exercised in the most extreme ways.” This mentality can be traced into U.S. federal Indian law and policy, such as the doctrine of the plenary power of Congress.

A Hypothetical Scenario

In a spirit of historical truth-telling, Pope Francis could have stated the following in Laudato Si: “A number of my predecessors, during the fifteenth century, supported Christian monarchs to view themselves as ‘lords and masters’, whom we believe, were entitled, with the support of the Divine Majesty, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy See, to plunder the Earth, and the Indigenous peoples of the Earth.”

Pope Francis would have exhibited tremendous courageous if he had stated: “In the papal bull Romanus Pontifex of 1455, for example, we find the Holy See’s support for the belief in a divine entitlement to plunder the Earth, and establish domination over the Indigenous peoples of the Earth.”

Some Text from Romanus Pontifex

The connection between Romanus Pontifex, Genesis 1:28, Genesis 15:7, Matthew 28:18-20,2:8, Psalms:2:8 and other biblical passages contradicts Point 6 of the Vatican’s March 30th statement, “The ‘doctrine of discovery’ is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church.” Given that Matthew 28:18-20 is one of the central teachings of the Catholic Church, and given that a fulfillment of Matthew 28:18-20 logically requires that the location of all distant non-Christian nations be identified, it is nonsensical and farcical for the Vatican to assert that the claimed right of discovery is not part of the teachings Catholic Church.

After all, Jesus Christ’s mandate to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations and baptize them” frames the Christian teaching to go forth to carry out Christ’s “mandate.” From within the Christian worldview, Christ’s mandate creates the claimed right to carry out the mandate. The opening of Romanus Pontifex helps to illustrate this point:

Nicholas, bishop, servant of the servants of God. For a perpetual remembrance.

The Roman pontiff, successor of [St. Peter] the key-bearer of the heavenly kingdom and vicar of Christ, contemplating with a father’s mind all the several climes [regions] of the world and the characteristics of all the nations [emphasis added] dwelling in them [those regions] and seeking and desiring the [Christian] salvation [through the baptism and obedience] of all [infidel nations]. . . [European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and Its Dependencies to 1648, 1917, pp. 20-21]

The phrase “all the nations” in the bull Romanus Pontifex matches the phrase “all nations” in Matthew 28. In order to make disciples of “all nations” and to baptize them, it is first necessary to identify (“discover”) the geographical location of those nations, so that a right of Christian domination can be asserted over and against them.

More Evidence of the Connection Between Matthew 28:18-20, the Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex, and the Theology of Domination

Romanus Pontifex continues: The Roman pontiff “wholesomely ordains and disposes [gives,] . . . [after] careful deliberation [upon] those things which he [the pontiff] sees will be agreeable to the Divine Majesty [i.e., God] and by [means of] which he [the pontiff] may bring the [infidel] sheep entrusted to him by God into the single divine fold, and may acquire for them the reward of eternal felicity [joy], and obtain pardon for their souls.” [European Treaties, p. 21]

The view that the pope is referring to “infidel” sheep is illustrated by a section of the book Kings Or People: Power and the Mandate to Rule (1978, p. 254), by Reinhard Bendix, where we find reference to a papal bull issued one year prior to Romanus Pontifex: “The papal bull of 1454 granted Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) ‘the right, total and absolute, to invade, conquer, and subject all the countries which are under the rule of the enemies of Christ,’ adding the missionary charge that these ‘perfidious enemies of Christ should be brought into the Catholic fold’.”

Lyle N. McAlister, in Spain and Portugal in the New World (1984), explains the rationale behind the papal bulls of 1452 and 1454, as it was espoused by Cardinal Henry of Susa (d. 1271), better known as Hostiensis:

When Christ came into the world, Hostiensis declared, temporal as well as spiritual lordship over all its peoples passed immediately to Him. This faculty he transmitted to His legitimate successors, the bishops of Rome, who came to be called popes. Roman pontiffs, in turn, could delegate lordship over non-Christian lands to a Christian prince, thus conveying a just title to such lands, and, if the inhabitants resisted, a just war could be waged against the recalcitrants. [p. 52]

In Romanus Pontifex, Pope Nicholas V says he has deliberated carefully upon those things which he believes would be agreeable to God (the Divine Majesty), and by means of which he, as pontiff, may successfully bring the infidel sheep entrusted to him by God into the single divine fold, and thereby acquire for them the reward of the Catholic faith and Christian religion. As we shall see below, this is to be carried out by vanquishing and subjecting the infidels. The bull Romanus Pontifex continues:

This [effort to bring the sheep entrusted to us. . . into the single divine fold] . . . will more certainly come to pass, through the aid of the Lord [Domino in Latin], if we [the pontiff] bestow suitable favors and special graces on those Catholic kings and princes, who . . . not only restrain the savage excesses of the Saracens and of other infidels . . . but also vanquish [crush] them [the infidels] and their kingdoms and habitations, though situated in the remotest parts [of the world] unknown to us, and subject [dominate] them to their [the monarchs’] own temporal dominion [domination], sparing no labor and expense, in order that those kings and princes, relieved of all obstacles, may be the more animated to the prosecution of so salutary and laudable work [of evangelism]. [emphasis added]

The language from Romanus Pontifex illustrates the connection between “the doctrine of Christian discovery” and the Theology of Domination. “Discover” refers to the sailing expeditions to identify what Pope Nicholas V called those “remote parts of the world” where non-Christian peoples (“infidels”) were living and where Christian domination had not yet been imposed. The pope’s language expresses an intention to “subject” the infidels to the temporal domination (“dominio” in the Latin text) of the Portuguese monarchy. The language of Romanus Pontifex provides strong evidence that the Holy See at that time believed that the doctrine of Christian discovery and domination was intrinsic to “the teaching of the Catholic Church.”

Additional Content from the Vatican’s March 30th Statement on the Doctrine of Discovery

The Vatican’s March 30th statement claims that the “mandate received from Christ” causes the Catholic Church to strive to promote “universal fraternity and respect for the dignity of every human being.” Again, no historical context for the statement is provided. The statement says “the Popes” have worked to uphold that mandate by condemning “acts of violence, oppression, social injustice and slavery, including those committed against indigenous peoples.”

The phrase “the Popes have condemned acts of” makes it seem as if all popes throughout the history of the Catholic Church have condemned such acts. The exception to this assertion would be any popes who encouraged Christians to commit acts of violence and oppression, slavery and social injustice against non-Christian nations and peoples. Pope Nicholas V and his documents Dum Diversas and Romanus Pontifex are glaring examples of such as exception.

The Vatican’s implied claim that all popes in the history of the Church condemned acts of “violence, oppression, social injustice and slavery” is patently ridiculous and demonstrably false given Nicholas’s papal directive to King Alfonso V of Portugal in Romanus Pontifex. In fact, by using language from the 1452 papal bull Dum Diversas, Nicholas V exhorted the Portuguese king to send his representatives to the western coast of Africa in order “to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue” all non-Christians, “to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery” and “take away all their possessions and property.”

In the aforementioned Kings or People, Reinhold Bendix continues: “Portugal had pioneered this expansion [of domination], but soon the other European powers vied with Portugal for commercial supremacy on the high seas and in overseas settlement. Westward expansion [of domination] to the Americas also began from the Iberian peninsula.” (p. 255) Thus we see evidence of papal advocacy in favor of acts of violence, oppression, injustice, and slavery against non-Christian nations and peoples. The papal bulls of 1493 also express patterns of domination that were carried to the Western Hemisphere and to other areas of the globe, as illustrated in our discussion of Point 6 below.

Point 3 of the Vatican statement says: “[R]espect for the facts of history demands an acknowledgment of the human weakness and failings of Christ’s disciples in every generation. Many Christians have committed evil acts against indigenous peoples for which recent Popes have asked forgiveness on numerous occasions.” The category “Christ’s disciples” includes the popes who called for the domination of non-Christian Indigenous nations and peoples. It is a massive trivialization to say that the language directing Christian monarchs to establish domination over non-Christians is merely evidence of “human weakness” and “failings.”

Point 4 of the Vatican statement reads: “In our own day, a renewed dialogue with indigenous peoples, especially with those [indigenous people] who profess the Catholic Faith, has helped the Church to understand better their [indigenous] values and cultures. With their help, the Church has acquired a greater awareness of their sufferings, past and present, due to the [papally sanctioned] expropriation [domination] of their lands, which they consider a sacred gift from God and their ancestors…” In contrast to our insertion of clarifying words here, the Vatican statement does not acknowledge that some popes sanctioned the expropriation of Indigenous peoples and their lands.

Point 4 refers to the “sufferings” of Indigenous peoples, resulting from “policies of forced assimilation [domination], promoted by governmental authorities of the time, [policies which were] intended to eliminate their indigenous cultures” [and to genocidally eliminate the indigenous peoples themselves]. Point 4 continues: “As Pope Francis has emphasized, their [Indigenous peoples’] sufferings [brought about by the language of the Vatican papal bulls issued over the course of generations,] constitute a powerful summons to [the Church to] abandon the colonizing mentality and to walk with them side by side, in mutual respect and dialogue, recognizing the rights and cultural values of all individuals and peoples.”

The degree of denial exhibited in the Vatican’s March 30th statement does not signal a willingness to be explicit about the consequences of the “colonizing mentality” that the Vatican now says needs to be “abandoned.” The Vatican Statement goes on to say: “It is in this context of listening to indigenous peoples that the Church has heard the importance of addressing the concept referred to as the doctrine of discovery.”

As noted above, since 1992 the Indigenous Law Institute has communicated with priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and with three popes by letter, and with Pope Francis in person, about the idea-patterns and behavioral patterns of domination created by the papal bulls of the fifteenth century. But the Vatican has failed to take seriously and explicitly acknowledge the central and crucial aspect of our analysis. The Vatican claims their statement is an effort to “walk with” indigenous peoples “side by side,” in “mutual respect and dialogue.” Yet the Vatican has declined to adopt Steven Newcomb’s well-documented terminology of domination in its March 30 statement even one time.

Point 4 ends by stating: “In this regard, the Church is committed to accompany indigenous peoples and to foster efforts aimed at promoting reconciliation and healing.” Note that the word “reconciliation” is a term of art in Catholic theology. It refers to a ceremony of restoration of a person’s relationship with the Church. It implies that there was an original beneficial relationship between a person and the Church that can be restored. By using that word in its statement, the Vatican is implying that the invading colonizers had a beneficial relationship with the original nations that fell apart and needs to be “restored.” But authentic healing must be premised on a candid reckoning with past patterns of destruction in the papal bulls which continue to afflict us in the present.

Point 5 of the Vatican statement reads: “It in this context of listening to indigenous peoples that the Church has heard the importance of addressing the concept referred to as the ‘doctrine of discovery’.” Notice how the Vatican continues to make it seem as if the concept of “discovery” is the important issue that Indigenous nations and peoples have been calling for the Holy See to address. In actuality, what we have been wanting to discuss and address with the Vatican is the claim of a right of domination expressed in the Vatican papal bulls that has been extended throughout the world.

The Vatican’s statement attempts to draw the reader’s attention away from the Holy See with the following words: “The legal concept of ‘discovery’ was debated by colonial powers from the sixteenth century onward and found particular expression in the nineteenth century jurisprudence of courts in several countries . . .” A discerning eye will notice that this focus on the sixteenth century avoids the fifteenth century, which is when the papal bulls in question were issued that sanctioned what happened in the sixteenth. This makes it seem as if the Catholic Church was not one of the “colonial powers.” Additionally, it was Catholic theologians who debated the significance of the Native identity.

Point 6 of the statement begins: “The ‘doctrine of discovery’ is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church.” This assertion has been partly dealt with above at the outset of this analysis, and in the paragraph above. Let us now add some text from the papal bull Inter Caetera issued by Pope Alexander VI, dated May 4, 1493 to show the theme of domination found in other papal bulls:

Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty [God] and cherished of our heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for [through baptism] and that barbarous nations be overthrown [forced under domination] and brought to the faith itself. . . . [W]e therefore are rightly led, and hold it as our duty, to grant you . . . those things whereby . . . you may be enabled for the honor of God and the spread of the Christian rule [domination] to carry forward your holy and praiseworthy purpose so pleasing to immortal God.

We have indeed learned that you . . for a long time had intended to seek out and discover certain islands and mainlands remote and unknown and not hitherto discovered by others, to the end that you might bring to the worship of our Redeemer and the profession of the Catholic faith their residents and inhabitants . . .[Y]ou have purposed with the favor of [God’s] divine clemency to bring under your sway [domination] the said mainlands and islands with their residents and inhabitants and to bring them to the Catholic faith. Commending in the Lord this your holy and praiseworthy purpose, and desirous that it be duly accomplished, and that the name of our Savior be carried into those regions, we exhort you very earnestly to the Lord and by your reception of holy baptism, whereby you are bound by our apostolic commands, and by the bowels of the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, enjoin strictly, that . . . you purpose also . . . to lead the people dwelling in those islands and countries to embrace the Christian religion. . . [W]e, of our own accord, . . . out of the fullness of our apostolic power, by the Authority of Almighty God conferred upon us in blessed Peter and of the vicarship of Jesus Christ, which we hold on earth, do by tenor of these presents,  . . . give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever, together with all their dominions, cities, camps, places, and villages, with all rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, all islands and mainlands, found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered. . . [European Treaties, 1917, pp. 75-77]

Point 6 of the Vatican statement asserts: “Historical research clearly demonstrates that the papal documents in question, written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions, have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith. At the same time, the Church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples.”

The Vatican statement fails to say what historical research it is referencing as the basis for the above assertion. It seems strange for the Vatican to claim that the papal documents of the fifteenth century are not “expressions of the Catholic faith.” We have quoted above many examples of the Catholic faith in the “Divine Majesty” and “Almighty God” being invoked in those documents. Faith may be understood as having “complete trust or confidence in someone or something”; in the papal bull of May 4, 1493 we find a sentence that is an expression of the Catholic faith: “We trust [confidentes, in Latin] in Him from whom empires and dominations and all good things proceed.”

An expression of faith or confidence in the deity of the Catholic Church (“Him”) is certainly an expression of Catholic faith. In this language we see the assertion by Pope Alexander VI that the Deity of the Catholic Church is the source or origin of empires and dominations and “all good things” (wealth and power) that result from empires and dominations, such as the 177 million acres of land and incalculable wealth in the possession of the Vatican as a result of the fifteenth century papal bulls.

Point 6 of the statement continues: “The Church is also aware that the contents of these documents [of domination] were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples, that were carried out, at times, [for centuries], without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities. It is only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of [the Holy See’s papal bulls of domination, as well as] the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon [for the Church oppressing them for centuries].”

Point 6 states: “Furthermore, Pope Francis has urged ‘Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others’ [in keeping with the patterns of domination found in the papal bulls].” There is also no mention or disavowal of “the idea that one religion is superior to others.”

Point 7 of the statement reads: “In no uncertain terms, the Church’s magisterium upholds the respect due to every human being. The Catholic [Universal] Church therefore repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery’.” This implies that the Church’s magisterium has always upheld “the respect due to every human being,” which is obviously contradicted by the Holy See declarations that non-Christian “pagan” and “infidel” peoples are to be invaded, captured, vanquished, and subdued, reduced to perpetual slavery, so that all their possessions and property could be plundered and stripped from them, and expropriated by the Christian world.

Point 8 of the statement reads: “Numerous and repeated statements by the Church and the Popes uphold the rights of indigenous peoples. For example, in the 1537 bull Sublimus Deus, Pope Paul III wrote: ‘We define and declare […] that […] 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 Christian faith; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and possessions and property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect’.”

While the Vatican had no difficulty quoting the positive language from the papal bull Sublimis Deus, the March 30, 2023, statement does not include any quote from the language of domination found in the earlier papal bulls. The Vatican statement also fails to include the fact that the Sublimis Deus was revoked under pressure from Spanish Emperor, Charles V.

In the book Red Man’s Land, White Mans Law (1971), Wilcomb Washburn quotes the papal bull Sublimis Deusissued by Pope Paul II in 1537. In part the language states that the Indians are to be considered “truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it.” That declaration was in keeping with Matthew 28:18-20, to make disciples of all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Washburn then states: “It was a noble try but to little avail. Emperor Charles ordered confiscated and returned to the Council of the Indies all copies of the bull that might have found their way to the New World. At the same time he [the Emperor] prevailed upon the Pope, ten days later, to revoke the bull. Minaya, [the Dominican priest who appealed to Pope Paul III to issue a papal bull favorable to the Indians], was imprisoned for failing to go through proper channels, was thrown in prison by the general of the Dominican order.” (p. 13) The pope removed all ecclesiastical penalties associated with Sublimis Deus, such as excommunication and interdict.

Papal Bulls Invoked in 1680 by the Spanish Crown in the Compilation of the Laws of the Indies

The papal bull Sublimis Deus did not revoke the earlier papal bulls from the fifteenth century, which were made by Pope Alexander VI, for example, “en perpetua” (eternally or forever). In A Violent Evangelism (1992), Dr. Luis Rivera-Pagán points to the 1680 Compilation of the Leyes de Indias [Laws of the Indies], produced one hundred forty-three years after the papal bull of 1537. Rivera-Pagán states: “In the juridical area, the Alexandrine bulls maintained their authorized character, as shown by the first sentence in the first law of the first chapter of the third book of ‘the Compilation of the Leyes de Indias’ (1680), which recognizes them [the papal bulls of 1493] as the first foundation for the possession in perpetuity of the Americas by the Crown of Castilla.” (emphasis added) If those bulls had been abrogated or revoked by the papal bull of 1537, there would be no basis upon which the Spanish crown could continue to invoke them:

“By donation from the Apostolic Holy See . . . we are Lord of the Western Idies, isles and mainlands of the Ocean Sea, discovered and to be discovered and incorporated into our Royal Crown of Castile . . . [so that] they may always remain united for their greater perpetuity and firmness, we forbid them being taken away.”…

“This law,” says Dr. Luis Rivera-Pagan, “is based on consecutive royal declarations by Carlos V and Philip II, who during the sixteenth century propounded the doctrine of Castilian dominion [domination] in perpetuity over the Ibero-American peoples. All those declarations alluded to the Alexandrian bulls as the crucial point of reference.” [p. 32]

Point 9 of the statement reads: “More recently, the Church’s solidarity with indigenous peoples has given rise to the Holy See’s strong support for the principles contained in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The implementation of those principles would improve their living conditions and help protect the rights of indigenous peoples as well as facilitate their development in a way that respects their identity, language, and culture.” Unfortunately, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples itself does not explicitly and thoroughly address the system of domination that is being used against Indigenous nations and peoples.


Today Indigenous nations and peoples live with the psychological and other forms of wreckage brought about by the fifteenth-century Vatican documents issued by various popes. How many nations and peoples are no longer existing as a result of those documents? How many languages, evolved over thousands and thousands of years by the ancestors of original nations and peoples, are no longer existing as a result of those destructive documents? How many acres and hectares of land of the original (Indigenous) nations and peoples are now under the claim of a right of domination as a result of those papal bulls? The number of potential questions regarding all of the torment and abuse and suffering caused by the legacy of those documents is staggering. 

The Vatican March 30, 2023 statement on the Doctrine of Discovery heightens awareness of the roots of the patterns of domination found in the Vatican papal bulls that were adopted into United States law in the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Johnson and Graham’s Lessee v. McIntosh, two hundred years ago this year. Evidence of those religious domination patterns is found in the distinction made in the Johnson ruling by Chief Justice John Marshall between “Christian people” and “natives, who were heathens,” and in his claim of United States “ultimate dominion” [domination]” over “heathen” Native nations and their lands. The U.S. Supreme Court has made the 15th century claims of a right of domination foundational to U.S. federal anti-Indian law and policy, and the claim of the “plenary power” of Congress over “Indians.” This must be changed if there is to be any rightful relationship between the descendants of the colonizers and Indigenous nations and peoples today.

The patterns of domination that were unleashed on the planet by means of the Vatican documents have had devastating consequences that have been manifested in, for example, the theft and kidnapping of our children from their loved ones and families, as well as murdered and missing Indigenous women, the expropriation of our lands and waters, the destruction of our original free existence by robbing us of our liberty and forcing us under a system of domination, the poisoning of our lands, waters, air, and our bloodstreams with toxic chemicals, the attempt to intentionally kill our languages (i.e., Linguicide), intentionally teaching the abuse of women and children, the destruction and desecration of our Sacred and Significant Places, to name just some of the ways in which the Holy See’s papal bulls of the fifteenth century have destructively impacted and continue to destructively impact our original nations and peoples.

How much land of our original nations does the Vatican currently hold as “property” throughout the Western Hemisphere? Every acre [or hectare] of land in the Western hemisphere that is in the possession of the Vatican and the Catholic Church is a result of the papal decrees of the fifteenth century that we are talking about here. If the Vatican is sincere, let’s talk about its land holdings, how the church got ahold of all that land of Indigenous nations and peoples, and how much of their claim of a right of domination they are willing to pull back.

We at the ILI, in solidarity with Original Nations and Peoples, will continue to call upon the Holy See to not simply “renounce” the “doctrine” inherent in the papal bulls, but to revoke the papal bulls themselves. We do this as part of our effort to publicize and challenge the patterns of domination globally and to challenge the patterns of domination expressed in the Johnson v. McIntosh ruling and in other legal decisions that are based on Johnson into the 21st century.