Indigenous Catholics, along with U.S. and Canadian bishops, are welcoming the Vatican's repudiation of a legal and political doctrine by which European colonial powers and North American governments historically seized lands from Indigenous peoples -- while stressing there is more work to be done in healing Catholic-Indigenous relations.
"It's a step in the right direction (and) … a powerful statement," Deacon Don Blackbird, a member of the Omaha Tribe and principal of St. Augustine Indian Mission in Winnebago, Nebraska, told OSV News.
"I was very happy to see it," Mitch Case, regional councilor for Region 4 of the Provisional Council of the Métis Nation of Ontario, told OSV News. "It's been decades in the works, and it's a step forward."
At the same time, "there's still a lot of work to do," said Case, who was one of several delegates from Canada's First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples to meet with Pope Francis in Rome last year, ahead of the pope's July 2022 penitential pilgrimage to Canada, during which the pope formally apologized for the church's role in that nation's residential school system in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The schools were part of U.S. and Canadian government strategies to forcibly assimilate Indigenous peoples by separating children at an early age from their parents, families and communities -- including those that had been Christian for some time -- and depriving them of their languages, cultures and identities. Both North American governments coopted Catholic Church leaders into participating in the scheme, who abandoned a previous model of missionaries integrating into Indigenous communities and providing education locally. The residential school system ended up severely damaging the familial and social fabric of Indigenous nations, and saw thousands of students physically, mentally and sexually abused.
On March 30, the Vatican's dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development issued a joint statement on the "Doctrine of Discovery," a concept first formulated to support European claims to land beyond continental Europe.
The statement said some scholars have argued the doctrine found a basis in several papal bulls from the 15th century, among them Pope Nicholas V's "Dum Diversas" (1452) and "Romanus Pontifex" (1455), and Pope Alexander VI's "Inter Caetera" (1493).
"The 'doctrine of discovery' is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church," said the statement, adding that "historical research clearly demonstrates" the bulls, which were "written in a historical period and linked to political questions, have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith."
However, "the church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples," and the documents "were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against Indigenous peoples," the statement said, noting those actions "were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities."
"It is only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by Indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon," said the statement.
"It's certainly a message we brought to Rome a year ago, and then again when the Holy Father came to Canada," said Case.
Both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops endorsed the Vatican statement.
In its March 30 response, the USCCB said the statement marks "yet another step in expressing concern and pastoral solicitude for Native and Indigenous peoples who have experienced tremendous suffering because of the legacy of a colonizing mentality."
The U.S. bishops expressed "deep sorrow and regret" for the "times when Christians, including ecclesiastical authorities, failed to fully oppose destructive and immoral actions of the competing colonial powers."
In recent years, "dialogues among Catholic bishops and Tribal leaders have illuminated more aspects of this painful history, and, with humility, we wish to offer our continuing solidarity and support, as well as a further willingness to listen and learn," said the USCCB statement. "We will continue to support policies that protect the poor and vulnerable, and that will offer relief to Native and Indigenous families who are struggling."
The Canadian bishops said in a March 30 response they were "grateful" for the Vatican's message, adding that "numerous and repeated statements by the church and the popes through the centuries have upheld the rights and freedoms of Indigenous Peoples," citing Pope Paul III's 1537 bull "Sublimis Deus," which opposed the enslavement of Indigenous persons and the deprivation of their property.
The Vatican statement also "expresses support for the principles in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the implementation of which would help to improve the living conditions of Indigenous Peoples, to protect their rights, as well as to support their self-development in continuity with their identity, language, history, and culture," said the CCCB statement.
The CCCB said Canada's bishops "(echo) Pope Francis' statement from Quebec City in July 2022, cited in today's declaration, that '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.'"
"(The church) continues to clarify and evolve its teachings, while acknowledging (its) own ecclesiastical shortcomings at times," said Deacon Blackbird, adding the Vatican's March 30 statement "shows the church wants to continue to work with Native American people toward truth and healing."
At the same time, the news may not be received with equal enthusiasm among various Indigenous communities, explained both Deacon Blackbird and Case.
"The responses will be different," Deacon Blackbird said. "I think those Native Americans who follow the Catholic Church's teaching and have a personal relationship with Christ … understand what the church actually teaches about the dignity inherent to every human person, and understand the love of Christ."
However, "Native Americans who are outside the Catholic community" will be more likely to regard the statement as promising but incomplete, since it does not "fully rescind" the papal bulls related to the "Doctrine of Discovery," he added.
Case admitted he was "a little disappointed" the statement "repudiates, but does not repeal" the bulls, whose legacy he said could be found in the disproportionately high rates of poverty and reduced life expectancy found among Indigenous communities.
"In terms of economic and environmental justice, all of those issues are rooted in this 500-year-old idea that Western society has a right to subjugate us," said Case. "Whether or not it (the 'Doctrine of Discovery') is no longer considered a part of Catholic theology or teaching, if the impact remains -- if Indigenous people, broadly speaking, are still homeless and destitute on their own lands -- then words are just words. Now we need to see action … the church putting its influence and moral authority into pursuing meaningful justice for Indigenous people."
Such collaboration must start with "sitting down and listening to Indigenous people, and building concrete steps together," Case said.
One concrete step so far is the Indigenous Reconciliation Fund in Canada, established by the Catholic Church, which has gathered nearly CA$9.5 million ($7 million), or nearly one third of its CA$30 million ($22 million) goal. So far, the collected amount represents contributions from seven of the 73 Catholic dioceses and eparchies in Canada -- and none yet from Quebec and Eastern Canada -- but there are four more years to go. The funds will support reconciliation initiatives benefiting Indigenous survivors of residential schools, their families and communities.
According to the Canadian bishops, the CCCB, the USCCB and the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences "are together exploring the possibility of organizing an academic symposium with Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars to further deepen historical understanding about the 'Doctrine of Discovery.'"
"I would just encourage (the bishops) to continue to work with their local tribal communities to uncover the hurts of the past, so those can be truthfully brought into the light and healed -- and so there's justice, and the faith can expand," said Deacon Blackbird.