Beliefs

Nuns to pope: Revoke 15th-century doctrine that allows Christians to seize native land

In November, Sister Maureen Fiedler hand-delivered a letter to Pope Francis’ ambassador in Washington, D.C., urging the pontiff to renounce a 15th-century church document that justifies the colonization and oppression of indigenous peoples. Photo courtesy of Jean M. Schildz, The Loretto Community

(RNS) In November, Sister Maureen Fiedler hand-delivered a letter to Pope Francis’ ambassador in Washington, D.C., urging the pontiff to renounce a series of 15th-century church documents that justify the colonization and oppression of indigenous peoples.

Last November, Sister Maureen Fiedler hand-delivered a letter to Pope Francis’ ambassador in Washington, D.C., urging the pontiff to renounce a 15th-century church document that justifies the colonization and oppression of indigenous peoples. Photo courtesy of Jean M. Schildz, The Loretto Community

In November, Sister Maureen Fiedler hand-delivered a letter to Pope Francis’ ambassador in Washington, D.C., urging the pontiff to renounce a 15th-century church document that justifies the colonization and oppression of indigenous peoples. Photo courtesy of Jean M. Schildz, The Loretto Community

She doesn’t know if the letter made it to the Vatican. But she’s hopeful a recent resolution by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will spur the pope to repudiate the centuries-old concept known as the “Doctrine of Discovery.”

“When I learned about it, I was horrified,” said Fiedler. As a member of the Loretto Community, a congregation of religious women and lay people, Fiedler first heard of the doctrine when her order marked its 200th anniversary by challenging “the papal sanctioning of Christian enslavement and power over non-Christians.”

The Doctrine of Discovery is a series of papal bulls, or decrees, that gave Christian explorers the right to lay claim to any land that was not inhabited by Christians and was available to be “discovered.” If its inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.

The doctrine’s modern influence re-emerged recently in the debate about the racism and exploitation of Native American sports mascots, Fiedler said. It has justified efforts to eliminate indigenous languages, practices and worldviews, and it affects Native American sovereignty and treaty obligations.

Since 1823, it has also been enshrined in U.S. law. In 2005, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the Doctrine of Discovery in a land-claim ruling against the Oneidas, one of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee.

The Loretto Community collaborated with a member of the Osage Nation to create a 2012 resolution. Last fall, the order joined 12 other Catholic groups asking the pope to rescind the decrees.

By revoking these papal bulls, the signers said, “all will know that today’s world is different from that of the 15th century as we move away from patterns of domination and dehumanization,” the resolution says.

Last year, the Loretto Community took the additional step of approaching the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, requesting that the group, which represents about 80 percent of U.S. nuns, consider a similar resolution. Last month, the LCWR members overwhelmingly approved a resolution during their annual conference in Nashville, Tenn.

Before the vote, Sister Pearl McGivney, president of the Loretto Community, which is based in Nerinx, Ky., spoke about the injustice of the doctrine.

“We had just been singing a hymn with the line, ‘Who will speak if you don’t? … Speak so that their voices will be heard,’” Fiedler recounted. “In this case, we were talking about the voices of Native Americans, who are so seldom heard.”

Indigenous groups have sought to overturn the doctrine since at least 1984. In its 2007 Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations criticized policies like the Doctrine of Discovery as “racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.”

Since 2007, numerous faith communities have called for repudiation, among them, the United Methodist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Episcopal Church, the World Council of Churches, several Quaker meetings and the United Church of Christ.

LCWR’s resolution calls on the pope to publicly acknowledge the continuing harm indigenous peoples suffer; clarify and repudiate any remaining legal status of the doctrine; dialogue with indigenous people and collaborate in planning a sacred ceremony of reconciliation; and issue a pastoral statement to courts of settler nations, urging them to change laws derived from the doctrine.

The Vatican has said that later bulls and papal apologies show the church no longer supports the doctrine.

“The wrongs done to the indigenous people need to be honestly acknowledged,” Saint John Paul II said in 1998. He also delivered a sweeping apology in 2000 for the church’s mistreatment of groups, including indigenous peoples.

But this pope should act, decisively too, said Philip Arnold, a Syracuse University religious studies professor who has worked with a Syracuse, N.Y.-based study group on the doctrine.

“It would be helpful for the church to throw out her sin of colonialism,” he said. “Some acknowledgment of the pain of the past would be helpful.”

YS/AMB END GADOUA

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Renee K. Gadoua

17 Comments

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  • I recognized the name and photo of Sister Maureen Fieldler. She hosts a very interesting and worthwhile radio show on NPR called InterFaith Voices. I’ve been listening to it on and off for years. Give it a try:

    http://www.interfaithradio.org/

    IMO, she gives great credibility to the importance of this request of the Vatican.

  • ARTICLE EXCERPT:
    “The Doctrine of Discovery is a series of papal bulls, or decrees, that gave Christian explorers the right to lay claim to any land that was not inhabited by Christians and was available to be “discovered.” If its inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.”

    Well done, Mareen Fiedler! And THANK YOU everyone else involved in realizing this!

    Peace and Love

  • A very good observation, Sister Fieldler! And today (the 9th), is the feast of St. Peter Claver, a priest who championed the rights of the slaves brought to the Americas in the 16th century. He was unusual as a European when colonialism was at its height and is still praised for his efforts. He was the first to succor these unfortunate people as they were driven off the slave ships in the “new world.”

    The rights of all people, especially the most vulnerable, like children and the elderly, need to be protected actively.

    Blessings!

  • Sister Geraldine Marie, R.N
    “The rights of all people, especially the most vulnerable, like children and the elderly, need to be protected actively.”

    I couldn’t agree with any more zeal. This of course includes atheists, because contrary to popular belief, we are people too.;-)

    Whenever man submits to human authority, especially when that authority is the representative of what they believe by faith to be the highest authority of all, bad things will ensue for all those who don’t submit.

  • A few years from now we will be hearing,

    “But the church never supported colonialism and always respected indigenous peoples no matter what their faith was”

  • About twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Adam Fortunate Eagle, who was one of the leaders of the American Indian Movement. While visiting Rome, he was part of a group with an audience with Pope John Paul II. Fortunate Eagle explained that he shook the Pope’s hand and declared that by the right of discovery, he was claiming the lands known as Vatican City, Rome, and Italy for the Ojibwa Nation. This is an issue of merit for Native peoples.

  • This is just another show for the “nuns on the bus.” Time for the “nuns on the bus” to pull over to the curb and discern their vocation.

  • Were Lutherans our pope is Gods word the holy bible ,,we will continue to try to tell every one who has not heard it,, the good news of Jesus ..
    whataboutjesus.com

  • With all the REAL problems in the world this nut nun worries about something that was used last when? 800+ years ago? The Pope should ex-communicate this whackjob who claims to be a nun.

    Why doesn’t she attack Islam since they are actually a REAL problem for Christians since Islam is beheading Christians who won’t convert.

    It’s because this nun is a fraud and a phony. She won’t attack Islam because she is afraid they will come after her.

  • With all the REAL problems in the world this nut nun worries about something that was used last when? 800+ years ago? The Pope should ex-communicate this whackjob who claims to be a nun.

    Why doesn’t she attack Islam since they are actually a REAL problem for Christians since Islam is beheading Christians who won’t convert.

    It’s because this nun is a fraud and a phony. She won’t attack Islam because she is afraid they will come after her.

  • Stop claiming to speak for us Catholic Indians. I’m fullblood Indian and my faith goes back to 1600 when the Jesuits helped us survive against the English Crown when they proclaimed our country to be the British Empire. Don’t use us to gather more followers of your emotional false rants.

  • Actually, if you think about what those papal bulls authorized, it is not much different than what ISIS claims as the justification for the horrible acts they are committing. Moreover, it can be construed as a moral justification for slavery in this country.

  • I. noticed you think it’s not in use and said nothing about a supreme court judge use of said 800. year old document. Christopher Columbus. Discovered America? What eles is hidden?

  • The American Indian people are STILL being persecuted and you say it’s been 800 years since this was used, when it was used in 2005 by SCOTUS. You really need to research the true history of the American Indians, not the whitewashed version. The only fraud and phony I read here is you. What are you doing to combat Islam in America?? You call Sister Maureen names, but yet fail to provide us with any information on what you are doing to make this world a better place. You think by editorializing the same response you are making a dent and doing your part, oh boy. . . *heavy sarcasm, I don’t think so. And how do you know she is not doing anything to combat Islam?? You should be ashamed of yourself for speaking ill of a nun. Sapa Khukuse!

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