Doctrine of Discovery


My first post here, hope I’m puttin this in the right place…

There is a course that is being offered at work that references a “Doctrine of Discovery” that the United States used in reference to Native American relations and Treaties during the westward expansion. I’ve also heard reference to a Papal doctrine of the same name eminating from (perhaps?) the crusades and a linkage between the two.

I’m wondering what the backround of the Church’s version is and (if the understanding has changed) what the Church says about it today.


Sounds a lot to me like the Doctrine of Manifest Destiny which strictly speaking was not at all a doctrine of the church as we understand the term. It was used to justify the westward expansion of the United States and may have been coined during Jefferson’s presidency. It should be described in any good encyclopedia or on the web.


I don’t think so, if you run a google search on Doctrine of Discovery you’ll find a whole list of sites sponsored by indigenous peoples advocacy groups that call out the linkage to Catholicism. I’m wondering what the Church’s take on it is.

There was one site that referenced "Inter Caetera" which divided the ‘undiscovered’ world between Spain and Portugul, but the idea that that sanctioned atrocities and slavery seems to be a stretch (at least reading it on it’s own).

The only reference I can find to the Natives of the Americas is actually quite supportive of their status - Pope Paul III, in Sublimus Dei on May 29, 1537, “…that the Indians are truly men… and …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 faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect”
“By virtue of Our apostolic authority We define and declare by these present letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, which shall thus command the same obedience as the originals, that the said Indians and other peoples should be converted to the faith of Jesus Christ by preaching the word of God and by the example of good and holy living.”

I’m looking for some help in stiching these and other Bulls together to be able to speak to what may be a simplistic interpretation people are otherwise getting in this course.


I just saw an article on Yahoo posted about this, apparently from US nuns (many of whom seem to be right on or over the verge of heresy as it is), asking the Vatican to apologize for supposed Papal bulls that once advocated the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’. I have seen absolutely no evidence for this, however; as the previous poster said, Catholic official documents at that time were very much advocating the dignity and rights of natives in the New World, and they forbade Catholics from enslaving anyone, hence why the Spanish did not have slaves (that I’m aware of). I do not see any Catholic documents from that time period justifying the American policy of Doctrine of Discovery. To me it seems like something this nuns and the media schemed up to undermine the Church, as they often do.

Here is the Yahoo article:


I think you are right about the nuns. They are throwing out this red herring to draw attention away from themselves and whatever smackdown Cardinal Muller is going give them.


I was curious about this subject after seeing the Huff Post article about the nun’s accusations. What I’ve managed to find out is this:

Dum Diversas (1452) Pope Nicholas V. Authorizing the king of Portugal to subjugate Muslims and other enemies of Christendom in North Africa and reducing them to perpetual servitude.

Romanus Pontifex (1455) Pope Nicholas V. Authorized the conquering Spanish and Portuguese kings to establish trade with conquered Muslims in Africa as long as they don’t give to the Muslims any goods which can be used against Christian Europe, such as lumber, metal and weapons.

Both of the above Bulls are in response to the constant attacks and wars launched against Christians since Mohammed. By 1452, the Muslims who had controlled Spain for 700 years were weakening, but hadn’t been driven out yet. I’m going to guess that these Bulls were authorization to take the fight to the Muslims in North Africa to weaken the Spanish Muslim’s supply lines. It seems to have worked. By 1492 the Muslims were out of Spain. The authorization to reduce the N. African Muslims to servitude was the only way to attempt to keep Islamic invaders from launching new attacks over and over. In other words, these were defensive (and pre-emptive) stances. These Bulls had nothing to do with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonizing the New World or the suppression of indigenous rights as the nun’s assert.

**Inter Caetera 1493 Alexander VI ** Stated that one Christian nation did not have the right to establish dominion over lands previously dominated by another Christian nation. I’m guessing this was to prevent inter-Christian warfare.

I have never found any Papal Bull which sanctioned brutality and atrocities against native peoples. Like you said, Sublimus Dei supports native rights.

"Nuns Blast Catholic Church's 'Doctrine Of Discovery' That Justified Indigenous Oppression"

Thank you for quoting Sublimus Dei, which is in favor of native rights. Another, earlier document in favor of native rights is Sicut Dudum from 1435.

In it, Pope Eugene IV said, “All and each of the faithful of each sex, within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, [must] restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of the Canary Islands…who have been made subject to slavery. These people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of any money. If this is not done [within] the fifteen days…they incur the sentence of excommunication by the act itself.” (Sicut Dudum)

I think the Yahoo article could be improved if it stated clearly that the papal documents it mentions do not make it okay for Christians to take over lands that are owned by other people. It is only talking about undiscovered lands. If the Indians were already there, then obviously their lands had already been discovered…by the Indians, centuries or millenia before. Therefore, the doctrine of discovery wouldn’t apply to lands owned by the Indians.


The only problem is that the Yahoo article, like many of their articles, skews the truth to support their strong bias against the Church. It’s sad that they do this, as it goes against the objectivity journalism deserves, but it reflects what many people in general think about the Church and were often taught in school. In truth, throughout history the Church advocated for human rights and dignity when few if any others did. For example, very soon after Constantine, one of the first requests of the Church was for Rome to disband the barbaric gladiatorial games. Also, their stance against slavery and in favor of natives’ rights came 400 years before the Gettysburg Address. In truth, America thought of slaves and natives as little above animals, and justified their enslavement or genocide with concepts such as doctrine of discovery and manifest destiny. Sadly, many Catholics did this too, but due to the influence of the Church it was to a much lesser degree, hence why in Catholic lands in the New World there was virtually no slavery and most natives blended with the settlers.


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