First, a couple of definitions.
A Papal Bull is a public decree, issued by the Pope. The term bull derives from the seal (bulla - blob of clay, or soft metal) appended to the document to authenticate it.
A Sacred Cow is of Hindu origin and refers to the sacredness of cows in that religion. The term has been adopted within English and refers to something that is immune to questioning or criticism.
Papal Bull Repudiated
A few days ago (30 March 2023) the Vatican formally repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery – a series of Papal Bulls issued in the 15th century.
The Doctrine of Discovery provided Spanish and Portuguese invaders with the religious authority to colonise the Americas. Specifically, the Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex, issued by Pope Nicholas V gave King Alfonso of Portugal “and his successors” the right to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans.” This, and other Bulls, lie at the heart of the colonisation process, not only in the Americas, but throughout the world.
The doctrine was not only applied by Portugal and Spain – many other European nations took up the bullish imperative, notably the British, the Dutch, and the French.
The notion that indigenous peoples could be subjugated and their lands stolen was claimed by Thomas Jefferson (one of the Founding Fathers of the USA) to be international law and gave Europeans the right a) to own by “discovery” land that had previously been “unknown,” b) of sole acquisition. First nations people, on the other hand, had their sovereignty diminished, and were provided only with a right of occupancy. In many cases, even this right of occupancy was to be denied to them.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in 1823, further enshrined the Doctrine of Discovery into US law when Justice Marshall declared that “the principle of discovery gave to European nations an absolute right to New World lands.”2
This declaration benefitted those of European descent, and further denied First Nations peoples their sovereignty, and, by then, even reduced their right of occupancy.
Similar Eurocentric and European senses of supremacy travelled to other parts of the world, including: South America, Australia, New Zealand, parts of Africa, India, and parts of SE Asia.
On 30 March 2023 a statement from the development and education offices of the Vatican repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, and said of the 15th century Papal Bulls that they “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples.”
It is worth noting that the Vatican did not go so far as to rescind (literally, to cut up, tear asunder), but only to repudiate (literally, to walk away from) the decrees. In effect, this leaves the Doctrine of Discovery, and its implications, intact and “on-the-table.” The Pope and the Vatican have walked away from the table, leaving the Doctrine of Discovery sitting there.
Leaving the doctrine and decrees on-the-table allows some of the European sacred cows that stem from the notion of European discovery to remain as well.
- The notion of European superiority still remains a sacred cow within much of the thinking of colonising cultures around the world. European thought processes and institutions (e.g. education, law, government, religion, business) remain immune to question and criticism. When representatives of the colonised cultures do question these, more often than not they are branded with being troublemakers, and ungrateful heathens.
- The myth contained within the Doctrine of Discovery, although starting to fade, still exists within the minds of many colonisers. According to this myth, countries such as Canada, USA, New Zealand, and Australia2 were “discovered” by Europeans. For example, in Australia the fiction of terra nullius (literally. “nobody’s land,” therefore, able to be “discovered”) was not overturned until 1992 in the “Mabo case,” which finally recognised the land rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
- Private, and individual, ownership of land, remains the most sacred of all the sacred cows that Europeans hold onto. Yet, this too, derives from the falsehood of discovery. The result of this sacred cow is that First Nations peoples all over the world are still claiming lands back that were stolen from them over the past 300 years or more.
Repudiation being a step away from the table (upon which the Doctrine of Discovery lies) may be a step in the right direction. There are many more steps to be taken.
1. The word deadly in Australia is used by First Nations people as jargon to mean great, awesome. If you wish to read it that way, so be it, although the sense of meaning causing death is primarily meant in this sentence.
2. US Supreme Court case Johnson v McIntosh, 1823.3. Responding to a question about what he thought of Captain James Cook discovering Australia, Ernie Dingo, a First Nations man, and actor, TV presenter, and comedian, from Western Australia, reputedly responded with, “Mate, I didn’t know it was lost.”