Pope Francis at the site of the former Ermineskin Residential School during his visit to Canada last year. Eight months later, the Vatican issued its repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)

Decades of struggle by Indigenous peoples led to an important statement from the Vatican last week. 

In an announcement on March 30, the Catholic Church formally repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery which, over centuries, served as a legal justification for colonising peoples and lands, including in Aotearoa.

What impact might this have?

First, law professor Claire Charters explains to Connie Buchanan why she believes the move is so significant, and how the government should respond. 

Then Tina Ngata unpicks the sidesteps and shortfalls of the Vatican’s statement.   


Indigenous peoples have been calling for the Catholic Church to reject the Doctrine of Discovery for a long, long time.

In Aotearoa, those calls have been led by Margaret Mutu, and the late Moana Jackson, over many decades. Now, a year after Moana’s passing, we’ve seen the Vatican finally repudiate the doctrine in a formal statement.

It’s a really important moment.

The Doctrine of Discovery refers to a series of papal bulls, or Catholic laws, that were issued by the Vatican toward the end of the 15th century. At their essence was the idea that Indigenous peoples didn’t count as human beings if they didn’t accept Catholicism — and thus their territories were available for discovery as they were formally, legally, empty.

The doctrine has been opposed and criticised by Indigenous peoples for so long because it’s racist, abhorrent, and has been used to justify their subjugation and colonisation.

Over time, the concepts in the doctrine became separated from their Christian basis and were absorbed into British law and international law, as colonising powers tried to construct ongoing justifications for their actions.

International law builds up in many different ways, and one of them is through practice.

And the practice of colonisation, under the auspices of the Doctrine of Discovery, morphed into international law, as powerful entities, such as the Crown, selected and endorsed the justifications that suited their purposes.

When the doctrine made its way into British law, it retained the form that Indigenous peoples were uncivilised, and thus the territories they occupied were considered empty and open for “first” discovery.

The colonial power became the first discoverer because the people who were there didn’t count. The Doctrine of Discovery established the legal grounds for which Britain could take sovereignty, lands, territories and resources.

Those were expressly the grounds on which the Crown claimed sovereignty over Te Wai Pounamu, the South Island, in Aotearoa.

The British justified their actions in the rest of our country with Te Tiriti o Waitangi. But there is no cession of sovereignty in Te Tiriti, which leaves the Doctrine of Discovery as the only legal grounds on which the Crown might claim sovereignty in Te Ika-a-Māui, the North Island, too.

In Aotearoa, the impact of the doctrine is still felt today with Māori remaining dispossessed of their whenua — owning just six percent of land — and experiencing persistent racism and inequality.

The timing of the Vatican’s rejection of the doctrine comes after Pope Francis’ recent trip to Canada. He visited the mass graves of Indigenous children who died while in the care of the Catholic Church in residential schools.

During his visit, the Pope acknowledged those deaths as “deplorable evil”. And, eight months later, we see the statement repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery.

Who knows what repudiation means in practice? The Vatican’s choice of language is  careful. It’s not stating that “we take responsibility for the consequences of colonisation under the auspices of this doctrine”. It’s clearly not that.

Rather, it says that the papal bulls “were manipulated for political purposes” and 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”. So the Catholic Church distances itself in that way.

Professor Claire Charters who was recently appointed as Rongomau Takatake at Te Kahui Tika Tangata / NZ Human Rights Commission.

It’s still significant, and powerful.

In Aotearoa, the National Iwi Chairs Forum has repeatedly asked our governments, over the years, to renounce the doctrine too. I’ve been in multiple meetings where that’s been called for. But when it comes up, the reaction tends to be: “Oh, don’t worry too much about that.” There’s been a reluctance from the government, in my experience, to issue a clear rejection. That remains the case today.

That’s possibly because governments are aware that once you reject the doctrine, you’re rejecting some of the legal grounds on which sovereignty is claimed, under law, in Aotearoa. That’s obviously hard for a state to do.

But it’s a doctrine that’s been used to give legality to things that are highly unjust, and it’s had genocidal consequences around the world.

In Aotearoa, it underpinned the establishment of the New Zealand government and its legislation. And it established the white supremacy and systemic racism which displaced tangata whenua from their traditional lands, territories and resources.

The Catholic bishops in New Zealand have come out strongly in support of the Vatican’s announcement. The government looks a bit flat-footed, to me, for not having done the same. Years ago, it should have accepted that the doctrine is a blatantly racist tool of colonisation, which is still, in theory, part of our law today.

For our government to do that would undermine the power of the state, but what are the real risks of that? It would simply highlight that there’s been an illegitimate use of power in our country, which we’ve known for a long time.

To me, that’s an opportunity.

It leads to a renewed focus on the need for constitutional transformation, in order to establish the legitimacy of the New Zealand state.

It would allow us to imagine what we want our country to be, rather than relying on the underpinnings of ancient, racist, religious doctrine. It would give us scope to think about the aspirations of Te Tiriti o Waitangi on our own contemporary, independent terms.

To have the doctrine explicitly rejected by our government would be significant and powerful too. It would help all of us to imagine and to realise our own, more just, foundations for this nation.


Tina Ngata: The Vatican’s repudiation is not enough

Women from the Batchewana First Nation demonstrate outside the mass presided over by Pope Francis in Quebec. (AP Photo/John Locher)

After an embarrassing confrontation with its own legacy in Canada, followed by a bungled interview that demonstrated Pope Francis clearly had no idea about the Doctrine of Discovery, the Vatican evidently went away and did some homework.

It came back with a formal repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. But it falls well short of what the Vatican could, and should, do for several reasons.

Firstly, repudiation is a moral rejection. It doesn’t carry the systemic force of a rescindment.

The set of papal laws — most notably Dum Diversas, Romanus Pontifex, Inter Caetera, Eximiae Devotionis and Dudum siquidem — that have become known as the Doctrine of Discovery have never been conclusively rescinded. The international law and system they shaped continues to bear dark outcomes for non-European, non-Christian folks around the world.

A scholar of the Doctrine of Discovery, Steve Newcombe, says the papal bulls must be ceremonially and formally revoked in order to systemically dismantle the arguments of domination which remain available to be used against Indigenous peoples to this day.

What we have instead is a repudiation. And while repudiating such a repugnant set of laws is certainly something any reasonable person or institution can and should do — that’s not really what the Vatican did either.

Here are the first three paragraphs of the Vatican’s statement:

In fidelity to the mandate received from Christ, the Catholic Church strives to promote universal fraternity and respect for the dignity of every human being.

For this reason, in the course of history the Popes have condemned acts of violence, oppression, social injustice and slavery, including those committed against indigenous peoples. There have also been numerous examples of bishops, priests, women and men religious and lay faithful who gave their lives in defense of the dignity of those peoples.

At the same time, respect for the facts of history demands an acknowledgement 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.

As you can see, there is no clear accountability here for the role the Vatican played in codifying racist harm.

Rather, there’s an assertion of what they strive to do, then an assertion of all the good things the popes and Catholic folks have done for Indigenous peoples, and finally an acknowledgment that “many Christians” have committed evil acts. They have repudiated what humanity does, not what the Vatican and popes did, and in the same breath they’ve positioned themselves as honourable, and distanced, benefactors.

This evasion of accountability isn’t really surprising. After all, they’ve evaded this issue for over 500 years. It’s just slightly more audacious that they’re still evading it even within their own repudiation.

Nobody is arguing that Christians haven’t committed evil acts before — we’re all aware of that. Plus, there’s a vast difference between committing an evil act, and drafting laws which set in train mass human rights abuses around the world over hundreds of years, including genocide.

As you read through the Vatican’s statement, it becomes less and less clear what the Pope wants us to forgive him for. According to the statement, everything is the fault of colonial governments, which is largely the same, anyway, as what many other Christians do.

For the highest Catholic authority, they’re pretty crud at confession.

It doesn’t stop there though. In paragraph 6, they go all in on the “wasn’t me” vibe.

The “doctrine of discovery” is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church. 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 Church is also aware that the contents of these documents were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities.

It is only just to recognise these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon.

Let’s start with the obvious. The papal bulls were delivered by popes.

The “political question” posed by King Afonso V of Portugal, and answered by Pope Nicholas V, was: “Can I go and invade North-West Africa and enslave and kill people, and take their lands and everything they own?” Pope Nicholas V’s answer to that “political question” was: “Yes, you can.”

The expression of the pope is the expression of the Catholic faith. And, in 1452, the expression of Pope Nicholas V in Dum Diversas, as the voice of the Catholic Church, was that it was acceptable to: 

invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ . . . and to lead their persons in perpetual servitude, and to apply and appropriate realms, duchies, royal palaces, principalities and other dominions, possessions and goods of this kind to you and your use and your successors the Kings of Portugal.

He then doubled down on it with Romanus Pontifex, which extended the entitlement out to all monarchs of Europe. Numerous subsequent popes, with numerous subsequent edicts, communiques and laws, supported and upheld that entitlement.

Among them was Alexander VI who, in 1493, the year after Columbus landed in the Americas, issued Inter Caetera, which gave Spain free rein to claim lands in the New World, and linked exploration and colonisation to Christianity and conversion.

Alexander urged nations to ensure “that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself”.

So I’m not clear on what the “manipulation” is that the Pope is claiming here. All of those things are a neat checklist of exactly what was permitted, and exactly what was carried out.

Tina Ngata (Photo supplied)

The statement by the Vatican also tries to separate itself from “colonial powers” as if the Catholic Church was not, itself, a colonial power.

The conversion of Indigenous peoples to Christianity has always been a functional process of colonisation. The domination of Indigenous concepts of sacredness by European concepts of sacredness has been a powerful tool of oppression.

Spiritual domination stripped us of our devout native sacredness, as a precursor to stripping us of our humanity, and human rights. That has always been at the heart of the Doctrine of Discovery — and the clue is in its full name, the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.

If you look to proclamations of discovery that were read out by the invading forces, often accompanied by representatives of the church, these proclamations all refer to the role of the church.

Typical of these is El Requieremiento, which compelled native inhabitants to “submit to the yoke of the Cross and the Crown”.

It’s bemusing to watch the Cross now blame the Crown, while governments also continually frame the Doctrine of Discovery as a “Christian” matter. Yet they’re both culpable in this story.

The church developed the laws which granted entitlement to the various Crown governments to establish themselves on native lands, and to exert dominance over Indigenous peoples.

The papal laws were the foundational blocks on which colonial structures were built. It’s imperative that the Catholic Church formally and ceremonially rescinds those laws.

In 2012, the United Nations issued recommendations for all member states to formally repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery — and 11 years later, not one member state has responded to that recommendation.

Possibly the greatest value I can see in what the Holy See has now done, is that it has started a ball rolling which will hopefully be picked up by other UN member states, who most certainly can and should repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. For colonial member states, that should also include rescinding the laws, legislation and policy that are based on the Doctrine of Discovery.

And it shouldn’t stop there. Five hundred years of genocide and dispossession warrants far more than statements of contrition.

The Vatican didn’t just acquire native converts from the application of its doctrine, it also acquired mass wealth, which it retains today.

The Catholic Church is one of the world’s largest landowners, with over 144 million acres of land in its possession.

According to NASDAQ, it manages $64 billion in assets, owns $764 million in equity, and keeps gold reserves worth more than $20 million with the US Federal Reserve, in addition to the massive amounts of precious metals that can be found in Catholic artefacts and buildings around the world.

Any reckoning that the church purports to be undertaking with its Doctrine of Discovery must come with financial restitution.

Recent investigations in Canada have exposed the Catholic Church’s role in siphoning away some $30 million in trust funds paid to Indigenous families for stolen land — money that the church then used to pay for the brutal assimilative residential schooling of their stolen children.

Here in Aotearoa, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the abuse of children in state and faith-based case is methodically exposing the horrors of generations exposed to the sick practices of church leaders.

In places like Marylands School, in Ōtautahi, a residential school for boys run by the Hospitaller Brothers of St John of God, 21 of the 23 Catholic brothers who worked there faced sexual and physical abuse allegations. These include forcing Māori children to carry out cultural performances before sexually abusing them.

The victims of that abuse have in many cases gone on to live extremely troubled lives, characterised by poverty, crime, suicide, or further institutionalisation. Meanwhile, the New Zealand Catholic church owns $169m in property and $40m in financial assets and claims to be committed to “work towards consistency in redress responses between Catholic Church entities”.

There is also definitely a case to be argued that the Catholic Church should contribute to the loss and damage fund agreed to by COP27. The imperial expansion facilitated by the papal bulls also set the standard for corporate imperial misconduct from the industrial period onwards. The result we see today is rampant climate change.

The pathway to Indigenous justice has always been, and continues to be, confounded by the fact that Indigenous dispossession of land and resources underwrites the global economy.

That does not change the truth, which we must speak clearly and repeatedly, for our future descendants and all to hear. The Vatican must rescind the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.

This is an edited version of a piece first published in Tina’s blog.


Dr Claire Charters (Ngāti Whakaue, Tūwharetoa, Ngā Puhi, Tainui) is Professor of Law at the University of Auckland, specialising in Indigenous Peoples’ rights, and has recently been appointed as Rongomau Takatake at Te Kahui Tika Tangata / NZ Human Rights Commission. 

Tina Ngata (Ngāti Porou) is a researcher and scholar, and the author of Kia Mau: Resisting Colonial Fictions. Her work involves advocacy for environmental, Indigenous and human rights. This includes local, national and international initiatives that highlight the role of settler colonialism in issues such as climate change and waste pollution, and which promote Indigenous conservation as best practice for a globally sustainable future. 

Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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