Refute the Doctrine of Christian Discovery: an Open Letter to Pope Francis

Pope Francis,

There are many who are anxiously awaiting your visit to the U.S. and your words. You have built up the hopes of many with your bold statements on many of the pressing issues of today. But as Native people who have born and still do bear the effects papal edicts, specifically colonialism and the racism tied to the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, we hang not on your words but on your actions. Saying you are sorry for the sins of the Church rings hollow without true contrition for those sins.

Our voices have been clear on the sainthood of Junipero Serra since his beatification under Pope John Paul II 27 years ago. Your support of a saintly crown for a man responsible for so much abuse against Native people and children in particular flies in the face of remorse for the sins of the church.

Our equally long campaign for a contemporary address to the 15th century papal bulls that supported slavery, death, torture and genocide is of even more concern. While the canonization of Padre Serra is an affront to Native people, it is more of a reflexion on the Church than us and will likely have no impact on our future. But the Doctrine of Christian Discovery that owes itself to those early papal edicts still lies at the foundation of laws and policies still affecting Native peoples around the world.

The UN has addressed this issue several times over the years. The third affirmation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples reads:

 “Affirming further that all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust”

The Doctrine of Christian Discovery is exactly one that advocates “superiority of peoples on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences.” And it is “racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust” and I might add; sinful.

Our call has been simple; a repudiation of those papal bulls. The effects and intent of this church doctrine remain codified in U.S. law and sit along side poetic legal prose comparing Native autonomy and distinction to “embers long grown cold.”

Our fires are not mere embers and nor have they been extinguished. But we contend it is on you to declare that the embers of those sinful words of your predecessors cold and extinguished. Bury those ashes and see to it that no nation, court or false power is ever allowed to rekindle those “racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust” views.

Repudiate, abolish and rescind those papal bulls. Your failure to do so forces us to deny the granting of your request for forgiveness.

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John Kane is host of “Let’s Talk Native” radio talkshow.

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