Nearly one year after Pope Francis offered an apology to Indigenous people for its role in the establishment and operation of the harrowing residential school system, the Vatican has rejected the Doctrine of Discovery. 

The Doctrine of Discovery is a legal and religious framework that is comprised of a series of declarations made by popes in the 15th century, which gave early Christian explorers permission to conquer, enslave, and displace Indigenous people. This religious authority forms the basis of some property laws today, and has been used by governments to lay claim over Indigenous land.

“The Doctrine of Discovery is understood to be a crucial part of how the English Crown justified the theft of Indigenous Peoples’ lands and the assertion of its control over their lives,” said a statement by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. 

“The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is encouraged by the Vatican’s formal repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery and its support for the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

The formal repudiation of the Doctrine came almost one year to the day after a delegation of Indigenous people visited Rome and called for the repudiation by Pope Francis.The Vatican also expressed support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as it rejected the Doctrine, calling it an act that “would improve the living conditions and help protect the rights of indigenous peoples as well as facilitate their development in a way that respects their identity, language, and culture.”

While the NCTR recognized the repudiation of the Doctrine as an important first step, it called for more action to address ongoing harm. 

“The repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery is one step among many that should be taken by the Catholic Church towards taking responsibility for its actions,” continued the statement.

“Residential school survivors and their families continue to expect sincere, significant, and immediate action that addresses the ongoing harm caused by the Church.” 

The NCTR added that moving forward, it is up to civil authorities and local governments to work with Indigenous people to reform all laws, policies, and legal structures based on racist ideologies such as the Doctrine. Indigenous communities and leaders continue to call on the Catholic Church to take further responsibility for their role in the residential school system. 

As a part of its repudiation of the Doctrine, the Church cited a “renewed dialogue” with Indigenous peoples, and said it was aware that the Doctrine was used by colonial powers to justify immoral acts committed against Indigenous people. 

“Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others,” said Pope Francis as a part of the Vatican’s statement on the Doctrine. 

Despite having formally repudiated the Doctrine, the Vatican offered no confirmation that the three papal declarations (often called bulls) most associated with the Doctrine had been repudiated or rejected. The Vatican did cite a later bull which declared Indigenous people should not be deprived of their property or liberty, and were not to be enslaved.