- For 500 years, the Catholic Church justified vicious cruelty with its Doctrine of Discovery
- In British rule of India alone, more than 100 million Hindus were killed under it
- Withdrawn in March 2023, with profuse apologies all around, except in India
- The church must apologize to Hindus and promise to end unethical proselytization
- Christianity can never undo the damages of its sins committed under the Doctrine of Discovery
When Alexander of Macedonia invaded India in 326 BC, the Greeks commented about the Indians whom they faced in numerous battles: “They were blacker than the rest of men, except the Ethiopians; and in war, they were far the bravest of all the races inhabiting Asia at that time. Despite the ferocity of combat they encountered, the Greeks never practiced racism against the dark-skinned Indians. Later, polytheistic Rome incorporated the Gods of defeated countries within the Roman pantheon. The citizens of countries that accepted Rome’s suzerainty automatically became citizens of the Roman Empire.
In contrast, racism and ethnic discrimination have been rampant in the Christian world since early times. The biblical story of the Curse of Ham has been described as the “single greatest justification for Black slavery for more than a thousand years.” In Genesis, the supposedly dark-skinned Ham’s son Canaan is cursed as the quintessential slave in bondage to his fairer brothers Shem and Japheth. This condemned his descendants as slaves to the other two sons’ progeny in perpetuity. Modern notions of scientific racism were read into the story as a de facto justification for the transatlantic slave trade and the institution of slavery in America’s Bible Belt. The curse provided a biblical foil for circumscribing a racial hierarchy where whiteness was positioned as superior in the figure of Japheth.
Fast forwarding to the beginning of the second millennium, discrimination against the Jews, even those who converted to Christianity, was standard practice.
However, in the Middle Ages, biblical racism received renewed backing from the Church, causing an eruption of racism and colonialism and resulting in the genocide of countless millions worldwide. It all started with the Doctrine of Discovery, a haunting testament to the intersection of religious, legal, and imperialistic forces that laid the foundation for centuries of colonization and genocide.
Emerging from the papal bulls of the 15th century, this doctrine provided the ideological underpinning for European powers to expand their dominion over foreign lands, brutally subjugate indigenous populations, and perpetrate heinous acts of violence that resonate throughout history. “These religious ideas became the foundational building blocks of white supremacy and Manifest Destiny that we are dealing with today,” says Syracuse University religion professor Philip Arnold.
The doctrine was disowned by Pope Francis only in March 2023, almost 500 years later. However, this was just one more example of too little, too late – not unusual for the Church’s self-repudiations.
The Doctrine of Discovery has its roots in the early days of the Age of Exploration. Throughout the 15th century, the Roman Catholic Church responded to European Catholic nations’ ambitions to explore and colonize other regions. In a series of edicts known as papal bulls, popes gave those nations the right to take control of other lands, subdue or enslave the people who already lived there, and convert them to Christianity.
In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued his “Dum Diversas,” allowing the kings of Spain and Portugal “full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate” non-Christians into perpetual slavery.
In 1455, the pope issued “Romanus Pontifex,” declaring war against all non-Christian nations and peoples across the globe.
Finally, in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued “Inter Caetera,” the most influential of these papal bulls. A year earlier, explorer Christopher Columbus had arrived in the Americas on an expedition funded by the Spanish monarchy. Though the purpose of the journey was to find a westerly route to India, it also presented an opportunity for Spain to expand both its kingdom and Christianity’s reach.
The pope’s decree didn’t just give a carte blanche to the European nations – in particular Spain and Portugal – to claim lands in the New World. It also linked exploration and colonization to Christianity and conversion. Nations should make it a priority 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,” Alexander instructed.
The pope’s reasoning partly drew on the emerging concept of terra nullius, Latin for “empty land.” Any place not already occupied by Christians was considered free for the taking by Christian Europeans – regardless of how many people already lived there or the advancement of their civilizations.
Colonial Expansion and Indigenous Subjugation
The Doctrine of Discovery provided a veneer of legitimacy to European explorers and colonizers seeking to expand their empires. Even non-Catholic countries like England found inspiration and justification in the doctrine. Armed with the papal sanction, the European powers set sail to distant shores, driven by economic ambitions, the thirst for wealth, and the desire to extend the influence of their respective nations. This expansion came at an immense cost to indigenous societies.
Colonization unleashed a wave of violence, forced displacement, and cultural erasure. Indigenous communities were often subjected to forced labor, displacement from their ancestral lands, and the theft of their resources. The very essence of their identities was attacked as their languages, beliefs, and cultural practices were suppressed and replaced by the values and religions of the colonizers.
US President Andrew Jackson denounced the indigenous tribes. Virtually calling for their genocide, he said: “They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race…they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.”
As explorers pushed into the New World, the papal bull and the idea of terra nullius fused into a legal concept known as the “Doctrine of Discovery,” coined in an 1823 US Supreme Court decision that has come to be understood as meaning that ownership and sovereignty over land passed to Europeans because they “discovered” it. In Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held: “Discovery is the foundation of title in European nations, and this overlooks all proprietary rights in the natives.” In essence, American Indians had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished.
Canada’s Truth & Reconciliation Committee noted in its 2015 report on the murder of thousands of First Nation children by the Church that by combining the idea of Christianity as a “civilizing” force with the concept that indigenous people “simply occupied, rather than owned, the land,” England, France, and Holland joined Spain and Portugal in a seemingly justified Christian takeover of the New World.
In the Americas, the devastating impacts were painfully evident. European diseases, to which indigenous populations had no immunity, decimated communities on an unprecedented scale. Violent clashes and forced relocations further contributed to the loss of life and cultural heritage. From the indigenous populations of the Caribbean to the Native American tribes across North and South America, the atrocities committed under the doctrine’s influence left indelible scars.
Between 1492 and 1610, European settlers killed 56 million (or 90 percent of the) indigenous people in South, Central, and North America. The extermination was so apocalyptic that it caused large swaths of farmland to be abandoned and reforested, making the Earth’s climate cool down.
Devastation in the East
The Church gained little traction in China and Japan, where the local rulers tortured and expelled the Christian missionaries. However, with its fractured society and exhausted by its 500-year war with Islamic invaders, India offered a fertile landscape for Christian dogma. The Portuguese, who unleashed the Inquisition in Goa, killing thousands, were followed by the Dutch, British, French, and Danes. However, the British beat out the others, and eventually colonized the vast country.
India is perhaps the starkest example of colonialism’s penurious effects, where the world’s then-second-largest economy was turned into one of the poorest. There, the British introduced the uncannily similar Doctrine of Lapse, which stipulated that if an Indian ruler died without a male heir, his kingdom would “lapse” and automatically become part of the British East India Company’s territories. The doctrine was also applied in cases where the ruler was judged to be “unfit” to rule.
By the end of their rule in 1947, the British had killed more than 100 million Indians – more lives than all famines in the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and North Korea combined. The figure is for 1880-1920 and does not include several major engineered famines, including the Great Bengal Famine of 1943-44, which resulted in the deaths of at least 3 million – and possibly up to 7 million – Indians.
Like the Spanish Conquistadors who snuffed out entire civilizations in the New World, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill blamed the Indians themselves for the famine, saying they “breed like rabbits.” His attitude toward Indians may be summed up in his words: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
British doublespeak was eerily similar to that of the popes who encouraged the genocide of millions of non-Christians while at the same time calling for saving the souls of those whom they were exterminating. In October 1943, at the peak of the famine, Churchill said at a lavish banquet in London: “This episode in Indian history will surely become the Golden Age as time passes, when the British gave them peace and order, and there was justice for the poor, and all men were shielded from outside dangers.”
Why it is relevant today
In March 2023, after repeated calls from Canadian indigenous communities for the Catholic Church to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, the Vatican disowned that position, claiming it never formed part of the Catholic faith. However, it stopped short of rescinding it, confirming that the Vatican is not truly sorry but only sorry because it has been caught out and cornered.
Much as the Church may want to see the matter swept under the carpet, the doctrine’s ramifications are not confined to the annals of history. Its legacies persist in contemporary socio-political landscapes, where indigenous communities continue to grapple with the enduring effects of colonization and genocide.
Traditional practices and livelihoods were disrupted, contributing to long-lasting economic imbalances that persist to this day. Land dispossession, economic disparities, ethnic and religious conflicts, and cultural erasure are stark reminders of the systemic injustices endured for generations.
The doctrine remains the basis for Canadian and American law and, as such, continues to impact indigenous peoples. Chief Justice Marshall’s 1823 judgment – that Native Americans had no rights on their own lands – was cited as recently as a 2005 Supreme Court decision involving the Oneida Indian Nation written by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who incidentally was the darling of the liberals.
The Doctrine of Discovery is a chilling testament to the power of ideology in justifying unimaginable human suffering. Its role in enabling colonization and genocide is a stark reminder of the lengths to which oppressive systems can go when underpinned by notions of superiority and entitlement. Acknowledging this dark history is a vital step towards dismantling the legacy of injustice and working towards a world that respects the dignity, rights, and sovereignty of all peoples, regardless of their cultural, ethnic, or religious backgrounds.
The Age of Exploration is over. But even if the pope turns his back on the edict that helped foment centuries of colonization, its destructive legacy lives on. The coercive tactics used by missionaries worldwide today are inspired by the tactics of the murderous Christian proselytizers who arrived with the Bible in one hand and the sword in the other.
While the repudiation would have symbolic value, it will not affect how the Doctrine of Discovery has not only become entrenched in American and Canadian law but remains an integral component of the Western concept of war and domination. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine are all results of this land-grabbing mindset. While it would be unrealistic to expect the West to relinquish a policy that has given it much territory, wealth, and power, perhaps the slow – yet steady – erosion of Christianity  will finally bury the many ghosts of the Church in the not-too-distant future.
- Arrian of Nicomedia, The Anabasis of Alexander, Book V, Chapter 4
- Genesis 9:25–27, New Revised Standard Version
- David M. Goldenberg, ‘Black and Slave: The Origins and History of the Curse of Ham’, 2017