Respect the Doctrine

While the "Doctrine of Discovery" can be rescinded, the call to evangelize and convert all nations cannot be.

Pope Francis’ apology tour for abuses perpetrated in Canada by Catholic religious in residential schools for Indigenous people fell flat in many ways, with leaders saying it “didn’t go far enough.” Though apology without action can be unacceptable, one wonders what action secular society demands. In some respect, the Indigenous people may be less interested in receiving the pope’s apology than they would be in receiving his apostacy. Perhaps that would be going far enough.  

What has been drawing attention is the refrain, “Rescind the Doctrine.” During the Papal Mass last Thursday at the Basilica of Sainte Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, two First Nation Anishinaabe activists made their way to the top of the nave and unfurled a banner bearing this slogan. It refers to the Papal Bull of 1493, Inter Caetera, issued by Pope Alexander VI at the outset of the conquest of the New World. 

Inter Caetera expressed the Church’s support of Spain and Portugal seeking exclusive rights to the land Columbus discovered a year before. Furthermore, it stated that any territory not inhabited by Christians should be discovered and claimed for Christ, so that “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.”

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This became known as the “Doctrine of Discovery” and became a moral basis and justification for European claims and colonization in Africa and the Americas, with the principle of discovery eventually being recognized legally in the 18oos as a right that superseded the Indigenous people’s right of occupancy. Indigenous groups have decried against this historical bias for decades and demanded that the Church revoke the “Doctrine of Discovery” out of respect for non-Christian Indigenous people.

To be clear, the “Doctrine of Discovery” is not a doctrine of the Church. It is a Papal Bull, or public edict. As such, it does not hold any doctrinal value or lay down an official teaching revealed by God and guarded by the Magisterium of the Church. The doctrines of faith and morals that the Church receives and retains are not rescindable any more than truth itself is. Doctrine can and does develop with understanding, but truth cannot change. 

The appellation of the 1493 Bull as a doctrine is inaccurate—and unfortunate—but as a decree, it can be rescinded. But the Church has officially pointed out that the Bull does not require rescinding as it was abrogated long ago and is nothing more than a historical remnant at this point—and is certainly not a matter of doctrine in itself.

That being said, the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery” is informed by doctrinal teaching regarding the command of Christ to go forth and baptize all nations. Christ has laid upon all His children, and especially His priests and bishops, the onus of being His witnesses to the whole world. Those children must look to set the world afire with love for Him Who so loved the world. 

Christ promised and provided the Spirit of strength to bolster the burden of this mission and provide peace to those souls sealed in His service. Such souls have shed their blood for His Truth. Martyrs have borne witness with their very lives, giving what He Himself gave for mankind as a sign and seal of salvation. The Papal Bull of 1493 is a participation in the doctrine that all are called to be saved in Christ.

Of course, abuses crept in, as they do with all human efforts and institutions. Christian explorers often took evil advantage of Indigenous people. Trickery, enslavement, land seizure, and territorial violence reared their ugly heads over time, claiming some sort of justification under the Church’s declaration to evangelize. These attitudes were disseminated over the centuries and, to the shame of the Church and her members, resulted, in this case, in some monstrous men preying upon Indigenous children in Canada.

While it is understandable for people, Catholic and non-Catholic, to demand that the Church renounce and abandon sins and systems that have caused abuse, there is something in the language of these protests that is telling. Do these objectors really want a simple rescinding? Or for the Church to simply take back some offensive language used in old Vatican documents? Do they want the return of sacred artifacts taken centuries ago? Would they be satisfied with the release of more historical data from residential schools? Or would none of these go far enough?

One Indigenous scholar insists on calling the “Doctrine of Discovery” the “Doctrine of Domination.” For many who misunderstand the Church, she is seen as a forceful, infiltrating institution that intends to dominate. Furthermore, the reluctance to rescind the “Doctrine of Discovery” indicates that the true nature of the Church is one that seeks subjugation, discrimination, and exploitation. As such, the Church should change her ways to the modern ways of acceptance, diversity, and inclusivity. In short, the Church should rescind her doctrine of old and accept the doctrine of the day.

That, I suspect, is a large part of the mindset and the messaging in this moment. They may say, “rescind the Doctrine of Discovery,” but they are pressing a wider rescinding of doctrine, as well. They want the Church to admit she is wrong about abortion and homosexual “marriage.” They want to see the doctrine of the male priesthood rescinded together with the doctrinal conditions for receiving the Sacraments. 

Overturning something as bedrock as doctrine is precisely what they want to achieve to promote the woke, relativist, reality-denying agenda that dominates. And they are using the unspeakable tragedy of the sexual abuse of minors to instigate that pressure, as though such outrages were part of Church doctrine or reflective of the “backward dealings” of those who adhere to the Magisterium.

Present, too, in this is the illogical trend of saying, “since some are guilty, all are guilty.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke during the pope’s visit decrying the abuse against Indigenous people in schools across Canada, saying, “that legacy of a lack of respect and removing the dignity of the Indigenous peoples, obviously, that is rooted in our society.” Obviously, that is just not true. Just because the Church has suffered the presence of abusers, or racists, or thieves, or liars doesn’t mean that the Church is abusive, racist, dishonest, and deceiving. Just because some broke with Church doctrine doesn’t mean the doctrine must be discarded.

The work of evangelization has always been fraught with hardship and catastrophe. Cultural clash is not an ideal circumstance for introducing a new religion. The novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, about the sufferings of Jesuit missionaries and Japanese Catholics in seventeenth century Japan, is particularly painful and poignant. 

One of the central arguments that the Japanese officials made to the priests is that the Catholic Faith is not compatible with Japan, that its roots do not take in their soil. And though the missionary priests are valiant and zealous, they begin to fear that their evangelizing is either forced or futile. It is a struggle that can easily arise, and just as easily throw missionary endeavors askew until the work of conversion is completely swallowed in human weakness.

In Silence, some of the tortured missionaries apostatize, personally rescinding their adherence to the doctrine of the Church. It’s possible that such a rescinding, or even such an apostasy, is being sought in these efforts to challenge the Church and her missionary history, using language that involves doctrinal denouncement. If there isn’t some sort of psychological or rhetorical strategy, the emphasis is odd. It is clear that the attitude expressed in the 500-year-old Papal Bull is not a doctrine, let alone a policy, of the Church, making the noise to “rescind the doctrine” unusual, if not uncanny. 

The words and actions of the outraged over crimes committed by those who do not reflect the doctrine of the Catholic Church suggest that only an act that amounted to a renouncement of the Faith could offer reconciliation for the damage caused by her wayward members. As with any apology, acknowledgment of being in the wrong is important; and though the individuals who brought abuse and pain were wrong indeed, the Church was not wrong in her intention to spread the doctrine of Jesus Christ.

Though history abounds with the glories of evangelization, the age of missionaries and martyrs is not a thing of the past by any means. The world changes, but worldliness remains constant. It is against this that the Church must resist unto the last day as she continues to go forth and baptize all nations and reveal the doctrine of salvation. We won’t go far enough until we reach the ends of the earth.

[Photo Credit: AFP via Getty Images]


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