A Letter to Pope Francis
~ Sue Staropoli, December 2020
In recent years, I have become aware of the role of the Roman Catholic Church, the church of my heritage, in the great harms done to the indigenous people in the United States. The Church promoted colonization throughout the world with the mission of spreading Christianity. Official statements issued by popes in the 1400s framed and encouraged an idea that has come to be known as the “doctrine of discovery,” establishing a spiritual, moral, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land that was not already inhabited by Christians. Far from being an aberration of the past, the doctrine of discovery has lived on in legal decisions in the United States affecting native peoples to the present day.
As I learned more about the long-lasting impact of this idea, I felt compelled to call on Pope Francis to take action to renounce and rescind the discovery doctrine. His words, I felt, might begin a process of healing the extensive traumas suffered by native peoples at the hands of colonizers.
This post is the letter I sent. I hope it will raise awareness of the doctrine of discovery and its continuing influence in furthering legal decisions and policies that oppress native peoples.
Dear Pope Francis,
Your leadership as Pope has been a bright light to me in recent months. You bring vision and compassion to a world desperately in need of your message of unity and the interconnection of all peoples and all life.
I ask you to consider righting a long-time injustice, in which the Church has not only participated but is the primary author.
I have been learning about the history of the native people on the land that is now called the United States of America. I have been learning how the Church was directly involved in the destruction of these people and of native peoples all over the world. With the goal of Christianizing the world, through the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the Church authorized Christians to colonize and conquer lands occupied by non-Christian peoples, and provided spiritual, political, and legal cover for centuries of exploitation, theft, genocide, and coercive conversion to Christianity.
It is painful to learn how the Doctrine of Discovery, together with papal edicts beginning in the late 1400s, continues to carry legal weight in the United States and international courts – and, equally important, in the minds and hearts of many in this country. The Doctrine of Discovery is a cornerstone of the attitude of white (and Christian) supremacy and entitlement, the assumption that some people have the right to own others, to oppress others, and to disregard others they see as less valuable than themselves. This mindset must be challenged at its root.
This myth of entitlement is the core of many problems in the world today, and it is the source of the deep wounds that many peoples have suffered because of colonization motivated and justified by the Doctrine of Discovery.
Now, learning the history of my own country, and connecting with my own Catholic heritage, I am pained when I see that a lethal arrogance and a tragic destructive ignorance led the leaders of European countries, supported by the papacy, to claim that they had “discovered” the land. Making decisions and creating treaties about who “owns” the land only codified and justified policies of broad scale annihilation.
People, whom we now speak of as Native Americans, had lived on these lands for centuries, with well-established cultures. Their ways of life were destroyed and their very lives taken away, as missionaries were sent to ”convert” the Indigenous people, and colonizers took over their lands. Religious pressure, backed by military power, ignored native peoples’ resistance to the occupation and exploitation of their homelands. They were conquered by guns and disease.
All European nations came to rely on the Doctrine of Discovery, which in their minds bestowed on them a God-given right to conquer and colonize the homelands of other peoples. They saw native peoples as less than human, and therefore expendable – worthy of extinction.
Our US Constitution, in which the Doctrine of Discovery is subtly embedded, presumes ownership of the land by the colonists, rather than by the native people who had stewarded the land for centuries. While the myth of the Thanksgiving holiday portrays pilgrims and native people happily sharing a meal, for many native people it is considered a Day of Mourning.
Of course, most U.S. laws do not mention the Doctrine of Discovery explicitly. Many people do not realize that it is shaping their attitudes and actions. Like racism, the Doctrine of Discovery is often not seen by members of the dominant culture; rather it acts as a subconscious filter that distorts our way of seeing as colonizing “entitled” white people.
Even in the present, corporations and government agencies believe they are justified doing whatever they want with Indigenous lands and resources. The Doctrine has continued to be used to support legal decisions invalidating or ignoring Indigenous peoples’ original possession of land in favor of modern colonial/imperial governments (for example, in the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case of Sherrill v. Oneida Nation).
It is time to remove these vestiges of Church authority that perpetuate the Doctrine. In 2017 at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, oil companies started construction of the Dakota pipeline through Indigenous sacred lands, destroying ancestral burial grounds and poisoning the water supply of a sovereign indigenous nation. As people from all over the globe joined the Native-led protest, a group of non-Native clergy denounced the Doctrine of Discovery and took the provocative step of burning copies of it to demonstrate their understanding of its harm.
Pope Francis, I beg of you to take action. There are generations of trauma in need of healing, in individual hearts, in oppressed groups, in oppressors, in nations, in the broader society.
It is essential, urgent, and long overdue that a process of reflection, healing and reconciliation begins as part of your renouncing and rescinding the Doctrine of Discovery.
This action would be a powerful statement to the world at this time. In your recent Nov 26 New York Times Opinion piece, you write “ there are moments in life that can be ripe for change and conversion”. I believe that the world is at such a moment. The scale of the crises that face us (spiritual, climate, poverty, nationalism, racism) open a moment in the life of our species that is ripe for change and conversion.
One of the reasons your powerful encyclical Laudato Si is so inspirational is because it is about the work of healing and restoring our relationship with the Earth. Is it not the same for all our relations? Is this not a time for the healing of our shadow in all relationships - as individuals, as communities, as nations and as institutions? For example, on the institutional level, this kind of process has already been modeled by the inspirational action of Georgetown University in facing and taking responsibility for slave ownership in the 19th century.
Because your moral authority is so widely and universally respected, a statement of acknowledgement and apology that rescinds and renounces the Doctrine of Discovery would enhance hope in the human spirit and its capacity to learn and evolve morally and spiritually. Your prophetic and profoundly healing promulgation (perhaps through an Encyclical?) can be an opportunity for the Church to begin its own healing, to face its complicity in the oppression so prevalent in the world and to invite other countries and groups to do the same.
I believe the United States will never heal as a country until we face the wounds and sins of our past, including the genocide of native peoples and the enslavement and persecution of African Americans. All carry wounds that need healing, those who are oppressed and we who are the oppressors.
The Church could lead the way by bringing to light the wrongs rooted in the Doctrine of Discovery, rescinding the Doctrine publicly, and taking responsibility for the harm it has caused.
I believe you have the vision, compassion, integrity, and courage to take such a step. I implore you to do so. Know that many others share my pain, my hope, and my faith in the power of your words and actions. I ask, for the future of my six children and eleven grandchildren.
I send this with much love and gratitude for your presence in our world, and with appreciation of the influence and opportunity you have to be an instrument of healing in our beautiful but broken world.