In March 30, this year, in a historical move that did not draw sufficient media attention, the Vatican abrogated an original sin. No, not Augustine’s doctrine on original sin. But the Doctrine of Discovery which became the foundation of colonialism from the 15th century onwards.

You may recall your high school history class and the Treaty of Tordesillas when in 1494 the known world was divided into two parts, with the east going to Portugal and the west to its rival, Spain. Said Treaty was of course based on Pope Alexander VI’s suggestion to appease these warring empires. But there were earlier papal bulls that guided the so-called Age of Discovery, which features admired personalities like Christopher Columbus who supposedly discovered America, and Ferdinand Magellan, the first man to circumnavigate the world and who allegedly discovered the Philippines. Basically these bulls or decrees from the Pope as early as 1452 propounded that the European Christians could possess lands that were not yet owned by Christians. Such lands, like those owned by indigenous peoples, were called Terra Nullius or land that belongs to no one. The implication of course was that non-Christians were not human beings; they were, as one scholar said, merely part of the flora and fauna of the lands they discovered. Funny as this might sound now, this became the justification for the drive by many European powers to colonize the “new world.” Legal scholars would point out that eventually, the Church’s “doctrine of discovery,” found its way into the law of the land and the legal jurisprudence of US and Canada which persist even today. It is a historical wrong then that must be corrected, one of the Church’s original sins that must be remedied.

And remedy it, Pope Francis did. It started with his visit in Quebec in July last year. He had an audience with indigenous communities and surprised everyone when he publicly made an apology to the “first nations” of Canada for the Church’s many crimes there including the untold abuses committed to children in the Church’s residences or school dormitories. But far from being placated by this, the crowds chanted, “Rescind the Doctrine!” And so, in March of this year, quietly and without fanfare, the Dicastery for Culture and Education and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development released a “Joint Statement on the Doctrine of Discovery.” The important declaration is two-page long but this can be summarized here into three succinct points. First, the Church acknowledges its mistakes throughout history even as it “strives  to promote universal fraternity and respect for the dignity of every human being.” Second, despite these failings, the Church has always upheld the rights of indigenous peoples and as evidence of this, they quote Pope Paul III who in 1537 wrote that “we define and declare… that the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside of the Christian faith; and that they may and should freely and legitimately enjoy their liberty and possession of their property; nor should they be in anyway enslaved.” Presently, the Church throws its lot with the indigenous peoples of the world and in fact wholeheartedly supports the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Finally, it clarifies then that with the foregoing, the so-called “doctrine of discovery” was never part of official Catholic doctrine and may have been used or manipulated for political purposes by the colonialists. But so that there will be no ambiguity, the Church now expunges from its teachings this errant doctrine, saying: “In no uncertain terms, the Church’s magisterium upholds the respect due to every human being. The Catholic Church therefore repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political `doctrine of discovery’.” 

Case closed! 

This historical joint statement was received well by many indigenous peoples around the globe. It would greatly help their cause as they continue to assert their rights—the Native Indians in the Americas, the first nations in Canada, the aboriginals in Australia, the lumads in the Philippines. Absent the doctrine of discovery, they can verily say to their colonialists and conquerors: “you never discovered us; we were here even before you came!” 

The Church has learned its lesson. It is high time secular powers learned theirs as well. In the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, for example, we must acknowledge the historical roots of the tension. Otherwise this will just be repeated, unless of course Netanyahu, as he seems to be doing now, pulverizes all of the Gaza strip and the West bank including the Palestinian population. Specifically, the world must consider that analogous to the doctrine of discovery, when the state of Israel was conceptualized by the British Empire in the early 20th century, Palestinians already lived there from even the time of the Ottoman Empire. They comprised two-thirds or the majority of the residents there, while the Jews formed a minority. When the United Nations in 1948 intervened, the political solution which was the creation of the State gave sixty-percent of the land to the minority Jews and the rest to the majority Palestinians. Worse, in the so-called Arab-Israeli war in the 60s, the winning government, Israel, annexed more land. As Pope Francis has said, we condemn the violence but “war is defeat.” Indeed, violence is never the solution and it obfuscates the real issue, which is that this mess was created by conquering Western or European powers. Africa, the Middle East, Korea, India-Pakistan, and many more were partitioned by these colonial rulers haphazardly and without consulting the nations that already resided there. There will be more conflicts for as long as we are not able to acknowledge these as historical wrongs, or the original sins of the colonial West. Only then can we find real and lasting solutions.