Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE), Canada responds to the March 30th, 2023 Joint Statement of the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development on the “Doctrine of Discovery”

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April 3, 2023

The Catholic Network for Women’s Equality, Canada welcomes the repudiation of the “Doctrine of Discovery (#7) in the Vatican Joint Statement. We credit the repeated requests of Indigenous peoples and those in solidarity with them that have led the Vatican to rescind this doctrine. Most recently, this request was made to Pope Francis during his pilgrimage to Canada in July 2022. 

In our assessment, the remainder of the Joint Statement however, lacks sufficient and whole hearted institutional self-scrutiny. Rather than unequivocally acknowledging the systemic nature of centuries of colonialism and racism embedded in the Catholic Church, the statement only says “many Christians have committed evil acts against indigenous peoples”. The same sentence then proceeds to justify the hierarchy by stating that “recent Popes have asked forgiveness on numerous occasions”(#3). In our experience, a public admission of wrongdoing should be a sincere apology and little else. 

It would seem, however, that most of this statement has fallen prey to the temptation of ‘virtue signalling’, a contemporary expression defined as 

“the public expression of opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or social conscience or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue” (Oxford).

It does this by:

      1. Highlighting at the outset the actions of individual Popes, clergy, religious and lay Catholics in defending Indigenous peoples, (#2) 

      2. Pointing to the hierarchy’s renewal of dialogue and greater awareness of the suffering of Indigenous peoples. (#4). The statement points to government-led policies but does not acknowledge the damaging role of the Catholic Church’s policies and practices designed to eliminate indigenous language and culture through ‘assimilation’. 

      3. By claiming that only “certain scholars” (#5) argue that the papal bulls are the foundation of the Doctrine of Discovery, and that the bulls were limited to historical and political circumstances (#6) the statement downplays the scope of the Church’s self-serving cooperation in centuries of colonialism and racism, rather than honestly acknowledging it. 

      4. Citing one papal bull from 1537 as evidence of the Church hierarchy upholding Indigenous rights (#8), neglects to mention that the bull was functionally rescinded a year later. 

While we agree with Pope Francis that learning of the suffering of Indigenous peoples should constitute “a powerful summons to abandon the colonizing mentality”, (#4) the full commitment of the Catholic Church to the work of reconciliation remains to be seen.  In the words of former chief of Long Plain First Nation in Manitoba Ernie Daniels,

‘There must be a fundamental change in attitudes, behaviour, laws and policies from that statement.’ 

We hope that the one penitential comment in the statement, (“It is only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon.” #6) will spur the ‘Catholic entities’ in Canada to fulfill their financial commitment to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. 

Tangentially, we hope that all future Vatican documents will refrain from the use of the word ‘fraternity’ (#1) (from the Latin for ‘brother’ ) and use instead the more inclusive term, “kinship”. 

Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world are reclaiming their culture and language, and demanding the right to clean water, livable housing, food security, health care, environmentally sustainable communities, and an end to violence particularly against indigenous girls and women. With humility, may Catholic Church leaders and all the faithful live into truth-telling and the work of reconciliation in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

For ease of reference, the link to the Joint Statement is: