ST-ANNE-DE-BEAUPRÉ, Quebec (AP) – Pope Francis celebrated mass Thursday at the National Shrine of Canada and came face to face with a long-standing demand from indigenous peoples: to formally repeal papal decrees that uphold the following – dubbed the “Principle of Discovery” which legitimized the colonial era appropriation of indigenous lands and resources.
Just before mass began, two Aboriginal women raised a banner at the altar of the National Shrine of Saint Anne de Beauper that read: “Abolish the Creed” in bright red and black letters. The protesters were escorted away and mass continued without incident, although the women later walked the banner outside the church and wrapped it on the balustrade.
The brief protest highlighted one of the outstanding issues facing the Holy See after Francis’ historic apology For the Catholic Church’s involvement in the notorious Canadian boarding schools, where generations of Aboriginal peoples were forcibly removed from their families and cultures for assimilation into the Christian Canadian community. Francis spent the week in Canada seeking to atone for the trauma and suffering that befell the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples.
In addition to an apology, the natives called on Francis to formally rescind the 15th-century papal edicts, or bulls, which provided European kingdoms with religious support to expand their territories in order to spread Christianity. These decrees were seen as the basis of the Doctrine of Discovery, a legal concept formulated in an 1823 US Supreme Court decision that became understood to mean that ownership and sovereignty over the land passed to Europeans because they “discovered” it.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted the need for the Holy See to “address the principle of discovery”, as well as other issues including the return of original artifacts in the Vatican Museums.In his private conversations with Francis on Wednesday, Trudeau’s office said.
Many Christian denominations in recent years have officially repudiated the doctrine of discovery. The umbrella organization of Catholic congregations in the United States, the Leadership Conference of Religious Women, formally asked Francis to do so in 2014, saying he should repudiate a “period of Christian history that used religion to justify political and personal violence against indigenous peoples and their cultural, religious, and regional identities” .
Murray Sinclair, First Nations chair of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, cited the doctrine in a statement this week in which he welcomed Francis’ apology but called on him to take responsibility for the church’s full role in Canada’s residential school system.
“Driven by the Doctrine of Discovery and other beliefs and dogmas of the Church, Catholic leaders have not only empowered the Canadian government, but pushed it even further in its work to perpetrate the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples,” Sinclair said.
Church officials have denied that these papal edicts have long been rescinded or rescinded by others fully recognizing the rights of indigenous people to live on their lands, and say that indigenous bulls have no legal or moral effect today. During the trip, Francis repeatedly reiterated those rights and rejected the assimilation policies that drove the boarding school system.
But the trip organizers from the Vatican and Canada confirmed that a new statement is being prepared to meet the demands of the current official disavowal, although it is not expected to be issued during Francis’ visit.
“The Vatican made it clear that papal bulls associated with the Doctrine of Discovery have no legal or moral authority in the Church,” Neil McCarthy, who is responsible for communications for the papal visit, told The Associated Press in an email. “However, we understand the desire to name these texts, to acknowledge their influence and to discard the concepts associated with them.”
Asked about Thursday’s protest, McCarthy said: “We recognize that there are very emotional feelings about a number of issues including the Discovery Doctrine. The brief peaceful protest did not disrupt the service and the group had an opportunity to voice their concerns.”
The service itself featured many indigenous elements and folks, including an emotional moment when a woman in indigenous costume cries in front of Francis as she presents him with devotees’ gifts. Francis did not mention the issue of orthodoxy in his sermon which spoke generally of reconciliation and the need for hope.
The Vatican clearly expected this issue to be raised during the trip. In an article in the current issue of the audited Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica, the Rev. Federico Lombardi acknowledged that the issue was still important to the indigenous peoples, but stressed that the position of the Holy See in rejecting the doctrine of discovery was clear.
Lombardi, a retired Vatican spokesman, cited the post-revolution of 1538 “Sublimis Deus” which asserted that indigenous people “are in no way deprived of their liberty or possession of their property, though outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they can and should enjoy freedom and legality freely and to possess their property; they should not be enslaved in any way.”
Any renunciation of bulls or papal doctrines would have no legal effect on today’s land claims, but would have symbolic value, said Felix Hoen, professor of property and administrative law at the University of Saskatchewan.
“The Vatican does not make Canadian law. The courts are not bound by papal bulls or anything of that concept, but it would be symbolic,” Hoyen said.
The issue of faith is neither new nor “less aggressive today,” said Philip Arnold, chair of the religion department at Syracuse University in New York, which is located in Onondaga National Territory.
“The Vatican’s role in justifying the Christian Principle of Discovery in the 15th century is the story of the origins of the transatlantic slave trade, land robbery, and extractive colonial settlement economies across Africa and the Americas,” he said in an email.
For its part, the Canadian Bishops’ Conference in 2016 published a statement vehemently denying the doctrine as well as the concept of a “common ground.” This 19th-century term is also understood as the legitimization of indigenous land grabs, as European settlers considered land “unused” if it did not show signs of European agricultural practices.
Winfield reported from Quebec City.
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