Vatican repudiates Doctrine of Discovery, as Dene had asked

Last modified: March 30, 2023 at 8:18am

The Vatican has formally repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, granting a key request that the Dene Nation and other Indigenous groups have made for years.

The doctrine has its roots in papal bulls issued more than five hundred years ago, which were used to justify the seizure of Indigenous land by settlers who “discovered” it.

Indigenous groups have long maintained that the doctrine acts as a Christian justification for colonialism.


“We were never considered human beings. Because of that doctrine, we were always considered as animals,” Felix Lockhart, at the time Chief of the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation, said in 2016.

Last year, after Pope Francis apologized to Indigenous peoples for the actions of some Catholics, Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine – who led a First Nations delegation to the Vatican – told Cabin Radio: “When you look at residential schools, if you trace the seed back to where it started from, you will find the Doctrine of Discovery.

“The apology is not good unless the seed is destroyed. So the real need is to have the Doctrine of Discovery revoked completely.”

On Thursday, in a statement on its website, the Vatican said the Catholic Church “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.'”

The Vatican added that the doctrine was “not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church” but acknowledged that the papal bulls on which it was based “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples.”


“The contents of these documents were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against Indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities,” the Vatican admitted.

Michael McLeod, the NWT’s MP, said on Twitter he was “encouraged” by the Vatican’s statement.

Phil Fontaine, a former Assembly of First Nations national chief, told the Associated Press the statement was “wonderful.”

The Pope “did as he said he would do,” Fontaine was quoted as saying.


“Now the ball is in the court of governments in the United States and in Canada, but particularly in the United States, where the doctrine is embedded in the law.”

The Doctrine of Discovery has been a formal legal concept in the US since 1823, meaning land rights passed to Europeans as they “discovered” it.

The doctrine made an appearance in a US Supreme Court decision as recently as 2005.