Until I read Vinnie Rotondaro's special report, "Lives carved by the trail of history," in the current issue of The National Catholic Reporter, I was only vaguely aware of something called the "Doctrine of Discovery" and its religious roots.
(I wish I could give you a link to Vinnie's piece -- and especially to his sidebar, "Disastrous doctrine had papal roots" -- but it hasn't yet been posted at the NCR site. It is, however, available in the print version of NCR.)
It turns out that the Doctrine of Discovery has a lot to do not only with the global history of imperialism, including our own, but also the disastrous history of how Native Americans were (and are) treated by the Europeans who landed in the New World.
As the site to which I've linked you in the first paragraph above explains, "Papal Bulls of the 15th century gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they 'discovered' and lay claim to those lands for their Christian Monarchs. Any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be 'discovered', claimed, and exploited. If the 'pagan' inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed."
There was plenty of religious hubris involved in all of this, of course. Pious Christians (think of Christopher Columbus) were heading into non-Christian lands to enlighten the savages. At least that's how many of those Christians thought of their jobs.
As Rotondaro reports, "Scholars say the Doctrine of Discovery holds immense importance in world history. They say it resulted in disasters and genocide for native peoples, but that its legacy remains largely overlooked."
Papal bulls dating back to 1436 established the pattern for the subjugation of native peoples. For instance, a 1452 papal bull called Dum Diversas, Rotondaro notes, "instructed the Portuguese crown 'to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ, to put them into perpetual slavery, and to take away all their possessions and property."
(Who were the Saracens? The same people called Muslims today.)
Over the years there have been many efforts to get the Vatican and secular governments to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. Quakers are behind one current such effort.
Rotondaro reports that Vatican officials say that "subsequent papal bulls had 'abrogated'" the offending previous bulls "and that there was no need to take further action."
And yet we still see vestiges of this doctrine at play in the lives of Native Americans today and we see its thinking reflected in some aspects of American and European foreign policy, though today the goal of control of native peoples often is much less religious than it is economic.
The reason I raise the issue at all is that history -- even history 500 or more years old -- can shape our thinking and actions today, even if we don't know or have forgotten that history. Better to understand the ways in which today's reality is shaped by history so we can decide more clearly and more intentionally whether we like and want to keep that shape.
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AN ISLAMIST'S INFLUENCE GROWS AFTER HIS DEATH
Sometimes people have more influence after their death than during their life. The obvious example is Jesus. But sometimes you get examples you'd rather not have. One is the late Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American Islamist who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. As this New York Times Magazine story suggests, his influence continues -- to the point that it's got people wondering if there might have been a better way to deal with him than have him killed. Violence often simply begets more violence. It's been a hard lesson to learn.