The Catholic Doctrine of Discovery | A Long Repentance Post #3 | New Humanity Institute: Sangwon Yang & Mako Nagasawa


Pictured:  Book cover of Joseph T. Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin’s Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution, about the only Iroquois tribe to side with the American Revolution: the Oneida.  Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court invoked the Doctrine of Discovery against them. See below. Photo credit: Oneida Indian Nation.

The Purpose of A Long Repentance Blog Series

People talk about issues of race and justice in the United States as issues of ‘justice and injustice.’  Sometimes we launch into debates about ‘the proper role of government.’  But is that the original framework from which these issues were asked and debated?

The purpose of the blog post series called A Long Repentance: Exploring Christian Mistakes About Race, Politics, and Justice in the United States is to remind our readers that these issues began as Christian heresies.  They were at variance from Christian beliefs prior to colonialism.  Since Christians enacted and institutionalized what we believe to be heretical ideas, they were very destructive and harmful, then as now.  And we bear a unique responsibility for them.  As a result, we believe we must engage in a long repentance.  We must continue to resist the very heresies that we put into motion.  Thus the title of this blog series, A Long Repentance.  The journey is long and challenging.  It may be impossible to see the end.  But along the way, it is also inspiring and sometimes breathtaking.

We also encourage you to explore this booklet, A Long Repentance: A Study Guide, for further reflections and discussion questions.

Read Post #1.  Read Post #2.

In our previous posts, we introduced John Winthrop and Roger Williams as representatives of a disagreement between European American evangelicals.  Winthrop and Williams represent two basic paradigms that are still very relevant for understanding Christian responsibility in colonialism in days past and racial injustice today.  We used a dialogue format to explore how their disagreement is still relevant.

In the next few posts, we will look at particular moments in history that also continue to shape us.  We will take a more journalistic approach.


Introduction: City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York

In 2005, the Oneida Indians lost sovereignty over their ancestral home based on a Christian declaration made by a Pope over 500 years ago, before the US was even founded. How did this happen?

In 1997, the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, through the open market, purchased back land that had once been part of their historic land. The city of Sherrill, however, demanded that the Oneida owners pay property tax, since the land fell on the city’s lines. In response, the Oneida Indian Nation argued that since the land had originally been tribal land in the first place, the land now fell under tribal sovereignty, exempt from property tax. This case was taken all the way up to the U.S Supreme Court in 2005 where the court ruled ruled 8 – 1 against the Oneida Indian Nation’s attempt to assert immunity from local property taxes on repurchased parcels within the Nation’s historical reservation boundaries.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, usually a strong liberal advocate of feminism and progressive agendas, cited the “doctrine of discovery” against the Oneida claim. Although the land qualified as Native Indian territory, she said, the Oneida tribe could not reassert sovereignty over the land since they had not owned nor sought judicial relief of the land for over 200 years.

“Under the ‘doctrine of discovery,’ … title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States …”[1]

The European nations had virtually called “finders keepers” upon the world but only Europeans qualified as “finders.”  According to the “doctrine of discovery,”[2] Native American tribes were no longer sovereign over tribal lands.  They were not entitled to property rights because their land had been “discovered” by European colonizers. The discovering European nation gained the rights to seize the land through conquest or (less frequently) purchase, and owned it henceforth. The original Native Americans retained only the right of “occupancy”. This “doctrine” was the same logic that was used by European colonialist to displace the indigenous population and forcibly seize the land that they occupied.  Where did it come from?  Not from a formal legal system operating in Europe, but by a distorted Christian theology.


The Christian Doctrine of Discovery: Colonization through Theology

Starting from the mid-15th century, European colonizers often relied on the support of the Catholic Church to provide “theological” justifications for the colonization of “new” land and the removal or subjection of indigenous peoples into slavery.  The collection of church documents that make up the “Christian doctrine of discovery” gave church-sanctioned  permission for European Christian colonialists to “discover” and claim any land that was not inhabited by Christians.  The Papal Bulls, or decrees of the Pope, also justified the enslavement and genocide of pagans who could not be “converted” to the Christian faith.  For example Pope Nicholas V explicitly gave King Alfonso of Portugal the “right” to seize land and persons in West Africa.  The Papal Bull Dum Diversas of 1452 states:

“We…granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso — to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit”.[3]

The Papal Bull focused on the religious identity of both the colonizers and the indigenous population.  The colonialists’ identity as “Christians” granted them the right to seize “new” land and enslave the indigenous population.  The indigenous people, being “non-Christian” made them susceptible to displacement, enslavement, or worse, genocide.[4]

This Catholic “doctrine” became a staple of American law.  It was even ratified by the Supreme Court.  It is one of many examples of how, throughout the era of colonization, Christian theology and the church’s mission became sadly entangled with colonial agendas of racialization and colonization.  Therefore, colonialism is not just about social injustice, but about heresy, or “false teachings.”  It is not just about history, but church history.  And we need to engage in a long repentance for it.  We read it as our “family history,” or denomination’s history.

In our next post, we will dive deeper into how the Western church could claim that the persecution of  non-Christians was a legitimate way of interacting with them.  We will explore how human identity was reshaped, and how it led theologians to create the concept of race.



[1] Footnote #1

[2] The “doctrine of discovery” became formalized into American law in the early 19th century by Chief Justice John Marshall in Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823). Johnson had inherited land purchased from the Piankeshaw tribes, but McIntosh claimed the same land, having purchased it under a grant from the United States. It is important to note that Justice Marshall had financial stakes in the case, and refused to recuse himself. The case was raised on who had the official title to the land and the right to sell the land. The Doctrine of Discovery was used to say that the United States was the lawful owners of the land, having inherited it from the British Empire. Chief Justice Marshall noted, “On the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe … as they were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession. … The history of America, from its discovery to the present day, proves, we think, the universal recognition of these principles.” (John Marshall, “Johnson v. M’Intosh”, 21 U.S. 543, 5 L.Ed. 681, 8 Wheat. 543 (1823))

[3] Pope Nicholas V, “Papal Bull Dum Diversas of June 18, 1452”. Translation sourced via (Emphasis added)

[4] However, West Africans who converted to Christianity were still vulnerable to being enslaved by the Europeans.  John K. Thornton and Linda M. Heywood, “A Forgotten African Catholic Kingdom,” The Root, August 12, 2011; say, “About 1 in 5 Americans of African descent come from Kongolese stock, with the greatest percentages being concentrated in South Carolina and Louisiana. They carried their [Catholic] religion with them, as well; the Stono Rebellion in 1739, the largest slave uprising in the U.S. before independence, was led by Kongolese Catholics anxious to escape slavery in Protestant South Carolina to freedom in Catholic Florida.”  See also Linda M. Heywood and John K. Thornton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585 – 1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); see also Linda M. Heywood, “Slavery and Its Transformation in the Kingdom of Kongo: 1491 – 1800,” The Journal of African History, March 2009, pp. 1 – 22;


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Dustin Gardner says:

    Wow, this is brutal. A long, deep repentance indeed. I like the phrasing “family history” as hard as it is to stomach

    Sent from my iPhone



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