SANTA CRUZ, CALIFORNIA — The Romero Institute, a Santa Cruz non-profit and heir to the famed Christic Institute, celebrates the release of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ much-anticipated encyclical on the environment, but insists the Catholic Church must do more to reverse the entrenched and systemic injustices that persist as a result of its policies.
Specifically, the Romero Institute is advocating that Pope Francis revoke the Doctrine of Discovery.
“The Doctrine of Discovery is the moral rationale for the genocide that European powers inflict on Native populations in the United States and throughout the world,” said Chase Iron Eyes, a Romero Institute board member. “This deplorable doctrine must be revoked if the crimes against our Native people — and our planet — are to be effectively addressed.”
The Doctrine of Discovery was announced by Pope Alexander IV in 1493 as part of the Papal Bull. It characterized indigenous people as subhuman savages and set forth the policy that Christian nations in Europe had a divine right to possess the land and natural resources of the “savages.”
Daniel Sheehan, Chief Counsel for the Romero Institute and former General Counsel to the United States Jesuit Headquarters’ Office of Social Ministry, said that after the colonial powers took possession of that land, they began to plunder it for its natural resources in the interest of creating large personal wealth concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy Caucasian families.
“We respectfully request Pope Francis recognize in the wake of the encyclical’s release that the Papal Bull provided the legal and moral footing for colonial capitalism, which has brought the human family to the precipice of comprehensive environmental destruction,” Sheehan said.
A revocation of the Doctrine of Discovery would not only signify to the indigenous people of the world, who are currently on the front lines of the environmental movement, that the Catholic Church is on the side of the poor and oppressed. It will further demonstrate that Francis recognizes the Papacy provided moral justification for the theft of indigenous land and the slaughter of millions of indigenous people.
The Doctrine of Discovery was inserted into United States property law by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Johnson v McIntosh. Chief Justice John Marshall, who wrote the unanimous opinion for the court, asserted that American Indians had forfeited “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations” and only retained rights to occupy a small portion of their lands.
“The Doctrine of Discovery is not merely a sad chapter in the tragic history of the colonial conquest of our lands, our language, our culture and our people,” said Pearl Means, Romero Institute board member. “It continues to factor into the 21st century problems of Indian people as we are confined to reservations where there is little prospect for economic prosperity, where our culture is marginalized and suppressed, where our lands are plundered by government agencies and rapacious fossil fuel and nuclear industries, where our traditions are mocked in popular media, and where our children are kidnapped by state child welfare agencies in violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act.”
“Pope Francis is on the verge of becoming the most widely-respected critic of transnational corporate capitalism in our world today,” said Romero Institute Executive Director Sara Nelson.
“Economies must serve people,” the Pope said. “People are not here to serve the economy.”
“As Pope Francis asserts the moral imperative for all of us to become stewards of our planet and its natural processes and resources,” said Sara Nelson, “humanity will recognize that the indigenous people have always lived in balance with nature. They are not the people driving living systems to the brink. They are the people leading the fight to stop and reverse global climate change. In contrast, the Caucasian civilization has grown more and more out of balance with nature, extracting natural resources at an ever more-feverish pace.
“We are heartened and encouraged by the current course of the Catholic Church under the guidance of Pope Francis,” Nelson continued. “And, we respectfully call on the Pope to reach down and pull out the root of our growing crisis—nullify the Doctrine of Discovery.”
The Romero Institute, successor of the Christic Institute, is a nonprofit law and public policy center that combines investigation with high-impact litigation, public education and grassroots organizing. Based in Santa Cruz, Calif., the Institute engages in nationwide legal consulting, litigation and public education. The Institute is led by Daniel Sheehan and Sara Nelson.
Since 2005, the Institute’s main focus has been the Lakota People’s Law Project, which seeks to prevent the illegal seizure of Native American Lakota children from their families and tribes in violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act.