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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

Finding A New Way

A couple of weeks ago, the Vatican issued a statement formally repudiating the so-called Doctrine of Discovery, which, through a series of church documents issued in the fifteenth century, gave Church approval to the conquest of non-Christian lands by Christian nations: “Historical research clearly demonstrates that the papal documents in question, written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions, have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith . . . . 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.” Actually, when one reads what was authorized by these documents, there would have been very few grounds under which local church authorities could have objected.

In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued a document authorizing King Afonso of Portugal to “subjugate the pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ and reduce their persons to perpetual servitude,” to take their belongings, including land, and “to convert them to you and your use, and your successors, the Kings of Portugal.” In 1493, following a dispute between Portugal and Spain over the discovery of non-Christian lands in the Americas, Pope Alexander VI drew the famous “line of demarcation” through the Americas dividing Spanish from Portuguese territories for the purposes of bringing the inhabitants to the Catholic faith.

Although the Catholic Church would condemn slavery in 1537, the earlier papal documents passed informally into international law, and were later used by France and England to justify colonization of other non-Christian territories. By this time the Church of England had separated from the Church of Rome, but the English government still accepted the Pope’s authority in this one area! The Doctrine of Discovery entered U.S. law in 1823, when Chief Justice Marshall incorporated the Doctrine in a Supreme Court decision.

This would then enable the United States to take advantage of its provisions. In more recent history, these Papal documents provided a justification for harsh methods employed at Christian boarding schools for Indians in the United States and Canada. Needless to say, repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery has been seen as an important first step by advocates for Indigenous rights. The Vatican statement follows other Christian denominations, who have likewise repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery.

Of course, what is really at stake is the underlying attitude that has allowed Christians to think of non-Christians as lesser human beings and those of European heritage to think of non-Europeans as lesser human beings. That requires a change of heart and mind, and it is an area with which we are still struggling. But what better time to change our way of thinking than the Easter season. Over and over again in the Easter Gospels, we see how the Risen Lord had to lead his followers into a new way of thinking and a new way for them to relate to him. When Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in the Garden, she did what we would probably do if someone whom we loved suddenly appeared before us. We would grab them and not want to let go. Jesus tells Mary not to cling to him. She has to let go of Jesus as she had known him in the past, in order to relate to him as he would now be. Later, Jesus starts walking along with a few downhearted disciples who were walking away from Jerusalem. He helped them see that they could always meet him in the Scriptures, in the Eucharist, and in the face of a stranger.

Another group of apostles had tried to go back to their former occupation of catching fish. Jesus had to let them experience the futility of trying to go back to the way things were. Now, he would be working through them to spread the Reign of God.

As we make our way through the Easter Season, we ought to give some thought to what we need to let go of in order to experience the new life of the Risen Lord. Maybe we do not need to repudiate a doctrine, but maybe we do need to repudiate our attitude toward someone or some group of people. This is a good time to take another look at what we decided to “give up” or “do extra” for Lent. Was that a good change in our life?

Do we really want to just snap back to the way things were? Might part of that self-discipline become a permanent part of our daily life? Maybe what needs to change the most is the way we carefully compartmentalize our obligations to Christ. If he is alive, then he wants to be part of everything. He does not want to be carefully put away in a closet, only to be brought out on special occasions. Change rarely happens instantaneously. That is why the Easter season lasts as long as Lent. We need as much time to embrace the new as we do to let go of the old.


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