Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Doctrine of Discovery (DoD)?

The DoD is a series of papal bulls or declarations from the pope from the 15th Century. These papal statements gave European rulers official church sanction to claim a right of discovery over lands not held by Europeans and Christians.

The task force has learned in their study thus far that the papal bulls of the DoD represent a common assumption of that time: that Europeans were superior to other peoples and charged to bring the light of the Church and civilization to backward and pagan peoples. So, the DoD is behind the claim that Columbus “discovered” the Americas, even though there were people already present on this land. The euro-superiority motif of the DoD surfaces in assimilation policy such as boarding schools (“kill the Indian in the child” was a phrase actually used) and Canada's Indian Act. The DoD is directly cited in modern court decisions on land use and property rights. The DoD is a deep foundation of the last 500 years of history in North America.

Why are we studying it?

The formal Synodical decision to explore the Doctrine of Discovery came in the process of deliberations on the Creation Stewardship task Force (2012). That task force noted a link between land use practices (and related stewardship perspectives) and the Doctrine of Discovery and recommended further study.

American Progress
"American Progress"
Image by by John Gast (public domain)
Around the same time Canadian members of the CRCNA were regularly encountering the powerful stories of residential school survivors at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). These stories demonstrated a link that our Indigenous partners regularly talk about: the DoD and related concepts of Terra Nullius and Manifest Destiny have led to the oppression of Indigenous peoples in North America. Canada's TRC is inspiring a movement of repentance, grace, and reconciliation. God our Creator has used the power of stories to begin the process of destroying the dividing walls between neighbors. Learning from the stories of incredible pain and forgiveness, and recognizing those stories as our shared history in this place is a part of God's call to reconciliation. 

God calls us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” with Him (Micah 6:8). We see studying the Doctrine of Discovery and discerning the role it has played in our churches as important to fulfilling this call in North America today, where Indigenous people still face many injustices. Knowing that this current situation has roots in Church declarations, and more generally, common ideas among Christian Europeans, stresses the importance of that call all the more.

We’re not Catholic, so why does a Catholic doctrine matter?

The papal and Catholic roots of the Doctrine of Discovery grow out of a long-running assumption of European superiority that pre-dates the DoD papal bulls. The DoD reflected a deep cultural foundation that colored much of the colonial enterprise. As such the foundations of the DoD transcend 'Catholic doctrine' and played a role in law, and indeed, in the continued dominance of European culture. As a Protestant denomination, it is important that we discern the historic impact of the DoD Papal bulls, not as Catholic doctrine, but as a prevailing cultural trend.

How is this relevant to my ministry?

The long and painful reach of the DoD has impacted Gospel mission profoundly.  Bishop Mark MacDonald, National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican church of Canada, explains:

"Though the modern age of mission began with the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, the colonial churches’ basic operating assumptions have stunted the growth and impact of the Christian faith among the Peoples of the Land and compromised the testimony of the churches of the West around the world."

Indigenous people are our neighbors and image bearers of Creator God. Indeed the church is one body and when one part suffers the whole is diminished. (1 Corinthians 12:26) Therefore, in community as neighbors, it is important that obstacles to the Gospel be rooted out, and that non-Indigenous people come to a deepening awareness of the profound testimony of Indigenous Christians for our walk together.

Have more questions? Check out our Recommended Resources page or email the task force chair, Mike Hogeterp, at [email protected].