Skip to main content

Addressing Impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery

May 15, 2024
World Communion of Reformed Churches Indigenous informants for the ongoing impact of the Doctrine of Discovery gather for a photo.
World Communion of Reformed Churches Indigenous informants for the ongoing impact of the Doctrine of Discovery gather for a photo.

In April 2024 two representatives from the CRC in Canada went to a meeting of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. Adrian Jacobs, the CRC’s senior leader for Indigenous justice and reconciliation, and Marlene Wolters, chair of the CRC’s Canadian Indigenous Ministry Committee, were extended an invitation to participate in the North and South American Consultation of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) as Indigenous representatives of the CRCNA.

The meeting took place in New York, and representatives from across the world gathered to join in a theological discussion on the Doctrine of Discovery from an Indigenous perspective. Members discussed how the Doctrine of Discovery continues to affect Indigenous people in a variety of areas today. 

The Doctrine of Discovery is a set of legal principles supported by a papal declaration in the 15th century that presumed European superiority and declared lands used by Indigenous peoples to be empty and claimable by Europeans. The CRC’s Synod 2016 acknowledged that the Doctrine of Discovery was a heresy and rejected and condemned it. 

The result of the WCRC meetings will be a 15- to 20-page discussion paper that will go to the WCRC executive meeting soon. It is intended to be presented at the World Council of Churches in 2025 and will be paired with a proposal paper for each area addressed.

Jacobs said of the WCRC event, “Our Hearts Exchanged program has done well in explaining the detrimental impact of the Doctrine of Discovery that the church needs to know about. Our time in this WCRC consultation has confirmed this impact around the Indigenous world.”

Both Jacobs and Wolters said they were particularly affected by the stories of an Indigenous leader from Brazil, Valdelice Veron, who shared horrific stories of the ongoing violence that Indigenous peoples in Brazil face today as their lands are increasingly being encroached upon and lost through acts of violence. Veron said she has personally lost 20 family members to this violence, been raped, and been wounded by gunfire.

Wolters met with a group discussing social crises that Indigenous people continue to live under globally. Her group discussed issues such as multigenerational poverty, houselessness, addictions, sexual and gender-based violence, lack of clean drinking water, lack of access to adequate education, the epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women, overrepresentation in prison and foster-care systems, stigmas associated with all of these issues, and the lack of opportunities for culturally appropriate healing. 

Despite the heaviness of the topic, said Wolters, “people see the heart of Jesus in this work.” A professional translator at the event had conversations with Wolters about her emotions upon hearing Indigenous people’s stories and asked questions about the churches represented at the event. Wolters explained that this was a group of people from a variety of churches who held a common desire to seek justice for Indigenous peoples. She added that the translator called a Christian friend and later told Wolters, “I found Jesus in this room.”

By participating in key discussions and proposals like this one, the CRCNA, through the work of Indigenous Ministries, continues to equip CRC members to be salt and light in Canada to reconcile and undo harms created by the Doctrine of Discovery heresy.