This past week the Vatican officially revoked its historical papal support for the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery* established the principle that any European country that would “discover” a land not already occupied by a Christian nation would acquire the rights to own the land and exploit it at will. (See below for a more complete explanation).
It is difficult, if not impossible, to grasp the profound suffering this principle imposed on the indigenous people who already had established cultures on the “discovered” land, and who apparently had little or no concept of land ownership, let alone the right to ruthlessly exploit it. And equally worse was the assumption that the indigenous people were inherently inferior to the European colonialists. Further if the indigenous people were considered an impediment to the colonialist’s “ownership," the indigenous people were seen as unaccountably disposable. Obviously the Doctrine of Discovery established a model for the racism that followed. Two commentaries I read recently in response to the Vatican's news referred to the impact of the Doctrine of Discovery as an “infection" that has poisoned the planet for the past six hundred years right up to the present.
The reference to the Doctrine of Discovery as an "infection" interested me, and I began associating a number of other widely accepted or ignored sociological “infections” that are poisoning our planetary welfare at present.
I am not sure of the range of factors that allowed the Doctrine of Discovery to go unchallenged for centuries, but the obvious reason is that it established a rationale for unfettered exploitation, all sanctified by the papal bulls from the Vatican. It seems that the enormity of the extent of the greed and abuse of human dignity was considered so well-established and accepted by the international powers of the day, that it was unassailable like slavery for centuries. I want to believe, however, there were always those who knew what the Doctrine of Discovery countenanced was a profound contradiction of the Christian faith that offered it sanction. How deeply sad and cruel that the level of suffering was acceptable to those professing a faith that stood for the complete opposite.
I am thinking specifically whether capitalism will one day be recognized as profoundly exploitatory as the Doctrine of Discovery. There are numerous efforts to challenge the exploitatory nature of capitalism by encouraging various forms of cooperation and support of the common good (the economics of the New Testament and socialism, for example), but capitalism, like the Doctrine of Discovery, so advantages systems of exploitation favored by the wealthy powers that it is difficult to challenge.
It is important to recognize, and even reluctantly celebrate, the demise of systemic exploitation like the revocation of the “infection” of the Doctrine of Discovery and previously slavery itself. I will take it as a sign of hope that maybe the day will come when other deeply systemic systems of exploitation like capitalism will also be finally recognized for the suffering and harm they create. Just like any the need to fight any infection, we need to establish strong "habits of hygiene and as much anti-viral capacity” against exploitation we can muster and work towards its cure.
Doctrine of Discovery The doctrine of discovery refers to a principle in public international law under which, when a nation “discovers” land, it directly acquires rights on that land. This doctrine arose when the European nations discovered non-European lands, and therefore acquired special rights, such as property and sovereignty rights, on those lands. This principle disregards the fact that the land oftentimes is already inhabited by another nation. In fact, this doctrine was used in order to legitimize the colonization of lands outside of Europe.
More broadly, the doctrine of discovery can be described as an international law doctrine giving authorization to explorers to claim terra nullius – i.e. said inhabited land – in the name of their sovereign when the land was not populated by Christians.
Nowadays, the world as viewed by international law is considered to be a finite world, because no land is open to state occupation (no terra nullius left), so this question no longer arises today. However, in 1792 Thomas Jefferson asserted that the doctrine of discovery was international, and therefore was applicable to the U.S. government. Today, the doctrine of discovery is still mentioned in American Imperialism and in regards to the treatment of indigenous people.