The Pope Has Magical Powers Now?
Here we are in the 21st century and a defunct papal bull from 1493, repudiated centuries ago, is front-page news again. Why are we even having this conversation?
I’m afraid I’m going to have to begin this newsletter by insisting that the “penitential voyage” Pope Francis is making to Canada this week is part of an ongoing story that lets Prime Minister Justin Trudeau off the hook for his role in the flag-lowering, church-burning “George Floyd moment” pandemonium that was kicked off last year by the reported discovery of a residential-school “mass grave” that no Indigenous person ever claimed to have discovered.
Well. That was a long sentence. Anyway, speaking of discovery, now that the pope’s in Canada there’s been a full-court revival of rumpus-making about the “Doctrine of Discovery” that is inextricably bound up in the assertion of Crown sovereignty in Canada, and Team Trudeau has been only too happy to demand that Pope Francis do something about that, too.
Just as the script was starting to sound like something straight out of the Da Vinci Code, this happened: OTTAWA - Canada's bishops are working with the Vatican in the hope of issuing a new statement from the Catholic Church on the Doctrine of Discovery, the organizers of the papal visit said Wednesday.
In a nutshell, here’s what the bishops are saying: You think a sordid old Borgia pope put a curse on Canada in a papal bull he issued on May 4, 1493, and you think Pope Francis can sprinkle holy water on it and that will make its bad vibes go away and you’ll be happy? Sure, we can do that.
Somehow it has become quickly embedded in respectable opinion in Canada that the 1493 bull Inter Coetera is the grandpappy of all European Doctrine of Discovery land claims, and it’s still somehow in effect, and even though it divided up the “New World” spheres of influence between Portugal and Spain and had nothing to do with Canada, it’s, you know, really important.
You’re not likely to find any legal scholar who reckons that the Canadian courts should be counted on to do anything about it. It tends to put lawyers in a sour mood: “Every time Canadians read about ‘reconciliation’ in the news, they enter a national conversation based on the racist and dehumanizing Doctrine of Discovery.”
To be straight up about this: My opinion (as if it matters) is that it’s perfectly reasonable for Indigenous Catholics (or any old Catholic, come to think of it) to want and expect and beseech Pope Francis to explicitly renounce or denounce or annul the thing. I’m not quite sure why it’s anyone else’s business, but never mind that.
The thing is, everybody’s been kicking at an open door. As far as the Vatican is concerned, the Inter Coetera of 1493 was abrogated by the Treaty of Tordesillas the following year, and abrogated again by Sublimis Deus in 1537, and its repudiation was reiterated in Pope Benedict XIV’s Immensa Pastorum in December 1741, and that’s just where it starts.
How the hell is this of any use to the Inuit who continue to die of tuberculosis at 290 times the infection rate of non-native Canadians despite Ottawa’s apologies and pledges, or to the Grassy Narrows Ojibwe, 90 percent of whom exhibit symptoms of mercury poisoning even now, decades after the Wabigoon River contamination disaster first came to light?
That’s the question I pose in my column in the National Post and the Ottawa Citizen in print today, and they’re just two of the innumerable derelictions of the federal fiduciary duty to Indigenous peoples in this country I could have cited.
It’s not even the column I intended to write (big shoutout to my patient editors at the Citizen for tolerating my deadline-pushing yet again), which wasn’t going to let Pope Francis off the hook, let me tell you.
It’s just that from the moment the residential-school graves uproar began last year, we’ve all tended to let Team Trudeau get away with banging on about the role the Catholic Church played in the federal Indian schools’ policy. By the time the story out of Kamloops broke in May 2021 the Trudeau government had spent less than $7 million in the six years since Trudeau promised to fulfill the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action in the matter of “missing children” and gravesites from the residential-schools years.
I like to avoid getting played like a fiddle, and everybody else was piling on Pope Francis anyway, so. . .
Back to our main feature.
Here we are in the early years of the third decade of the 21st Century and you can barely turn on the radio or pick up a newspaper without encountering yet another explication of the way the 15th-Century Pope Alexander VI is somehow to blame for the many dysfunctions and disaffections that afflict roughly 600 First Nations and Indian Act bands across the country.
The CBC even managed to find a young man from the Kinosao Sipi Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba who could see the mischief of the medieval Pope Alexander VI in honorary Ermineskin chief Wilton Littlechild’s perfectly protocol-compliant gift of a headdress to Pope Francis in Alberta. “That’s part of the doctrine of discovery. That’s part of colonialism, to divide and conquer. And we're seeing that. We saw it live."
Well let’s have a look at it, shall we?
Among the TRC’s 94 calls to action, all of which Trudeau has endorsed, is Number 47: “We call upon federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, and to reform those laws, government policies, and litigation strategies that continue to rely on such concepts.”
As for the notion of terra nullius, which is the putrid and definitely un-Catholic idea that a land unoccupied by Christians is effectively “empty” land that Christians are entitled to take as they like, it’s already a dead letter in the Catholic Church and also in the cold secular state of Canada - and no credit is due Canada’s political class.
In keeping with Canada’s peculiar customs and traditions, the tougher issues get punted to the judges. In 2014 the Supreme Court of Canada pointed out plainly, in paragraph 9 on page 44 of what is now the leading aboriginal-title case in Canada, Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia: “The doctrine of terra nullius (that no one owned the land prior to European assertion of sovereignty) never applied in Canada, as confirmed by the Royal Proclamation (1763).”
Back to the papal bull Sublimis Deus of 1537, which repudiated the barbaric finders-keepers bull Inter Coetera of 1493. Issued by Pope Paul III, and of course immediately defied by the conquistador class, Sublimis Deus ordered: “Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property.”
The official position of the Vatican is that “for International Law and for the Catholic Church Law, the bull Inter Coetera is a historic remnant with no juridical, moral or doctrinal value.” This was all spelled out 12 years ago by the Vatican’s permanent observer at the United Nations in New York during the ninth session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
“The fact that juridical systems may employ the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ as a juridical precedent is therefore now a characteristic of the laws of those states and is independent of the fact that for the Church the document has had no value whatsoever for centuries. The refutation of this doctrine is therefore now under the competence of national authorities, legislators, lawyers and legal historians.”
In lay language: If you want to be mad about the fact that Ottawa asserts Crown sovereignty over about a quarter of the Canadian landmass without the consent or treaty terms from about a third of Canada’s First Nations people, maybe the guy to badger is Justin Trudeau and not the Argentinian Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the guy Catholics now consider the Vicar of Christ.