My own denomination, the United Church of Canada, has been exploring reconciliation with aboriginal people within the context of the legacy of church involvement in the horrific Indian Residential Schools, the church's 1986 and 1998 apologies, reflections on empire, and the Doctrine of Discovery. It is becoming more common at church gatherings to acknowledge that we are on the traditional territory of indigenous peoples (for example, our Conference annual meeting is opened by a Mohawk elder as a way of showing that we are meeting on what had been Mohawk land on the West Island of Montreal). Doing so is one way we can work toward right relations, "by repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery that assumed the land was empty when European explorers, traders, and settlers first came."
The United Church of Canada's General Council Executive moved in March 2012 to repudiate the doctrine, and in October 2012 to join the World Council of Churches in denouncing it and its impact on indigenous peoples. It's worth quoting at length from the background to the motion that the General Council Executive sent to the denomination's 41st General Council, held in Ottawa that year, denouncing "the Doctrine of Discovery as fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and as a violation of the inherent human rights that all individuals and peoples have received from God."
In February 2012, the World Council of Churches Executive Committee denounced the “Doctrine of Discovery,” which has been used to subjugate and colonize Indigenous Peoples around the world. This doctrine has permitted the enslavement of Indigenous Peoples in the name of Christianity. The World Council of Churches’ statement declared that this doctrine is “completely opposed to the gospel of Jesus”.
The origin of the doctrine lies in the papal bulls issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452, allowing the invasion and killing of the Indigenous Peoples. In the 14th century, some of the historical church documents such as Dum Diversas and Romanus Pontifex called for non-Christian people to be captured, vanquished and to have their possessions and property seized by the Christian monarchs.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 is a legal precedent in Canada that upholds the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. It was issued by King George III, after Great Britain acquired French Territory in North America at the end of the French and Indian War/Seven Years’ War to organize the new North American empire and to stabilize the relationship with the First Nations people by regulating trade, settlement and land purchases in the new frontier. In other words, The Royal Proclamation was a step in the Crown recognizing that the land occupied by First Nations located beyond the existing North American colonies were in some sense Indian Land. Title and access to these lands could only be granted by the Crown.
The World Council of Churches statement points out that the “current situation of Indigenous Peoples around the world is the result of a direct line of 'legal' precedents, originating with the Doctrine of Discovery and now codified and embedded in many of the contemporary national laws and policies of the nation states that have emerged from the European colonial process.” The doctrine has been cited by courts in the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
The World Council of Churches statement rejects the idea that “Christians enjoy a moral and legal right to invade and seize lands and to dominate Indigenous Peoples.” It also supports the “rights of Indigenous Peoples to live in and retain their traditional lands and territories. And to maintain and enrich their cultures.”
Through this statement, The World Council of Churches reaffirms its commitment to the rights of the Indigenous Peoples, and asks each member church to “reflect upon its own national and church history,” and to seek a better understanding of the issues faced by Indigenous Peoples.
The repudiation of the doctrine is now being cited in our statements on aboriginal issues - for instance, in a 2013 letter sent to the federal Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, which sets out the church's history with the doctrine. Again, it's worth quoting at length:
For the first 60 years of its existence, from 1925-86, The United Church of Canada conflated Christianity and European civilization. Based on the worldview of the Doctrine of Discovery, we operated in tandem with the Canadian government and other elements of colonialism to assimilate the Indigenous peoples into our political, cultural and economic systems, thus aiming to free their lands for settlers.
Gradually, however, our direct relationship with the Indigenous Peoples with whom we worked and worshipped converted us towards a truer understanding of the gospel. A major turning point came in 1986, when our church’s General Council apologized to the First Nations Peoples for imposing our culture and spirituality, “We tried to make you be like us,” we said in that apology, “and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be.”
Thus we began a journey towards a new way of living together, based on healing, justice and right relations. That journey has included a second apology in 1998, specifically to the former students of United Church-run residential schools, and their families and communities for “the pain and suffering that our church’s involvement in the Indian Residential School system has caused.”
Churches in Canada, and Australia, New Zealand and the United States, are now engaging with the Doctrine of Discovery as part of a long history of conquest and assimilation. It will be a long journey to right relations with indigenous peoples. Repudiating the doctrine is a necessary step on this journey, but only one step.