Doctrine of Discovery
Last revised March 30, 2023

On March 30, 2023, the Vatican formally repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a legal concept coined in Johnson v. M’Intosh, an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision that has come to be understood as meaning that ownership and sovereignty over land passed to Europeans because they "discovered" it.

The Doctrine is backed by 15th-century papal bulls that legitimized the colonial-era seizure of Indigenous lands.  The papal bulls provided religious backing to the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms looking to expand their territories in Africa and the Americas for the sake of spreading Christianity.

The Doctrine continues to form the foundation of some property law today.  It was cited as recently as a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving the Oneida Indian Nation written by the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In June 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its 94 calls to action. The 49th called on all faith groups to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples.

The Vatican offered no evidence that the three 15th-century papal bulls (Dum DiversasRomanus Pontifex, and Inter Caetera) had themselves been formally abrogated, rescinded or rejected. But it cited a subsequent bull, Sublimis Deus in 1537, that reaffirmed that Indigenous people shouldn't be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, and were not to be enslaved.

Vatican statement said the 15th-century papal bulls, or decrees, "did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples" and have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.

Papal Bulls

A papal bull, in Roman Catholicism, is an official letter or document from the Pope.

Dum Diversas - June 18, 1452

Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Dum Diversas which authorised Alfonso V of Portugal to reduce any “Saracens (Muslims) and pagans and any other unbelievers” to perpetual slavery. This facilitated the Portuguese slave trade from West Africa.

Romanus Pontifex - January 5, 1455 

Pope Nicholas V wrote the bull Romanus Pontifex as a follow-up to the Dum Diversas. It extended dominion over ‘discovered’ lands to the Catholic nations of Europe. Along with sanctifying the seizure of non-Christian lands, it encouraged the enslavement of native, non-Christian peoples in Africa and the New World.

Inter Caetera - May 4, 1493

Pope Alexander VI issued the bull Inter Caetera stating one Christian nation did not have the right to establish dominion over lands previously dominated by another Christian nation, thus establishing the Law of Nations.

Sublimis Deus – June 2, 1537

Pope Paul III issued the bull which forbids the enslavement of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and all other people who could be discovered later.

Case law

  • Fletcher v. Peck, 10 US 87 (1810)
  • Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. 543, 5 L.Ed. 681, 8 Wheat. 543 (1823)
  • City of Sherrill V. Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y. (03-855) 544 U.S. 197 (2005), 337 F.3d 139, reversed and remanded.