Christian communities repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery

June 17, 2016

Community of Christ’s International Body Renounces the Doctrine of Discovery

to urge the governments of the world to ensure that their policies, regulations, and laws that affect indigenous peoples comply with international conventions, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169 [also known as the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention].

A number of other religious denominations have passed similar resolutions, including the Episcopal Church, Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) will consider a Doctrine of Discovery resolution at its national meeting this summer. For the growing list of denominational statements, see the Healing Minnesota Stories website.

The Sisters of Loretto, other Catholic orders, the Romero Institute, and Original Nations have called for Vatican repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Community of Christ has approximately 250,000 members worldwide, approximately half in the United States. Minnesota has approximately 250 members. The church grew out of the Latter Day Saints movement started by Joseph Smith.  Among the resolution’s commitments, it resolves to:

  • Create a working group “focused on global justice issues for indigenous peoples as a key priority for the World Church Human Rights Team for 2016–2019.”
  • “Contribute to ecumenical and interfaith advocacy actions in various countries based on principles in this resolution.”
  • Consult with local indigenous groups and seek opportunities for education and local advocacy.

The Doctrine of Discovery refers to the religious and legal justification used by Europe’s colonial powers to claim lands occupied by indigenous peoples, seize their property and forcibly convert or enslave them. The Doctrine has its roots in 15th century papal edicts granting Spain and Portugal permission to seize foreign lands as long as no baptized Christians had a prior claim. The “Discovery Doctrine” was put into U.S. law through a series of 19th Century Supreme Court decisions. It still applies today.

As with resolutions passed by other denominations, the proof will be in the follow up. Still, the growing awareness of the Doctrine of Discovery is a positive sign.