One year ago, Pope Francis disavowed the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ – but Indigenous Catholics’ work fo

Indigenous Catholics have long argued they should be able to embrace both sides of that identity.

By Eben Levey Published on Mar 28, 2024.
Tzotzil women line up for Holy Communion during a Catholic Mass in Chiapas state, Mexico, in 2016. AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo

It has been more than 500 years since Vatican decrees gave European colonizers permission to carve up the “New World” – and just one since Pope Francis disavowed them.

On March 30, 2023, Francis repudiated the “Doctrine of Discovery”: a set of ideas the Spanish and Portuguese, in particular, used to justify seizing land they had “discovered” and colonizing Indigenous people in the the land they came to call the Americas. The Vatican’s statement not only rejected the doctrine, but also apologized for historical atrocities carried out by Christians and affirmed the rights and cultural values of Indigenous peoples.

The repudiation can hardly undo centuries of oppressing Indigenous people and stealing their lands. Yet the statement is monumental in ways that signal cultural and political shifts within the Catholic Church. It recognized decades of work by Indigenous Catholics to demand that their very own church respect their history, culture and faith – a focus of my work as a historian of Mexico and religion.

An older man in white wears a crown of yellow flowers, standing amid other men, and near a hat covered in brightly colored ribbons.
Pope Francis wears a crown of flowers, gifted to him by Indigenous Mexicans, as he arrives in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico, in 2016. AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

‘New World,’ new owners

The Doctrine of Discovery has its roots in 15th century papal documents, called “papal bulls,” which were issued amid Spain’s and Portugal’s colonial expansion in Africa and the recently “discovered” Americas.

Inter Caetera,” for example, which was issued in 1493, drew a line 100 leagues, or around 350 miles, to the west of the Azores and Cape Verde in the Atlantic Ocean. The document declared that all lands west of that line were free to be discovered, colonized and Christianized by the Kingdoms of Castile and León – modern-day Spain.

In other words, the Catholic Church gave Spain a monopoly on the New World, on the condition that the natives be converted to Christianity. Soon after, however, Spain and Portugal negotiated the Treaty of Tordesillas, settling Portuguese claims over modern-day Brazil.

More broadly, the Doctrine of Discovery shaped European kingdoms’ approach to colonizing the Americas, Asia and Africa. It was, simply put, the legal foundation of their claims over non-Christian peoples and territories.

An old-fashioned map of the world with several sections in vivid green and blue.
The Cantino planisphere, made by an unknown Portuguese cartographer in 1502. A line on the left shows the Americas divided into Spanish and Portuguese territories. Biblioteca Estense Universitaria/Wikimedia

Three centuries later, the Supreme Court of the newly independent United States cited the doctrine in a significant decision, Johnson v. McIntosh. According to this 1823 ruling, Indigenous peoples had no permanent right to the territory they lived on.

Seeds of change

Despite forced Christianization, church leaders repeatedly despaired that Indigenous Latin Americans had not fully become Catholic. The Spanish reluctantly tolerated Indigenous Catholic practices, such as worshipping the Virgin of Guadalupe, an apparition of Mary in Mexico, and associating her with the Nahuátl mother goddess, Tonantzin. They reasoned that the Indigenous were novice Christians who would learn in time – an attitude that persisted for centuries.

The Catholic Church addressed multicultural questions in the 1960s, during the Second Vatican Council. Over four years, in thousands of hours of meetings and consultations, the church embarked on its first major reforms in centuries.

The council approved using vernacular languages in Mass instead of Latin, promoted cooperation with other faiths and signaled a shift toward tolerating the diverse ways Catholics expressed their faith around the world. One of the resulting documents, “Ad gentes,” promoted missionary activity among unconverted peoples. However, it recognized that all cultures contained “seeds” of Christianity and that cultural diversity in the church would strengthen the body of the Catholic Church as a whole.

Building a movement

Almost immediately, Indigenous Catholics throughout Latin America began organizing to make these possibilities real.

In Mexico, a group of young priests and seminarians organized the Movement of Indigenous Priests. Spearheaded by a young Indigenous priest, Eleazar López Hernández, they pushed back against the notion that men entering the priesthood had to choose between their Indigenous and priestly identities.

A boy in a red headdress and bright blue shirt stands holding a small brass instrument.
A young Indigenous musician waits ahead of a Mass that Pope Francis celebrated in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, in 2016. AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo

At the core of their demands was the insistence that multiple Catholicisms could exist within the same Catholic Church. For instance, in 1971, López Hernández testified about the importance of having Indigenous priests in Indigenous communities. These Catholics, he argued, deserved clergy who spoke their language, could participate meaningfully in traditional rituals, understood their roots, and who could honor Indigenous spirituality in addition to Catholicism’s message of salvation.

Their demands inspired new Catholic institutions. In 1969, several dioceses founded the Regional Seminary of the Southeast, called SERESURE. The seminary’s explicit mission was to train priests to work in poor Indigenous areas, and it became a hub for Indigenous Catholicism. SERESURE developed an innovative structure that drew on Indigenous traditions of governing their communities by assembly, challenging strictly hierarchical church practices.

Yet SERESURE was shuttered in 1989 over allegations of incorrect doctrine, Marxism and supporting armed revolutionary movements. There was some truth to the first two allegations, but the third had little basis in truth.

It spoke, however, to the types of work some church agents were doing with Indigenous people in the region. Young priests, religious sisters and lay Catholics were fanning out to work with communities living in desperate poverty, trying to both provide economic opportunity and preserve local cultures and languages. This poverty had given birth to armed movements in Mexico, Guatemala and beyond during the Cold War.

For many of these Catholics, salvation did not only mean going to heaven, but building a more just world.

Steps forward – and back

By the early 1990s, conflicts between the Vatican and Indigenous peoples had bled into the public sphere.

A black and white photo shows several seated men in white watching two men in headdresses dance with their arms raised.
Pope John Paul II watches a performance of the Mayan Creation dance during a 1993 visit to Mexico, where he apologized for Christian colonizers’ abuses. AP Photo/Mosconi

John Paul II increased attention to Indigenous Catholics with his visits to southern Mexico. During his papacy, however, the Vatican celebrated 1992 as the 500th anniversary of bringing Christianity to the New World.

Indigenous movements across the Americas rejected such a rosy depiction of colonization, enslavement and forced conversion. Instead, they organized protests under the banner of “500 Years of Resistance,” celebrating Indigenous resilience, culture, language and spirituality. In Tehuacán, Mexico, Indigenous Catholic priests led a march of nearly 20,000 Nahua people that culminated in an open-air Mass conducted in Nahuátl – the language of the Mexica, or Aztecs.

It was not until 2013, after Francis’ election as pope, that the Vatican approved Nahuátl as an official language of the Catholic Church – meaning it can be used to conduct Mass inside churches. In addition, the Vatican ordered Mexican bishops to translate Catholic liturgy and texts into Nahuátl.

This was a large first step in recognizing the decades of work of Indigenous Catholics to insist that multiple Catholicisms can and should exist side by side.

The first official Catholic Mass held in the Nahuatl language, in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Since 2015, the Mexican Catholic Church has hosted an annual Nahuátl Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Mass opened with traditional rural Indigenous music, and the offerings and decorations evoked the sights, sounds and smells of an Indigenous community parish – an open embrace of Indigenous Catholicisms.

Across the Catholic world, the Vatican has been opening to multicultural Catholicisms in recent years. The Nahuátl Mass is but one example, as is the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Francis’ statement was important as an institutional recognition of historical atrocities. More profoundly, it was a validation of Indigenous Catholic activists’ demands for inclusion on their terms, even while disputes over multiculturalism continue.

Eben Levey received funding from a Fulbright Fellowship and from the University of Maryland, College Park for his dissertation research.

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