Newcomb: The Holy See’s response misses the point

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The Vatican did not hesitate to respond when Tonya Gonnella Frichner formally presented a Preliminary Study on the Doctrine of Discovery at the Ninth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York April 27. Monsignor Dr. Kuriakose B., a counselor for the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, delivered a response focused on the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493. (The Holy See uses the spelling “Inter Coetera”)

In the Holy See’s statement, Msgr. Kuriakose B. said that “Inter Coetera, as a source of International Law, the division of lands between Castile-Aragon (Spain) and Portugal was. … abrogated by the Treaty of Tordesilla in 1494.” This comment makes it seem as if “the division of lands,” otherwise known in history as “the demarcation line,” between Spain and Portugal is the issue that Birgil Kills Straight (Oglala Lakota) and I began raising in 1992 when we founded the Indigenous Law Institute. However, Pope Alexander VI’s supposed division of the world between Spain and Portugal is beside the point. The main issue that indigenous peoples have been focused on for the past 20 years is the framework of domination illustrated by Vatican authorizations of “subjugation” and “the propagation of the Christian empire” found in the papal bull Inter Caetera.

The dominating mindset and interpretive framework expressed in those Vatican documents has been institutionalized in the world for more than five centuries.

At best, the Holy See’s recent statement at the United Nations is nonsensical. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesilla referenced by the Holy See was an agreement between two civil powers, Portugal and Aragon-Castile (Spain). In the Inter Caetera papal bull, Pope Alexander VI referred to a line 100 leagues west of the Azores that would divide the respective spheres of influence or empire and dominion between the two monarchies. By the terms of the treaty, Spain and Portugal agreed to move the imaginary demarcation line, not to do away with the line. Obviously, an agreement between two civil powers to move an imaginary line is merely an adjustment of the line, not an abrogation of it. And an agreement between two civil powers to move an imaginary line could not possibly abrogate a papal bull.

Another point made by the Holy See is that “circumstances have changed so much” since the 15th century, that it “seems completely out of place” to “attribute any juridical [legal] value to such a document.” The Holy See is evidently under the mistaken impression that we have been attempting to raise an issue about “juridical” or legal “value” of the Vatican papal bulls of the 15th century. This is also entirely beside the point. The papal bulls Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455), Inter Caetera (1493), and many other such documents, are cultural artifacts that tell us something significant about the history of the Vatican and about the global order of colonialism and colonization that has been attacking indigenous nations and peoples and misappropriating their lands, territories, and resources for more than five centuries.

By closely examining the etymology of the Vatican documents, and similar royal charters of England, we are able to more clearly understand the interpretive framework that has been and continues to be used to subjugate, reduce, and dominate indigenous nations and peoples throughout the planet. That’s a key point of our campaign against the Vatican papal bulls.

An agreement between two civil powers to move an imaginary line could not possibly abrogate a papal bull.

The document Dum Diversas, for example, authorizes the king of Portugal to travel to non-Christian lands and “invade, capture, vanquish and subdue, all Saracens pagans and other enemies of Christ, to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to take away all their possessions and property.” This authorization is mirrored in the word subjugate in the Inter Caetera papal bull, which is expressed as deprimantur in Latin. Instead of addressing these and many other dominating and abusive concepts (and accompanying behavior) issued by various popes, the Holy See is attempting to stay narrowly focused on the false issue of the “juridical value” of those documents.

The fact remains: The Holy See issued numerous documents that called for the domination of free and independent indigenous nations and peoples. To this day it has never explicitly disavowed and revoked that framework of domination. The dominating mindset and interpretive framework expressed in those Vatican documents has been institutionalized in the world for more than five centuries. It was that mindset and interpretive framework that caused indigenous nations and peoples to travel to the United Nations in 1977, in an effort to have the violations of indigenous peoples’ human rights addressed and rectified. This was a main reason for development of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the United Nations in 2007.

Another point made by the Vatican had to do with “Inter Coetera bull” as “a source of Canon or Church Law.” In that document, the pope had called for the “excommunication” of anyone who did not respect “its dispositions.” Anyone who “with rash boldness” dares to contravene the papal bull, said the pope, would be excommunicated and incur the wrath of the Apostles Peter and Paul.

The main issue that indigenous peoples have been focused on for the past 20 years is the framework of domination illustrated by Vatican authorizations.

Monsignor Kuriakose B. claimed that the Inter Caetera bull had been “abrogated” by two acts that defied the pope’s anathema: First, “the unsanctioned and immediate expansion of the territory of Brazil to the west well beyond the treaty of Tordesilla;” second, “the colonization of North America and the Caribbean by the King of France.” Thus, instead of taking responsibility for having issued numerous documents calling for the domination and subjugation of indigenous nations and peoples throughout the world, “forever” and “permanently,” the Vatican is putting forth the bizarre argument that the violation of a papal anathema results in the abrogation of the entire document in which the anathema is expressed.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee and Lenape, is the author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery” (Fulcrum, 2008), co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a columnist with Indian Country Today.