Bishop of the Diocese of the West
Like millions of other Americans, I am appalled at the now well-publicized behavior of a large group of male Roman Catholic high school students. It has been learned that the high school which these youngsters attend has a long history of prejudice against not only indigenous people, but black Americans as well.
As a bishop of the church, I join with countless other religious leaders in our country in denouncing what we have all seen in many video recordings of the events.
But if we trace back through the history of the Roman Catholic Church and the history of the United States, we will discover that these students appear to be following the teachings of the Church as set forth in the Papal Bull of 1493 known as Inter Caetera. This Bull was issued by Pope Alexander VI which granted to the Catholic Majesties of Ferdinand and Isabella (as sovereigns of Castile) all lands to the "west and south" of a pole-to-pole line 100 leagues west and south of any of the islands of the Azores or the Cape Verde islands.
The Bull decreed that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself ” and “Moreover we command you in virtue of holy obedience that you should appoint to the aforesaid mainlands and islands worthy, God-fearing, learned, skilled, and experienced men, in order to instruct the aforesaid inhabitants and residents in the Catholic faith and train them in good morals.”
Known as the “Doctrine of Discovery,” it became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In 1792 U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson declared that the Doctrine of the Discovery would extend from Europe to the infant U.S. government. It was Jefferson who created the first Indian Removal Programs under the terms of the Roman Catholic Doctrine which had become entrenched in English law.
In 1823, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was quietly adopted into U.S. law by the Supreme Court in the celebrated case, Johnson v. M'Intosh, Chief Justice John Marshall found that ownership of land comes into existence by virtue of discovery of that land, a rule that had been observed by all European countries with settlements in the New World. Legally, the United States was the true owner of the land because it inherited that ownership from Britain, the original discoverer.
On the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe ... as they were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession. ... The history of America, from its discovery to the present day, proves, we think, the universal recognition of these principles.
Chief Justice Marshall noted the 1455 papal bull Romanus Pontifex approved Portugal's claims to lands discovered along the coast of West Africa, and the 1493 Inter Caetera had ratified Spain's right to conquer newly found lands, after Christopher Columbus had already begun doing so, but stated: "Spain did not rest her title solely on the grant of the Pope. Her discussions respecting boundary, with France, with Great Britain, and with the United States, all show that she placed it on the rights given by discovery. Portugal sustained her claim to the Brazils by the same title."
Marshall pointed to the exploration charters given to John Cabot as proof that the British had operated under the doctrine. The tribes which occupied the land were, at the moment of discovery, no longer completely sovereign and had no property rights but rather merely held a right of occupancy. Further, only the discovering nation or its successor could take possession of the land from the natives by conquest or purchase. The doctrine has been cited by the US Supreme Court as recently as 2005, in City of Sherrill, NY v. Oneida Nation: "Under the 'doctrine of discovery...' fee title (ownership) to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign-first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States."
In other words, Indians nations were subject to the ultimate authority of the first nation of Christendom to claim possession of a given region of Indian lands. According to Marshall, the United States - upon winning its independence in 1776 - became a successor nation to the right of "discovery" and acquired the power of "dominion" from Great Britain.
The Court affirmed that United States law was based on a fundamental rule of the "Law of Nations" - that it was permissible to virtually ignore the most basic rights of indigenous "heathens," and to claim that the "unoccupied lands" of America rightfully belonged to discovering Christian European nations. Of course, it's important to understand that the term "unoccupied lands" referred to "the lands in America which, when discovered, were 'occupied by Indians' but 'unoccupied' by Christians."
The Doctrine of Discovery was promulgated by European monarchies in order to legitimize the colonization of lands outside of Europe. Between the mid-fifteenth century and the mid-twentieth century, this idea allowed European entities to seize lands inhabited by indigenous peoples under the guise of discovery. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas declared that only non-Christian lands could be colonized under the Discovery Doctrine.
Going back a few decades, we find in the Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex of 1452, Pope Nicholas directed King Alfonso of Portugal to "capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ," to "put them into perpetual slavery," and "to take all their possessions and property." When Columbus sailed west in 1492 - with the express understanding that he was authorized to "take possession" of any lands he "discovered" that were "not under the dominion of any Christian rulers" - he and the Spanish sovereigns of Aragon and Castile were following an already well-established tradition of "discovery" and conquest.
The lesson to be learned is that the papal bulls of 1452 and 1493 are but two clear examples of how the "Christian Powers," or "different States of Christendom," viewed indigenous peoples as "the lawful spoil and prey of their civilized conquerors." In fact, the Christian "Law of Nations" asserted that Christian nations had a divine right, based on the Bible, to claim absolute title to and ultimate authority over any newly "discovered" Non-Christian inhabitants and their lands.
It is well worth noting that several of the recent popes have denounced the atrocities committed under Inter Caetera and other bulls, but have refused to rescind them. Unrescinded, they still stand as valid decrees that are still in force.
Against this background we now place the incident involving the students from Covington Catholic High School. It is a 21st century demonstration of the principles of how the North American continent was conquered by people calling themselves “Christian.” These students demonstrated to us the active principles of 526-year-old Roman Catholic teaching regarding indigenous peoples, and have reminded all of us that the church’s decree is not only still in effect, but that it is part of United States law, and therefore (unfortunately), part of the American identity.
It probably comes as no surprise that I – and tens of millions of others like me – have a problem with this. Especially when these actions are carried out in the name of Christianity.
There are two very distinct and unrelated forms of Christianity in play here. First we have the imperial Nicene Christianity established by a succession of Roman emperors who decreed what the church should teach, in the interests of political favouritism, and national & religious imperialism.
Against this we have the teachings and example of Jesus, who denounced imperialism, thumbed his nose toward orthodoxy, and taught that all people irrespective of race, colour, or religious belief are all children of God, and co-equal members of one human family.
These teachings are opposed to the teachings of Christian orthodoxy, which regards Christianity as the only true religion, to which all non-Christian must convert. Yet Yeshua never required non-Jews to convert to Judaism as a prerequisite for salvation.
This brings us to a possibly difficult question for many people: Do we follow the imperialist and exclusionary teachings of Nicene Christian orthodoxy, or do we follow the universalist & inclusionary teachings and example of Yeshua ben Yosef? For the most part, they tend to be mutually exclusive.
The imperialism of orthodox Nicene Christianity was revealed in front of the world in the actions of high school students. And it is not limited to the Roman Church; indeed it is to be found throughout Evangelical Christianity in the United States. Our current political climate has made this painfully clear.
The younger generation – the future leaders of this country and of our communities – see these actions by people calling themselves “Christian,” and are left wondering where in the teachings of the Jesus who these Christians claim to worship can be found any teaching that calls them to oppress and mock others in Jesus’ name? Is it any wonder that the younger generation is so increasingly denouncing Christianity and choosing instead to follow the Way of Jesus?
Jesus, also known as Yeshua in Hebrew (Joshua in English translation), taught us “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This teaching is found in the following passages of scripture: Leviticus 19:18, Micah 6:8, Matthew 19:19, Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 6.31, Luke 10:27, John 13.31, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8, and 1 Peter 1:22.
Yet it is the teaching most frequently ignored and rejected by those who profess to be Christians, as we were so vividly reminded by a group of Roman Catholic teenagers.
Who shall we follow? Who shall we serve? Jesus and our fellow-man? Or the Church? Only one path truly & unconditionally welcomes all people as they are.
The choice is ours.