Sorry, fellow Italian-Americans: Columbus was a thug. But the church was the big problem

Christopher Columbus was a criminal. But the vicious Catholic doctrine that empowered him has never been revoked

Published October 10, 2022 10:00AM (EDT)

Christopher Columbus monument close to Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain (Getty Images/hutchyb)
Christopher Columbus monument close to Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain (Getty Images/hutchyb)

Despite my Italian heritage, I don't understand the adulation that some Italian-Americans continue to bestow on Christopher Columbus, who, as history demonstrates, was less a hero than a thug, exploiting and enslaving indigenous peoples.

But the real culprit behind the subjugation of non-European peoples across the globe wasn't an individual, or even a monarch. It was the Roman Catholic Church. It's time the church owned that grievous mistake.

 As early as the 15th century, as European nations were making voyages of discovery, Catholic popes gave them permission to subjugate and steal. The most significant of these papal permission slips was the Doctrine of Discovery. A decree Issued in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, it essentially told Catholic countries that any lands they "discovered" were theirs to keep and exploit, provided the inhabitants were not Christians but heathens ripe for conversion. 

Popes issue lots of decrees, but this one stuck. The Doctrine of Discovery proved to be very popular with monarchs across Europe, Catholic and Protestant alike. Its impact has been felt in Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the Americas. The idea was simple and attractive: Plant a flag and a cross on a land not claimed by any other Christian ruler, and it's yours. 

The doctrine also served to legitimize the seizure of lands by white American settlers. In considering an Illinois property dispute that came before the Supreme Court in 1823, Chief Justice John Marshall referred to the discovery doctrine to rule that Native Americans couldn't sell their lands — since they hadn't "owned" them in the first place.

"All the nations of Europe, who have acquired territory on this continent, have asserted in themselves, and have recognised [sic] in others, the exclusive right of the discoverer to appropriate the lands occupied by the Indians," Marshall wrote. When the U.S. became independent from Britain, he concluded, it inherited all the land the British crown had claimed. 

Even the sainted Ruth Bader Ginsburg invoked the 15th-century Doctrine of Discovery in a 2005 ruling against the Oneida tribe of New York, holding that honoring its land claims would be "disruptive."

In 2005, even the sainted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ruled against the Oneida tribe, which had repurchased some of its tribal lands from the city of Sherrill, New York, and then argued that these properties should be exempt from city taxes. The Oneidas once held six million acres in New York, but agreed to a treaty ceding nearly all their land to the state.

Writing for the court's 8-1 decision, Ginsburg concluded that siding with the Oneida tribe in the 21st century would be too "disruptive," given the town's "distinctly non-Indian character." Her decision cites the Doctrine of Discovery, essentially conceding that longstanding oppression can acquire the status of legal precedence. 

But stolen lands don't tell the whole story. The idea that indigenous peoples were less fully human than white settlers clearly informed how the Canadian and U.S. governments treated Native American children. As we have learned in recent years, thousands of Native children were ripped from their families and forced to "assimilate" to white society in a system of cruel and sadistic boarding schools. More than 400 such schools existed, from 1819 until the last were closed in 1969, and about 150 of those were run by either the Catholic church or various Protestant denominations. Some victims of this abusive system have spoken out, but the true extent of the harms done to Native children in this country have yet to be fully investigated. 

Canada's church-run "residential schools," which operated well into the 20th century, were hotbeds of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the 150,000 children who were forcibly taken from their parents and effectively imprisoned in these schools were victims of "cultural genocide." More than 4,000 children went missing, and are now presumed to have died. Since 2021, hundreds of children have been found in unmarked graves on the grounds of some of these schools.

The evidence of abuse was so compelling that Pope Francis was forced to make an apology tour of Canada this summer. While there, the pope was repeatedly asked to repeal the Doctrine of Discovery. So far he has demurred. 

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The church is an institution whose brand is infallibility, so it's rare for it to own up to errors. The Vatican contends that later papal decrees and teachings have effectively revoked the Doctrine of Discovery. But it's clear its existence still has power

Revoking the Doctrine would "absolutely make a difference," said Elsie Boudreau, a member of Alaska's Yup'ik people. 

The Doctrine of Discovery, she said, was an effective tool "to justify the actions of people in power" who "erased our native culture" and identity as "a spiritual people interconnected with the land."

The presumption that Alaska Native peoples were "less than human" and "simple-minded" also made it easy for Alaskan villages to become "a dumping ground" for predatory priests, Boudreau charged, an accusation that appears to be borne out by media accounts. One of those priests began abusing her, she said, when she was 10 years old. The fact that the Doctrine of Discovery has never officially been revoked, she said, "is absolutely not OK." 

Boudreau is not alone. In 2014, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents most Catholic nuns in the U.S., asked Pope Francis to formally repudiate the doctrine and to urge "settler nations" (which would include the U.S. and Canada) to revise any laws they have enacted over the centuries that relied on the doctrine's legitimacy. 

Pope Francis has a historic opportunity to move the world's largest Christian denomination into the future. It's obvious that admitting that previous generations of popes and cardinals were wrong is not easy. But papering over past sins with more enlightened pronouncements and apologies clearly isn't enough. It's long past time for the church to face the painful truth and undo this hateful doctrine that has caused so much pain. 

By Celia Viggo Wexler

Celia Viggo Wexler is the author of “Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope” (Rowman & Littlefield), and writes frequently on Catholicism, feminism and politics.

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