The Doctrine of Discovery
September 6, 2018, 12:00 AM

The “Doctrine of Discovery” is the name we give to a papal bull issued by Alexander VI in 1493.  In this decree, the Church determined the boundaries of lands to be divided between Portugal and Spain for exploration, settlement, and resource extraction.  That the lands in question were home to numerous tribal groups and people, was by-the-bye. 

You may remember this from your history classes, that from the 11th to the 15th century, most of the Iberian peninsula, where Spain and Portugal now lie, was occupied by Islamic rulers.  While many Jews and Christians lived there as well, political power was denied them.  Furthermore, Arabs and Berbers also settled there.  Islamic architecture gave us many beautiful buildings, such as the Alhambra, that define Spanish style right up to the present.  Among the cultural gifts to Europe were Arabic translations of ancient Greek and even Christian writers, including Aristotle; these texts eventually helped fuel what is known as the 13th Century Renaissance, and influenced the theologies of Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas. 

Not surprisingly, however, European princes and Christian religious leaders wanted nothing more than to expel the Moslems from Iberia, so a holy war was waged over several centuries, until the last of the Moors were evicted in 1492, the same year Cristoforo Columbo “sailed the ocean blue.”.

With the war won in Iberia, what were the kingdoms (Castile, Leon, Aragon, Sicily, and Granada) to do with all their soldiers?

Given the riches unexpectedly discovered by Columbus, it should come as no surprise that the answer seemed ready-made: to go to the new world and grab all the riches they could, so as to fill the coffers of the new kings.

This is where the “Demarcation Bull” of Pope Alexander came into play.  Obviously, there had to be official sanction, and official protection, for the enterprise across the sea.

“We [the pope], … recognizing that as true Catholic kings and princes, such as we have always known you to be, and as your illustrious deeds already known to almost the whole world declare, you not only eagerly desire but with every effort, zeal and diligence, without regard to hardships, expenses, dangers, with the shedding even of your blood, are laboring to that end…,” “have … learned that you … for a long time had intended to seek out and discover certain islands and mainlands remote and unknown … to the end that you might bring to the worship of our Redeemer and the profession of the Catholic faith their residents and inhabitants….”  In short, they hired Columbus and he reported that those inhabitants “believe in one God, the Creator in heaven, and seem sufficiently disposed to embrace the Catholic faith and be trained in good morals, so now they [only?] wanted to make Christians of them.”

So, the popes said, they should do just that – bring the locals to the Catholic faith, and not be deterred, and that “we, of our own accord, not at  your instance nor the request of anyone else in your regard, but out of our own sole largesse and certain knowledge and out of the fulness of our apostolic power, by the authority of Almighty God … do …give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever, together with all their dominions, cities, camps, places, and villages, and all rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered [west of a certain longitude], no matter whether the said mainlands and islands[are near India] [so long as no other Christian prince has previously claimed them]….”  AND, he decreed that they were to “appoint … worthy, God-fearing, learned, skilled, and experienced men, in order to instruct the … inhabitants … in the Catholic faith and train them in good morals.” 

You should know that the Episcopal Church has repudiated this document in 2009 at General Convention.  To our modern ears it sounds bad enough – that someone, even a pope, might declare by divine right, the power to divide the world – but that was only the beginning of the story.  The Spanish quickly discovered that any reports of a willingness on the part of the local inhabitants to become Catholic was a fiction.  Unfortunately, they took this as license to murder, oppress, torture, enslave, and rob them instead.

We’ll be talking about that this Sunday!

Blessings to all!                            Evelyn+