The European Discovery and Settlement of the New World Is Based on the Right of Conquest

The European Discovery and Settlement of the New World Is Based on the Right of Conquest

Having met recently in Plenary Assembly, the Canadian Catholic Bishops pledged their commitment to: “Continue to dialogue with the Vatican on issues identified by Indigenous delegates and representatives this year. To that end, we have initiated conversations about the desire of many Indigenous Peoples to hear the Church address historical policies and principles often referred to as the “Doctrine of Discovery,” and are actively working with the Vatican with the goal of issuing a new statement. Canada’s Bishops continue to reject and resist ideas associated with the Doctrine of Discovery in the strongest way possible.”(1)

The discovery and settlement of the New World by European powers was informed in part by the desire to spread the Catholic Faith. However, given the neo-pagan Renaissance spirit of the times, it was also shaped by expansionism grounded in the right of conquest and the laws of war.

For the kings on the Iberian Peninsula, zeal to spread the Gospel carried considerable weight. They cherished having their right of conquest blessed by the Vicar of Christ. Less faithful kings of other lands did not bother. Thus, Francis I of France encouraged the expeditions of Verazzano (1523—1524) and Cartier (1534—1536) for purposes of empire. Protestant England’s motive was mercantilist gain. A similar mindset shaped the navigations and colonizing efforts of Dutch, Swedish, German, and French Protestants.

The European use of the right of conquest in the Age of Discovery mirrors its constant use through History. Alexander the Great and Gengis Khan, Romans and Huns, Saxons and Visigoths, Mongols and Aztecs, Normans and Germans, Iroquois and Lakota all exercised the right of conquest. Christianity tempered and civilized somewhat the use of this right.

Thus, for the benefit of the King of Portugal, Pope Nicholas V, stated on June 18, 1452 in the bull Dum diversas: “We grant…you full and free power, through the Apostolic authority, by this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and wherever established…”(2)

Three years later, the same pope stated in the bull Romanus pontifex: “We,…do, motu proprio, …by apostolic authority,…decree and declare that the right of conquest which in the course of these letters we declare to be extended [to the lands acquired from infidels or pagans]…has belonged and pertained, and forever of right belongs and pertains, to the said King Alfonso [of Portugal], his successors, and the infante [prince Henry the Navigator], and not to any others.”(3)

With Christopher Columbus’s 1492 rediscovery of the American continent, Pope Alexander VI arbitrated between the rights of conquest of the Iberian Peninsula’s various sovereigns with the 1493 bull Inter Caetera setting a demarcation line one hundred leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands.(4) Portugal was unhappy with the dividing line and formalized a new division between the Iberian realms through the June 7, 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. That treaty established the demarcation line as 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. At the request of King Emmanuel I of Portugal, the Treaty of Tordesillas was later sanctioned by Pope Julius II in the January 24, 1506 papal bull Ea quae pro bono pacis.

Regardless of papal blessing or sanction however, what prevailed on the ground in the New World was the right of conquest. Thus, with varying fortunes, English, French, German, Russian, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, and Polish-Lithuanian powers all carved out dominions for themselves in the New World, at the expense of Portuguese and Spanish rights.

Through independence, the United States inherited the rights of the British crown. In Canada, Crown rights are exercised through the national government.

That being the New World’s history since 1492, why are Canada’s bishops and the Holy See striving to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery?

In part, these Church authorities seem motivated by Liberation Theology. They are also endeared with the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Both motivations are gravely wrong and must be opposed for the common good of both the American and Canadian nations.

For the devotees of Liberation Theology, and specifically its indigenist wing, Christianity and the European settlement of the New World were a calamitous disaster. They reject it wholesale. The Christian West must learn from the Indians, not preach to them or try to assimilate them into progress, development, and civilization. For this wrongheaded heretical thinking, being shackled in the state of primitivism is a blessing, not a curse.

“The Indian,” Chilean priest Pablo Richard states, “had ancient religions in which there was faith much before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and his boys…They were very profound and pure religions. There was impressive sanctity and spiritual depth.”(5)

“Indigenous communities must be received as evangelizers, a model for our society that has much to learn from them,” states Most Rev. Fernando Gomes, archbishop of Goiânia, Brazil.(6)

Father Richard adds, “Sometimes I go to the mountain with my Bible and do not know where to put it. I am ashamed. How can I speak of Saint Paul and Moses to people who have two thousand years of tradition…We must open the way for a new, liberating evangelization starting from the ancient religions of our indigenous peoples.”(7)

Most Rev. Tomás Balduino, bishop emeritus of Goiás, Brazil, at a conference held in Rome in 2009, stated: “The profound conviction of missionaries today is that these indigenous peoples are the true evangelizers of the world. We must not go to them as one who brings a doctrine or gospel given and entrusted to us by Christ. We have to go to the Indians knowing that Christ has anticipated us in their midst and that seeds of the Word are there. We have the conviction that the Indians already live the beatitudes. It is we that must convert to their cultures.”(8)

Father Richard continues, “God has written two books. God’s first book is the cosmos, culture, the indigenous religion. This is the fundamental book of God. God has also written another book, the Bible, but only to help us understand the first.”(9)

For Liberation Theology, pantheism is the ultimate truth. Ex-Franciscan friar Leonardo Boff writes, “The Earth is not just a planet on which life exists. It is alive. It is a living superorganism that the Andeans called ‘Pacha Mama’ and people today refer to as ‘Gaia,’ the Greek name for the living Earth.”(10)

Needless to say, Liberation Theology adepts reject the Great Commission: “Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19).

Consequently, for Liberation Theology adepts, rescinding the Doctrine of Discovery is an urgent requirement of social and racial justice.

The bishops’ second motivation is their promotion of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

On September 29, 2002, at the end of their Plenary Assembly, Canadian Bishops pledged to “Continue to embrace the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and identify opportunities to use our voices to accompany Indigenous Peoples in the pursuit of justice, healing and reconciliation.”

That Declaration’s art. 26 reads:

  1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.
  2. Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.
  3. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.

True, in 1945, member signatory states of the Charter of the United Nations, agreed to refrain from exercising the right of conquest. The Charter’s art. 2, no. 4, which states: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” That means refraining from the use of the right of conquest.

Unquestionably, however, no signatory state understood that proviso as being retroactive.

UNDRIP could not be more opposed to the right of conquest exercised by European powers during the Age of Discovery. Does it propose to rewrite the history of the last half millennium and move large parts of the country to indigenous control and government?

Is that what Canada’s successors of the apostles desire?

What about acquired rights? Does justice not respect and honor them?


  1. “Bishops of Canada Deepen Their Commitments to Walk Together With Indigenous Partners on the Healing and Reconciliation Journey,”, Sept. 29, 2022, //
  2. Nicholas V, bull Dum Diversas (June 18, 1452), accessed Oct. 9, 2022, //
  3. Nicholas V, bull Romanus Pontifex (Jan. 8, 1455), accessed Oct. 9, 2022, //
  4. See Alexander VI, bull Inter Caetera (May 4, 1493), accessed Oct. 9, 2022, //
  5. Julio Loredo, “Teología indígena,” Covadonga Informa 15, no. 162 (Mar. 1992), 5.
  6. “Iniciado curso sobre a integração dos índios,” O Popular (Goiânia), July 13, 1976.
  7. Loredo, “Teología indígena,” 5.
  8. “Mons. Romero, Martin Luther King, Don Diana: Quando la parola diventa microfono dei senza voce,” Adista Notizie, no. 40, Apr. 11, 2009.
  9. Loredo, “Teología indígena,” 6.
  10. Leonardo Boff, “A terra não é um planeta em que há vida, ela é um organismo vivo,” O Tempo, Apr. 4, 2014.