Catholics throughout the world should ‘be permanently in state of mission’ 

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, 

Columbus Day this year will be celebrated on Monday, Oct. 9, designated by the United States government as one of 12 federal holidays. For many years, Columbus Day was observed each year on Oct. 12, commemorating the landing of explorer Christopher Columbus in the New World on Oct. 12, 1492. Since 1971, when Columbus Day became an officially recognized federal holiday in the United States, it has been observed on the second Monday in October.

On Oct. 10, 1992, Pope John Paul II visited the Dominican Republic and celebrated Mass in the nation’s cathedral, the first cathedral in the Western Hemisphere, to mark the 500thanniversary of the discovery of the Americas and the arrival of Christianity in the New World.

In recent years, some critics have taken to blame Christopher Columbus for all the ills and wrongdoings that followed the migration of large numbers of people from Europe to the Americas. Some states do not recognize Columbus Day and have replaced it with celebrations of “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” “Discoverers’ Day,” or “Native American Day,” or they do not observe it at all. Even Columbus, Ohio, removed Columbus Day as a city holiday in 2018 and now honors veterans instead of their city’s namesake, Christopher Columbus.

At the University of Notre Dame, in the autumn of 2020, Luigi Gregori’s Christopher Columbus murals, painted between 1882 and 1884 and on the second floor of the university’s Main Building, were covered with removable tapestries. Gregori, a former artist in the papal household of Pius IX, arrived at Notre Dame in 1874 at the invitation of Rev. Edward Sorin, CSC, the University’s founder, to create works for the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. After the devastating fire and rebuilding of the Main Building in 1879, the 12 scenes from the life of Columbus were painted directly on the plaster walls of the new structure.

The University of Notre Dame’s website explains that the tapestries, removable for study, “honor the decision to preserve the murals as an opportunity to appreciate the context in which they were created and to understand the University’s history, while respecting the dignity and experience of indigenous people, especially in the aftermath of Columbus’ arrival.”

During a papal Mass in July 2022 in Canada, some indigenous protesters unfurled a banner calling for Pope Francis to “rescind the doctrine,” referring to the so-called “doctrine of discovery.” In a helpful analysis published in the National Catholic Register on April 29, 2023, Father Raymond de Souza, founding editor of Convivium magazine, wrote, “The protesters’ claim is that in granting permission to the Portuguese crown to acquire lands in Africa in the mid-15th century, the papacy created a ‘doctrine’ in which those Europeans who ‘discovered’ lands in Africa (and later the Americas) could claim them, superseding whatever ownership existed among the Indigenous peoples. This ‘doctrine’ then justified the seizure of Indigenous lands and property and the enslavement of Indigenous peoples.”

In response, the Vatican Dicastery for Culture and Education and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development jointly published a statement last March 30 stating that the Catholic Church “repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of Indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery.'” The joint statement clarifies that the “doctrine of discovery” is a legal and political term, not what Catholics mean by doctrine as truths belonging to the faith: “The ‘doctrine of discovery’ is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church. Historical research clearly demonstrates that the papal documents in question, written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions, have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.”

In fact, the term “doctrine of discovery” is not of Catholic origin. It comes from a U.S. Supreme Court opinion written by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1823, in which he wrote, “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 exclusion of all other Europeans necessarily gave to the nation making the discovery the sole right of acquiring the soil from the natives and establishing settlements upon it.”

The Vatican statement also pointed out that there are numerous affirmations by the Church and popes upholding the rights of indigenous people, such as the 1537 bull Sublimis Deusby Pope Paul III, who wrote, “We define and declare [ … ] that [, .. ] the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the Christian faith; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.”

When Pope St. John Paul II met with indigenous leaders in Canada in the 1980s, he made explicit reference to Sublimis Deus as the basis for Catholic teaching on the dignity and rights of indigenous peoples.

Father de Souza has noted that “incomplete and incorrect history has been widely disseminated” about the Catholic missionaries who evangelized the New World. The immoral acts against indigenous peoples that were carried out by competing colonial powers should not prevent us from acknowledging the good that came from the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus and the subsequent spread of Christianity. In this regard, Pope Francis has expressed his “hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are. … Throughout the world, let us be permanently in a state of mission” (Evangelii Gaudium, 25).May God give us this grace. Amen.