Why Pope Francis faces calls to revoke the Doctrine of Discovery

Images of Pope Alexander VI circa 1485 and 1495.Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Getty Images

Before Rodrigo Borgia donned the papal tiara in 1492 and became Pope Alexander VI, he’d had multiple mistresses and fathered at least eight children. He favoured debauched parties with dancing prostitutes and used the papacy to enrich his Spanish family.

Upon his death, likely by poisoning, subsequent popes sealed off the Vatican apartments where Pope Alexander and his family had lived, as a prophylactic against the ghosts of his orgiastic reign.

And this is where many biographical entries end, prioritizing titillation over the substance of his rule, which still haunts the world despite the efforts of Vatican ghostbusters.

Abridged accounts of his life tend to exclude the randy pope’s central role in Europe’s heist of the Americas during the Age of Discovery, a mass dispossession of Indigenous peoples that remains foundational to Canadian sovereignty.

Today, the international legal principle called the Doctrine of Discovery holds that Christian nations of Europe legally acquired vast tracts of Indigenous land by making landfall during the Age of Discovery and raising flags, or planting crosses or digging some sod. The doctrine, formulated in the Vatican’s official decrees, known as papal bulls, and developed over the centuries by philosophers, scholars and an influential U.S. Supreme Court judge, has been used to explain how the Crown continues to hold underlying interest in all lands within Canada.

As Pope Francis prepares for his arrival in Canada next week, he faces mounting pressure from the Assembly of First Nations and others to revoke the Doctrine of Discovery. Such a task is well beyond the powers of the Vatican, but the strange history of the doctrine could be said to serve as a warning against underestimating the pope’s influence.

“The story of the doctrine is the

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