The Discovery Doctrine of Land Ownership

The legal basis for land ownership in the Americas is “Christian Discovery.” This land doctrine derives from the 15th century theology of the Catholic Church. The moral origin of the Vatican’s land doctrine is its old claim of the supremacy of Christianity over all other religions. The “Christian discovery” doctrine is not in the US Constitution, yet it has been adopted by the US government and upheld by the courts.

Bully’s Justice” by George Zebrowsky, an eye-opening article on Christian Discovery, was published in the June/July 2014 issues of Free Inquiry. Under Christian Discovery, the first Christians to “discover” land previously unknown to the Christian chiefs of state, and held by non-Christians, have a legally legitimate claim to that land. The indigenous and current dwellers have no legal property rights.

A court case in 2005 showed that the Christian Discovery doctrine is still in force. The Onondaga Indian (native American) nation in the State of New York sought federal-court recognition to title of ancestral lands. Also in 2005 the Oneida and Cayuga Indian nations had their land claims dismissed by the US Supreme Court. The Onondaga claim was dismissed in 2010 based on the 2005 Supreme Court decision.

The Supreme Court stated that “Under the doctrine of discovery,” the ownership of “lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign, first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.”

There are three moral justifications of land ownership. First is natural moral law, the universal ethic that is inherent in human nature and is a moral imperative for humanity. Second is tradition. Third is force. Natural moral law invalidates both tradition and force as moral rationales.

The laws of the United States derive from English common law, the US Constitution, natural moral law, and the Vatican’s doctrine of land discovery. The US Constitution recognizes the supremacy of natural moral law in its Ninth Amendment, and it also recognizes common law. The US Constitution does not recognize the legality of tradition, force, or the Christian Discovery doctrine, yet the US Supreme Court continues to adhere to Christian Discovery.

As stated in “Bully’s Justice” (p. 28), this Doctrine of Discovery is “one of the rare principles of American law that came not from English common law or from the pen of some Enlightenment philosopher but rather from the Vatican.” The US Supreme Court recognized the doctrine in Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823 under Chief Justice John Marshall.

The doctrine of Christian Discovery originated in 1455 when Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Romanus Pontifex. Without any Biblical justification, this declaration justified the conquest of African lands by the king of Portugal. Pope Alexander VI extended the doctrine to the Spanish conquests in the Americas. The doctrine of Christian Discovery authorized European Christian explorers and their monarchs the rationale to claim lands not occupied by Christians. The doctrine deprived the indigenous inhabitants of any legal land rights.

As ultimate legal owner of the land, the state can then lease land to private tenants, and it can sell or transfer land titles to private persons, but such titles are always secondary to the state as senior and supreme owner, as the state can tax land, control its use, and forcibly buy back title with eminent domain.

The current Pope has expressed concern with global inequalities, but he has not gone to the core cause of inequality and poverty: privileged land tenure and the denial of labor’s self-ownership rights. The Catholic Church would have to confront its old doctrine on the conquest of land, and this is cannot do, and therefore popes must confine their concern about poverty and inequality to laments and exhortations. Now come economists such as Thomas Piketty calling for massive redistribution to treat the effects of income inequality, but refusing to acknowledge the origins and remedies in land and labor.

The Christian Discovery doctrine is based on supremacism, the belief that one’s religion, culture, and traditions are superior to those of others, justifying the use of force to maintain this supremacy. Such supremacy has been adopted by several religions, but this violates the human equality that is the basis of natural moral law and that has been recognized in declarations of human rights. Such constitutional cognitive dissonance does not seem to bother legal authorities.

If we seriously apply natural moral law to the question of land ownership, we need to confront both the false justifications of Christian Doctrine of Discovery and also the aboriginal land claims. As stated by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government, human moral equality implies that one may fully own land only so long as there is free land of that quality available to others. When such land is scarce and has a price, the analysis of Henry George kicks in, that one may have possession conditional on paying the land rent to the members of the relevant community in equal shares.

Therefore the native American Indians may not take full ownership of their former lands. The land rent belongs not to them but to all humanity, or at least to all Americans. Also, the rental value of land due to civic improvements is a return on the capital goods, not the natural spacial resource.

Justice requires the abolition of the supremacist Doctrine of Discovery and its replacement with natural moral law. Some compensation and restoration of rights of possession are due to the aboriginal inhabitants, but history cannot be erased, and the current residents, users, and title holders, having followed the current rules, also deserve some consideration.

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