How Pope Francis Is Resetting the Global Context for Capitalism

It’s no secret that Pope Francis has challenged capitalism to take better care of our planet and its people. He lays much of the blame for global warming, degradation of the environment and various social injustices squarely on the global economic system, which he says gives priority to speculation and financial gain while failing to take into account its effects on human dignity and the natural environment.

Although Pope Francis currently offers few solutions, he is skillfully setting the global context for the Age of Interdependence which will reshape the future of our planet just as his predecessor Popes reshaped the world by setting the global context for the Age of Discovery more than 500 years ago.

The philosophical foundation of the Age of Interdependence is quite simple:  We are one human family and share one common planetary home, and we must work together to take better care of our family and home.

We should pay close attention to Pope Francis because he is also resetting the context for capitalism, which will transform and reinvent how we do business in an interdependent world.  In addition, by repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, Pope Francis has undermined the moral foundation of the United States. We will likely hear more about the Age of Interdependence when Pope Francis comes to America in September to bring this message to Congress and the UN in New York.

To understand the true significance of Pope Francis’ message to capitalism and the United States, it’s important to understand the moral foundations of the Age of Discovery which the Age of Interdependence replaces.

The Catholic Church established the ideological context of modern capitalism and, ultimately, the moral basis of the legal foundation of the United States when it established the Doctrine of Discovery in the 15th century. The Doctrine of Discovery authorized and encouraged European monarchs to explore, claim and exploit foreign lands for their kingdoms.  In short, the Vatican legitimized the Age of Discovery in which the Christian European nations colonized the world.

Briefly, here’s how the Catholic Church contributed to the root causes of our current economic system and its negative effects on society and the environment.  Building on theological and legal doctrines developed during the Crusades, Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull, Romanus Pontifex, in 1452 to King Alfonso V of Portugal, declaring war on all non-Christians, and officially authorizing and promoting the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian nations and their lands.   After Columbus’ discovery of America, in 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued another papal bull, Inter Cetera, which granted Spain the right to conquer the lands Columbus had discovered and expressed the desire to subjugate the discovered people and convert them to Christianity.

These papal bulls gave rise to the belief that European Christian nations had a divine right to claim absolute title to and ultimate authority over any newly discovered non-Christian lands and their peoples.   The resulting Christian Doctrine of Discovery commanded the enslavement and conversion of indigenous peoples, their property and land, and was extended into the English Colonies in America.  King James I, for example, based the grants of property rights to colonists in Virgina in 1606 and New England in 1620 on the premise that these lands were “not now actually possessed by any Christian Prince or People” and were, therefore, ripe for the taking.

And what was the agent of the Age of Discovery? The same institution that is the basis of modern capitalism, the corporation, which is a by-product of the Age of Discovery and by its very design unwittingly perpetuates its ethos.   Many of the original corporations such as the Dutch East India Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company were chartered by kings as agents of empire during the Age of Discovery to help claim foreign lands for the crown and exploit them and their peoples for the benefit of the royal treasury.

Today’s corporations are no longer chartered by kings but retain their original design of conquering markets and exploiting them for the benefit of their stockholders without corresponding accountability to society and the environment.  It is no surprise that corporations often act with the same indifference towards society and the environment as European monarchs extended to colonized peoples and their lands because they still bear the imprint of the imperial Christian consciousness of 15th century Popes.  The prevailing economic system emphasizes profit maximization at the expense of society and the environment because we still do business in corporations designed for commerce in the Age of Discovery which lack the legal architecture to support a social and environmental conscience.

In his recent encyclical letter, Laudato Si: On Care For Our Common Home, Pope Francis implicitly signals the end of the Doctrine of Discovery by declaring that we are one human family sharing a common home.  On his recent trip to Latin America, Pope Francis expressly ended the ethos of the Age of Discovery with a startling apology to the native peoples of the Americas. “Some may rightly say, ‘When the pope speaks of colonialism, he overlooks certain actions of the church, I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God.” He added: “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”

The implications of Pope Francis’ apology on the United States are profound because they imply that the moral foundations of our legal title to our nation are faulty and outdated. Believe it or not, the Doctrine of Discovery is still the law in the United States.

Here’s how it became law. In 1823, the Supreme Court wrote the Doctrine of Discovery into U.S. law in Johnson v. McIntosh. In 1775, Thomas Johnson and a group of British investors bought a tract of land from the Piankeshaw Indians, which was taken from the British during the Revolutionary War and became part of the United States. In 1818, the U.S. government sold some of the land to William McIntosh, which prompted Joshua Johnson, an heir to one of the original buyers, to claim the land through a lawsuit.  Johnson lost the case and ultimately appealed to the Supreme Court.

In a unanimous decision, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that the Christian European nations had assumed complete control over the lands of America during the “Age of Discovery.” Upon winning independence in 1776, he noted, the U.S. inherited authority over these lands from Great Britain, “notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens…” According to the ruling, Native Americans did not have any rights as independent nations, but only as tenants or residents of U.S. land. For Mr. Johnson, the original sale of land by the Piankeshaws to his ancestors was invalid because they were not the lawful owners. Johnson v. McIntosh has never been overruled and the Doctrine of Discovery continues as the law of the land, having been relied upon by the Supreme Court as recently as 2005 in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York.

With his forthright candor, Pope Francis will surely have an exciting trip to America next month. Sparks will fly.

See: (i) Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, (ii) Report of UN Social and Economic Council: Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal Construct known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which has served as the Foundation of the Violation of their Human Rights, (iii) Five Hundred Years of Injustice: The Legacy of Fifteenth Century Religious Prejudice by Steve Newcomb, and (iv) Pope Francis Ends the Christian Doctrine of Discovery in the Huffington Post Italy






  1. Excellent and elegant post John! Congratulations. Informative and thoughtful.

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