Sublimis Deus

Sublimis Deus
In the Name of the Holy... (Papal Bull of Pope Paul III) WDL2965.png
Author(s)Pope Paul III
PurposePapal bull

Sublimis Deus (English: The sublime God;[1] erroneously cited as Sublimus Dei) is a papal encyclical promulgated by Pope Paul III on June 2, 1537, which forbids the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas (called Indians of the West and the South) and all other people.[2] It goes on to state that the Indians are fully rational human beings who have rights to freedom and private property, even if they are heathen.[3][4][5][6][7][8] It strengthens the recent decree issued by Charles V of Spain in 1530 in which the King prohibited the enslavement of Indians.[9] Another related document is the ecclesiastical letter Pastorale officium, issued May 29, 1537, and usually seen as a companion document to Sublimis Deus.[10]

There is still some controversy about how this bull is related to the documents known as Veritas ipsa, Unigenitus Deus and Pastorale officium (May 29, 1537). Alberto de la Hera (see footnote 1)[citation needed] believes that Veritas ipsa and Unigenitus Deus are simply other versions of Sublimis Deus, and not separate bulls. Joel Panzer (The Popes and Slavery [New York: Alba House, 1996] p. 17)[citation needed] sees Veritas ipsa as an earlier draft of Sublimis Deus. While some scholars see Sublimis Deus as a primary example of Papal advocacy of Indian rights, others see it as part of an inconsistent and politically convenient stance by Paul III, who later rescinded Sublimis Deus or the Pastorale in 1538.

In Sublimis Deus, Paul III unequivocally declares the indigenous peoples of the Americas to be rational beings with souls, denouncing any idea to the contrary as directly inspired by the "enemy of the human race" (Satan). He goes on to condemn their reduction to slavery in the strongest terms, declaring it null and void for any people known as well as any that could be discovered in the future, entitles their right to liberty and property, and concludes with a call for their evangelization.

The bull had a strong impact on the Valladolid debate, and its principles eventually became the official position of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, although it was often ignored by the colonists and conquistadores themselves. The executing brief for the bull ("Pastorale Officium") was annulled by Paul in 1537 at the request of the Spanish who had rescinded the decree previously issued by Charles.[11] The bull is cited at times as evidence of a strong condemnation by the church of slavery in general, but some scholars point out that Paul sanctioned slavery elsewhere after the issuing of Sublimis Deus.[12]


In late spring of 1452 Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI wrote to Pope Nicholas for help against the impending siege of Constantinople by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. Nicholas issued the bull Dum Diversas (18 June 1452) authorizing King Alfonso V of Portugal to "attack, conquer, and subjugate Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ wherever they may be found." Issued less than a year before the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the bull may have been intended to begin another crusade against the Ottoman Empire.[13] Furthermore, the bull Romanus Pontifex (1455) gave the right of taking for reason of punishment for crime saracens (who, as Muslims in general were slavers themselves, often capturing Christians) and pagans as perpetual slaves.

With the realization that the Americas represented regions of the Earth of which the Europeans were not aware earlier, there arose intense speculation over the question whether the natives of these lands were true humans or not. Together with that went a debate over the (mis)treatment of these natives by the Conquistadores and colonists.

A substantial party believed that these newfound peoples were not truly human. This party speculated that since Christendom was not permitted by God to become aware of their existence and thus bring the Gospel to them until so late, it was only because they were not human or possessed no souls, so they could not attain salvation. The New Testament says that the gospel has been preached to all nations;[14] since the gospel had not been preached to the Native Americans, perhaps they did not count. In addition, Christians understood humanity to be divided into three distinct races (Europeans, Asians, and Africans), one for each of the sons of Noah. Native Americans did not fit among these divisions.

The main impetus for Sublimis Deus was a council held by prominent Missionaries in Mexico in 1537, including Archbishop Juan de Zumárraga, Bartolomé de Las Casas and Bishop of Puebla Julian Garcés. They discussed the methods of converting the natives, especially the Franciscan practice of mass baptism. Basing a recommendation to the pope on Las Casas' treatise on how to convert the Indians, "De Unico Vocationis Modo", they sent a letter to Rome with Dominican friar named Bernardino de Minaya (born ca. 1489).[15] In 1537, Minaya arrived in Rome and pleaded his case on behalf of the Indians.

In response, Paul issued Sublimis Deus on June 2, 1537. "Pastorale officium", a papal brief apparently used in conjunction with the Sublimis Deus by Minaya, declared automatic excommunication for anyone who failed to abide by the new ruling.[16] Stogre (1992) notes that Sublimis Deus is not present in Denzinger, the authoritative compendium of official teachings of the Catholic Church, and that the executing brief for it ("Pastorale officium") was annulled the following year.[17] Davis (1988) asserts it was annulled due to a dispute with the Spanish crown.[18] The Council of The West Indies and the Crown concluded that the documents broke their patronato rights and the Pope withdrew them, though they continued to circulate and be quoted by La Casas and others who supported Indian rights.[19]

According to Falkowski (2002) Sublimis Deus had the effect of revoking the bull of Pope Alexander VI Inter Caetera but still leaving the colonizers the duty of converting the native people.[20] Prein (2008) observes the difficulty in reconciling these decrees with Inter Caetera.[16]

Father Gustavo Gutierrez describes Sublimis Deus as the most important papal document relating to the condition of native Indians and that it was addressed to all Christians.[21] Maxwell (1975) notes that the bull did not change the traditional teaching that the enslavement of Indians was permissible if they were considered "enemies of Christendom" as this would be considered by the Church as a "just war". Stogre (1992) further argues that the Indian nations had every right to self-defense.[22] Rodney Stark (2003) describes the bull as "magnificent" and believes the reason that, in his opinion, it has belatedly come to light is due to the neglect of Protestant historians.[23] Falola asserts that the bull related to the native populations of the New World and did not condemn the transatlantic slave trade stimulated by the Spanish monarchy and the Holy Roman Emperor.[24]