Papal bull “Sublimis Deus” and the humanity of Native Americans

By 1512, the system of encomienda was under serious attack by missionaries who were more concerned with saving the souls of Native Americans than of exploiting their potential as laborers. In that year, the Spanish crown issued the groundbreaking the Laws of Burgos, which were meant to modify the system of encomienda to ensure that the encomenderos Christianized the Indians. By 1515, nearly all of the native inhabitants in Jamaica were dead, and by 1536, all of the indigenous people in the Bahamas had become extinct. Forty-five years after Columbus made landfall on Hispaniola, a debate raged within the Catholic Church about whether it was right to enslave the Indians. Pope Paul III issued a decree in 1537 which attempted to settle this dispute. Although generally understood as addressing slavery, this bull is also important for declaring that Indians were human beings, and therefore endowed with human rights, contrary to the arguments of those who claimed that indigenous people were incapable of understanding Christianity, and therefore suitable for lives only as slaves.

This bull certainly did not settle the issue of enslaving the Indians. In 1542, the Spanish government issued the “New Laws,” which forbade the enslavement of Indians within its territories– the need for laws demonstrates that the problematic practice had not ended. In 1555, Father Bartolomé de Las Casas engaged in a debate with theologian Juan Gines de Sepúlveda at Valladolid, Spain, over whether enslavement of the Natives was philosophically justified.

As you read, address the following questions:
1. What characteristics are listed as being necessary to be considered human?
2. What two methods are to be used to convert the “Indians?”

Sublimis Deus, (The Sublime God), 1537
Pope Paul III

To all faithful Christians to whom this writing may come, health in Christ our Lord and the apostolic benediction.

The sublime God so loved the human race that He created man in such wise that he might participate, not only in the good that other creatures enjoy, but endowed him with capacity to attain to the inaccessible and invisible Supreme Good and behold it face to face; and since man, according to the testimony of the sacred scriptures, has been created to enjoy eternal life and happiness, which none may obtain save through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, it is necessary that he should possess the nature and faculties enabling him to receive that faith; and that whoever is thus endowed should be capable of receiving that same faith. Nor is it credible that any one should possess so little understanding as to desire the faith and yet be destitute of the most necessary faculty to enable him to receive it. Hence Christ, who is the Truth itself, that has never failed and can never fail, said to the preachers of the faith whom He chose for that office ‘Go ye and teach all nations.’ He said all, without exception, for all are capable of receiving the doctrines of the faith.

The enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds in order to bring men to destruction, beholding and envying this, invented a means never before heard of, by which he might hinder the preaching of God’s word of Salvation to the people: he inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith.

We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it. Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare by these Our letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, to which the same credit shall be given as to the originals, that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, 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 faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.

By virtue of Our apostolic authority We define and declare by these present letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, which shall thus command the same obedience as the originals, that the said Indians and other peoples should be converted to the faith of Jesus Christ by preaching the word of God and by the example of good and holy living.

Links for more information:
The system of encomienda
The Popes and Slavery
The Laws of Burgos

Vocabulary for this post:
wise (definition 2)
faculty
destitute

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting on AOGB.

    Reading your blog reminds me that even though I am a teacher, it’s like the song says… I don’t know much about history. 😦

  2. Your site is an excellent resource for students and educational filmmakers alike. Question for your students: how is this papal bull linked to the Spanish Mission period of Florida and Georgia history?

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