Sublimus Dei

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Sublimis Deus [English: 'From God on high'] (erroneously cited as Sublimus Dei ) is a papal bull 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. [1]It follows the decree issued by Charles I of Spain in 1530 in which the King prohibited the enslavement of Indians.[2] 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) 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) 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of Indian rights, others see it as part of an inconsistent and politically convenient stance by Paul III, who later rescinded Sublimis Deus or the Pastorale in 1538.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executing brief for the bull ("Pastorale Officium") was annulled by Paul in 1537 at the request of the Spanish who had rescinded the decree previously issued by Charles.[3] The bull is cited at times as evidence of a strong condemnation by the church of slavery in general, but scholars point out that Paul sanctioned slavery elsewhere after the issuing of Sublimis Deus.[4]


In the bulls Dum diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1455) the right of taking pagans as perpetual slaves was granted to Christians. In the opinion of some[who?], these bulls served as a justification for the subsequent era of slave trade and colonialism.

With the realization that the Americas represented regions of the Earth with which the Europeans were not aware of 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 new found 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;[5] 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).[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] Davis (1988) asserts it was annulled due to a dispute with the Spanish crown.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] Prein (2008) observes the difficulty in reconciling these decrees with "Inter Caetera".[7]

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.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15]

In 1545 Paul repealed an ancient law that allowed slaves to claim their freedom under the Emperor's statue on Capitoline Hill, in view of the number of homeless people and tramps in the city of Rome.[16] The decree included those who had become Christians after their enslavement and those born to Christian slaves. The right of inhabitants of Rome to publicly buy and sell slaves of both sexes was affirmed.[17] Stogre (1992) asserts that the lifting of restrictions was due to a shortage of slaves in Rome.[18]

“[we decree] that each and every person of either sex, whether Roman or non-Roman, whether secular or clerical, and no matter of what dignity, status, degree, order or condition they be, may freely and lawfully buy and sell publicly any slaves whatsoever of either sex, and make contracts about them as is accustomed to be done in other places, and publicly hold them as slaves and make use of their work, and compel them to do the work assigned to them. And with Apostolic authority, by the tenor of these present documents, we enact and decree in perpetuity that slaves who flee to the Capital and appeal for their liberty shall in no wise be freed from the bondage of their servitude...but they shall be returned in slavery to their owners, and if it seems proper they shall be punished as runaways; and we very strictly forbid our beloved sons who for the time being are conservatori of the said city to presume by their authority to emancipate the aforesaid slaves – who flee as previously described and appeal for their liberty – from the bondage of their slavery, irrespective of whether they were made Christians after enslavement, or whether they were born in slavery even from Christian slave parents according to the provisions of common law...[19]

In 1547 Pope Paul III also sanctioned the enslavement of the Christian King of England, Henry VIII, in the aftermath of the execution of Sir Thomas More[20] In 1548 he authorized the purchase and possession of Muslim slaves in the Papal states.[21]


The wording of Sublimis Deus was a general pronouncement, framed in terms that applied not only to Indians but to all unknown peoples. The principal passage reads:

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.

Pastorale Officium[edit]

The Pastorale Officium has been seen as a companion document for Sublimis Deus. The Pastorale outlines specific penalties (principally, excommunication) for Christians who enslave Indians. However, Joel Panzer (The Popes and Slavery, pp. 22–23) believes that the Pastorale was actually meant to enforce a decree against enslaving Indians issued in 1530 by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. The Pastorale actually mentions Charles V. However, such a view would mean that the Pope was unaware that Charles had rescinded that decree in 1534.

In any case, the "Pastorale Officium" was annulled the following year in "Non Indecens Videtur" after complaints by Charles V.[22]

See also[edit]


  • "The problem of slavery in Western culture", David Brion Davis, Oxford University Press US, 1988, ISBN 0-19-505639-6
  • "Indigenous peoples and human rights", Patrick Thornberry, Manchester University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-7190-3794-8
  • "Slavery and the Catholic Church,The history of Catholic teaching concerning the moral legitimacy of the institution of slavery", John Francis Maxwell, 1975, Chichester Barry-Rose, ISBN 0-85992-015-1
  • "The Popes and Slavery", Father Joel S Panzer, The Church In History Centre, 22 April 2008 [2], retrieved 9 August 2009
  • "That the world may believe: the development of Papal social thought on aboriginal rights", Michael Stogre S.J, Médiaspaul, 1992, ISBN 2-89039-549-9
  • "The Truth About the Catholic Church and Slavery", Rodney Stark, Christianity Today, 7 January 2003 [3]
  • "Encyclopedia of the middle passage", Toyin Falola, Amanda Warnock,Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007, ISBN 0-313-33480-3
  • "The problem of slavery in Western culture", David Brion Davis, Oxford University Press US, 1988, ISBN 0-19-505639-6
  • "That the world may believe: the development of Papal social thought on aboriginal rights", Michael Stogre S.J, Médiaspaul, 1992, ISBN 2-89039-549-9
  • "Religions and the abolition of slavery - a comparative approach", W. G. Clarence-Smith [4], Professor of the Economic History of Asia and Africa, University of London, retrieved 11 August 2009 [5]
  • "The Encyclopedia Of Christianity", Volume 5, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008, ISBN 0-8028-2417-X
  • "Christianity in the Caribbean: essays on church history", Armando Lampe, 2001,University of the West Indies Press,ISBN 976-640-029-6


  1. ^ Latin and English in Joel S. Panzer: The Popes and Slavery (New York: Alba House, 1996), pp. 79-81 "Sublimis Deus sic delexit humanum genus" (The exalted God loved the human race so much)
  2. ^ Maxwell 1975, p.58, 68-71
  3. ^ Maxwell 1975, p. 68-70
  4. ^ Maxwell 1975, Stogre 1992
  5. ^ Colossians 1:23, Romans 16:25-26
  6. ^ Giménez Fernández, Manuel (1971). "Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas: A Biographical Sketch". In Juan Friede and Benjamin Keen (eds.). Bartolomé de las Casas in History: Toward an Understanding of the Man and his Work. Collection spéciale: CER. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press. pp. 67–126. ISBN 0-87580-025-4. OCLC 421424974.  Invalid |name-list-format=scap (help)
  7. ^ a b "The Encyclopedia Of Christianity", p. 212
  8. ^ Stogre, p. 115, fn. 133
  9. ^ "The problem of slavery in Western culture, P. 170, fn. 9"
  10. ^ Lampe, p. 17
  11. ^ Thornberry 2002, p. 65, fn. 21
  12. ^ Father Joel S Panzer, 2008. Also see Hanke, Lewis. “Pope Paul III and the American Indians.” Harvard Theological Review 30, no. 2 (April 1, 1937): 65–102.
  13. ^ Stogre, p. 115-116
  14. ^ Stark 2003
  15. ^ Falola, p. 107
  16. ^ "The problem of slavery in Western culture, P. 56"
  17. ^ Noonan, p. 79, Stogre, p. 116
  18. ^ Stogre, p. 116
  19. ^ Motu Proprio, November 9, 1548. “Conffirmatio Statutorum populi Romani super restitutione servorum in Urbe”. Statutorum Almae Urbis Romae...Rome, 1567, VI, 19(B) from “Slavery and the Catholic Church”, John Francis Maxwell, p. 75, 1975, Barry Rose Publishers
  20. ^ Maxwell, 1975, p.118
  21. ^ Clarence-Smith
  22. ^ "A Prophetic Challenge to the Church:The Last Word of Bartolomé de las Casas", Luis N. Rivera-Pagán, Inaugural lecture as Henry Winters Luce Professor in Ecumenics and Mission, delivered on April 9, 2003, at Princeton Theological Seminary [1] fn. 45: " Helen Rand Parish reproduces the Latin text of the bull and the brief, with a Spanish translation, in Las Casas en México (México, D. F. Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1992), 303 –305, 310-312. There are English versions of both documents in Bartolomé de las Casas, The Only Way, edited by Helen Rand Parish and translated by Francis Patrick Sullivan, S. J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 114-115, 156-157 and in Bartolomé de las Casas, In Defense of the Indians, translated by Stafford Poole, C. M., (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1992), 100-103. In his anthology of ecclesiastical normative documents regarding the Spanish empire, Francisco Javier Hernáez reproduces Pastorale officium, but not Sublimis Deus, though he includes Veritas ipsa, a variant of Sublimis Deus. He blames Las Casas for the “exaggerated news” regarding the mistreatment of the Native Americans as the source for the Pope’s concern and reproduces some of the most denigrating testimony against the Native Americans ever expressed in the sixteenth century. Francisco Javier Hernáez, Colección de bulas, breves y otros documentos relativos a la iglesia de América y Filipinas (1879) (Vaduz: Klaus Reprint, 1964), Vol. I, 101-104. Pastorale officium and Veritas ipsa, but not Sublimis Deus, are included in America Pontificia. Primi saeculi evangelizationis, 1493-1592 documenta Pontificia ex registris et minutis praesertim in archivo secreto Vaticano existentibus, collegit et edidit Josef Metzler (Città del Vaticano: Librería Editrice Vaticana, 1991), Vol. I, 359-361, 364-366. For a detailed analysis of these Papal documents, see Alberto de la Hera, "El derecho de los indios a la libertad y a la fe: la bula Sublimis Deus y los problemas indianos que la motivaron,” Anuario de historia del derecho español, Vol. 26, 1956, 89-182. Parish has given a closer look to the origin of these documents, including another 1537 Papal bull, Altitudo divini consilii, regarding the performance of some sacraments and liturgical ceremonies in the New World (Las Casas en México, 15-28, 82-90)."

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