Sublimis Deus

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Sublimis Deus
Latin for 'The sublime God'
Papal bull of Pope Paul III
Coat of arms of Pope Paul III
Signature date2 June 1537
Bula del Papa Paulo III.jpg

Sublimis Deus (English: The sublime God;[1] erroneously cited as Sublimus Dei and occasionally as Sic Dilexit[2]) is a 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.[3] 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.[4][5][6][7][8][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 believes that Veritas ipsa and Unigenitus Deus are simply other versions of Sublimis Deus, and not separate bulls.[11] Joel Panzer sees Veritas ipsa as an earlier draft of Sublimis Deus.[12] 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of Indian rights, others see it as part of an inconsistent and politically convenient stance by Paul III, who later rescinded Sublimis Deus or the Pastorale in 1538.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. Its principles became part of New Laws issued by Charles V in Spain, although such laws were often ignored by the colonists and conquistadores themselves.[13] 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executing brief for the bull ("Pastorale Officium") was annulled by Paul in 1537 at the request of the Spanish who had rescinded the decree previously issued by Charles.[14]


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.[15] 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. 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 c. 1489).[16] 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.[17] 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.[18] Davis (1988) asserts it was annulled due to a dispute with the Spanish crown.[19] 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.[20]

According to Falkowski (2002) Sublimis Deus had the effect of revoking Pope Alexander VI's bull Inter caetera but still leaving the colonizers the duty of converting the native people.[21] Prein (2008) observes the difficulty in reconciling these decrees with Inter caetera.[17]

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.[22] 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.[23] 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.[24] 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.[25]


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.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Pope Paul III. "Sublimus Dei, 1537, Papal Encyclicals Online
  2. ^
  3. ^ 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)
  4. ^ Bakewell, Peter and Holler, Jacqueline. A History of Latin America to 1825, John Wiley & Sons, 2010ISBN 9781405183680
  5. ^ Traboulay, David M., "Las Casas Remembered: The 500th Anniversary of the Struggle for the Human Rights of the Native Peoples of America" (2015). CUNY Academic Works.
  6. ^ Stamatov, Peter. The Origins of Global Humanitarianism: Religion, Empires, and Advocacy, Cambridge University Press, 2013 ISBN 9781107470286
  7. ^ Drew, David. The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings, University of California Press, 1999 ISBN 9780520226128
  8. ^ Fahlbusch, Erwin (May 2008). The Encyclopedia of Christianity. ISBN 9789004169678.
  9. ^ Schultz, David Andrew (2010-05-18). Encyclopedia of the United States Constitution. ISBN 9781438126777.
  10. ^ Pierce, Donna; Gomar, Rogelio Ruiz; Bargellini, Clara (May 2004). Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life, 1521-1821. University of Texas Press. p. 98. ISBN 9780914738497. sublimis deus Indians were fully rational human.
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ The Popes and Slavery [New York: Alba House, 1996] p. 17
  13. ^ Maxwell 1975, p.58, 68-71
  14. ^ Maxwell 1975, p. 68-70
  15. ^ Sardar, Ziauddin, and Davies, Merryl Wyn. 2004. The No-Nonsense Guide to Islam. Verso. ISBN 1-85984-454-5. p. 94.
  16. ^ Giménez Fernández, Manuel (1971). "Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas: A Biographical Sketch". In Juan Friede; 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.
  17. ^ a b The Encyclopedia Of Christianity, p. 212
  18. ^ Stogre, p. 115, fn. 133
  19. ^ "The problem of slavery in Western culture", P. 170, fn. 9
  20. ^ Lampe, p. 17
  21. ^ Thornberry 2002, p. 65, fn. 21
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ Stogre, p. 115-116
  24. ^ Stark 2003
  25. ^ Falola, p. 107


  • 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 [1], 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 [2]
  • Encyclopedia of the middle passage, Toyin Falola, Amanda Warnock, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007, ISBN 0-313-33480-3=
  • 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 [3], Professor of the Economic History of Asia and Africa, University of London, retrieved 11 August 2009 [4]
  • 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

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