Thursday, October 09, 2008

Paul III's Sublimus Dei reaches across 500 years.

There has been much interest of late expressed in popular media and educational circles regarding the native peoples of America when the Spanish first arrived in the New World, as well as the English and French at later dates. Five years ago, I visited Mexico along with a number of other people from Nampa, Idaho, and spent 10 days there, staying in a village called Tizapan el Alto on the largest lake in Mexico called Laguna Chapala [40 to 50 miles south of the city of Guadalajara, State of Jalisco(central Mexico)].
It was a beautiful place--somewhat high desert, not unlike Idaho, mild weather, and a city or municipality [not unlike counties in the U.S.] with approximately 20 to 30,000 people. Approximately one-half the population, I was told, was working in the United States. I met a few people that were an Indian mix, including some that claimed to be the progeny of the Aztecs. (Not a difficult claim based upon the proximity to Mexico City).
Upon my return to the States, I read the "Conquest of Mexico" by the Spanish padre, Juan Diego. That journal of events read like a storybook, commanding my keen interest and attention. The book is to be commended to anyone interested in the earliest involvement of Europeans on the North American continent. Of course, the Catholic Faith flourished after the conquest. Some say that the Spanish treatment of the Indians was terrible. Indeed, many Europeans whether English, Spanish, or otherwise, automatically viewed the Indian peoples summarily as savages, incapable of believing in God and the Catholic Faith, and that as savages, they should be enslaved, their property to escheat to the crown, and freedom denied.
Of course, that is illogical. The Gospel is for all humankind. It knows no bounds. In fact, the Gospel civilized the savages of northern Europe 1200 to 1800 years ago.
To learn history is a life-long task. I am no a history scholar. On the other hand, there is much prejudice regarding the history of the Faith, the Church, and how the Indians were treated. There is no one uniform story, for when people believe in Christ and that His Heart is for all peoples in all times, will largely treat people rightly. Much good was done. However, with human involvement comes evil. No doubt the evil of slavery and ignorance abounded and still does to this day.
Regardless, the Faith was passed on and it is testified that after the Mexican conquest, millions of men, women, and children were baptized into the Catholic Faith.
As an early example of papal admonitions about how to deal with foreign peoples and social justice, the Roman Pontiff, Paul III, issued the following bull "To all faithful Christians" with regard to the treatment of the American Indians demanding that the native folk be respected, that their freedom be honored, and their right to possession of their property. He clearly demanded that the Indians not be enslaved, "should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect."
It still read as a short statement on how to treat people to this day: Respect the person, respect liberty and property, do not enslave.
Here is the bull in its entirety and simplicity, issued on May 29, 1537:

Sublimus Dei

Pope Paul III (Topic: the enslavement and evangelization of Indians)

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.


  1. Next time you are at Chapter House, pick up "Blood Drenched Altars" for more history by which to counter the virulent anti-Catholic prejudice taught in our public and Catholic schools.

  2. Will do! This prejudice is palpable in some quarters. Thanks.

  3. It facially appears that the encyclical had the full force of law being that any attempt to enslave the native people would be void if done under the auspices or governance of the Church. As I ponder this matter, I wonder if any native or someone on behalf of them ever sought action in any ecclesiastical or civil court regarding this matter for a remedy to this injustice where it occurred.

  4. Interesting question: did anyone ever seek action in the ecclesiastical court?

    Somehow, the Master of the Vineyard keeps putting stewards in charge. And if you're the Bishop of La Paz, you can listen to the Pope in Rome, or you can listen to the governor, who is also in La Paz and has a militia and would like to maximize silver exports. Maybe you are a very brave bishop... And how did you get appointed?

    I wonder if we can learn about similar cases by studying the life of St. Martin de Porres. He must have encountered Incan people. (In contemporary Peru, the descendants of Incans vastly outnumber the descendants of Africans.)