Misinformation From the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See

Steven Newcomb

On April 27, 2010, the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See (The Vatican) to the United Nations delivered its official statement on the Doctrine of Discovery at the 9th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The statement serves as an excellent example of obfuscation and historical falsification. So, let’s take a closer look.

The Holy See’s statement claims that the 1493 papal document “Inter Coetera [sic], as a source of international law…was abrogated by the Treaty of Tordesillas.” This does not speak to the point we have been raising since 1992: the papal bulls of 1493, and their predecessor documents are the genesis of the domination of our original nations and peoples of Great Turtle Island and this hemisphere. The Holy See is, in our view, attempting to shift focus away from the issue of its authorization of domination by attempting to focus our attention on the irrelevant question of whether the Inter Caetera document is a source of international law.

The Holy See’s 2010 statement also says that “the division of lands between Castile-Aragon (Spain) and Portugal” was “abrogated by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.” Upon being informed of this argument, Anthony Padgen, an eminent scholar of that historical era said to me in an email: “I fail to see how an agreement [the Tordesillas treaty] between two civil powers could possibly abrogate a papal bull.”

On closer examination, though, the Holy See was not saying that the Treaty of Tordesillas had abrogated the papal bull. The subject of the Holy See’s sentence is “the division of lands between Spain and Portugal” which was made by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. If the Treaty of Tordesillas ‘abrogated’ or negated anything, it was that “division of lands” by rendering moot the pope’s placement of the dividing line of demarcation.

It was still a line of demarcation between Spain and Portugal, but it was moved to a different location pursuant to a civil treaty agreement blessed by the pope. The decision by Spain and Portugal to move the demarcation line is what the Holy See is now apparently characterizing as an ‘abrogation’ of the pope’s “division of lands” between the two countries. However, to “abrogate” a document is “to abolish by authoritative, official, or formal action” by the party which issued the document. Clearly, the Treaty of Tordesilla did not ‘abrogate’ the Inter Caetera papal bull document as a whole because neither Spain nor Portugal was the “issuing party” and they did not have the jurisdiction to “abrogate” a document issued by a pope.

Additionally, the Holy See claimed in 2010 that “as a source of Canon or Church LawInter Coetera has also been abrogated by the facts…” (emphasis added) The Holy See said that the papal document itself was “abrogated” as “a source of Canon or Church Law.” How had this supposedly happened? One reason given was “the colonization of North America and the Caribbean by the King of France.”

Samuel Eliot Morison wrote about this in The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages A.D. 500-1600, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 341. According to Morison, in 1533 the King of France, Francoise-premier, Pope Clement VII, and Bishop Le Veneur met at Marseille to celebrate the marriage between one of Francoise-premier’s sons and the pope’s niece Catherine de Medici. Morison says it was easy “to persuade the Holy Father to declare that the Alexandrine edict [of 1493] only applied to lands already discovered, not to those later found by other sovereigns. Thus, Francois-premier had the green light from the Vatican, and passed the word to Jacques Cartier.”

Therefore, the Holy See ought to answer this question: “How could the French colonization of non-Christian lands in North America and the Caribbean, to which Pope Clement VII gave his approval and blessing, have "abrogated" the Inter Caetera papal bull ‘as a source of Canon or Church Law’.” It couldn’t have, and didn’t.

Next, the Holy See’s 2010 statement claimed that the papal bull document Inter Caetera “was also abrogated by other Papal bulls, for example Sublimis Deus.” The Holy See then quoted as follows from the 1537 document Sublimis Deus, issued by Pope Paul III:

Indians and all other peoples 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.”

As wonderful as the above language sounds, Spanish Emperor Charles V ordered all copies of the papal bull Sublimis Deus which had reached “New Spain” (in ‘the Americas’) to be confiscated and brought back to Spain. The document was a dead letter in the claimed dominions of Spain in ‘the Americas.’ Additionally, as pointed out by Dr. Luis Rivera-Pagán in A Violent Evangelism (1992), Pope Alexander VI had, by the 1493 papal bulls, granted to Spain in perpetuity a right of domination in relation to non-Christian lands “discovered or to be discovered.” The papacy’s grant to Spain of a right of domination in relation to non-Christian lands was not abrogated by the papal bull Sublimis Deus, nor did Pope Paul III purport to abrogate by means of Sublimis Deus the papacy’s prior grant of a right of territorial domination to the Spanish crown.

The Holy See’s attorneys are obviously not historians. If they were they would know better than try to bamboozle folks into believing that the papacy’s grant of a right of domination was “abrogated” in 1537 by Pope Paul III’s bull Sublimis Deus. As Dr. Luis Rivera points out in his book A Violent Evangelization (1992):

In the juridical area, the Alexandrian bulls maintained their authorized character, as shown by the first sentence in the first law of the first chapter of the third book of “The Compilation of the Leyes de Indias” (1680) which recognizes them [the papal bulls] as the first foundation for the possession in perpetuity of the Americas by the Crown of Castilla:

By donation from the Apostolic Holy See. . .we are Lord of the Western Indies, isles and mainlands of the Ocean Sea, discovered and to be discovered and incorporated in our Royal Crown of Castilla. . . [so that] they [the isles and mainlands] may always remain united for their greater perpetuity and firmness, we forbid them being taken away. And we order that at no time may they [the Western Indies] be separated from our Royal Crown of Castilla. . . And we give our faith and royal word, and the Kings our successors, so that they [the Western Indies], can never be taken away or separated, in all or in part, for any reason or cause whatsoever.

Rivera concludes: “This law is based on consecutive royal declarations by Carlos V [Charles V] and Felip II [Philip II], who during the sixteenth century propounded the doctrine of Castilian dominion in perpetuity over the Ibero-American peoples. All those declarations allude to the Alexandrian bulls as the crucial point of reference.” So, in the year 1680 the Laws of the Indies were still being officially acknowledged in Spanish crown publications as resting on the ‘authorized character’ of the Alexandrian bulls. If those Alexandrian documents were abrogated by a 1537 papal bull, evidently the Spanish monarchy (Charles V and Philip II) didn’t get the memo, which is why the monarchy continued to use them as the foundation of the Laws of the Indies.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.

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andre's picture
Steven Newcomb is spot-on in his report here. I would encourage anyone to learn more about this church (Catholic) Andre Leonard,