On the Papal Bull, 'Sublimis Deus'

Steven Newcomb

In 1537, Pope Paul III issued the papal bull Sublimis Deus (Sublime God). The pope did so after being particularly influenced by a priest named Antonio Montesinos who traveled to Rome from the island of Hispanola to argue against the horrific treatment of the Indians. Montesinos did so on behalf of his particular group of priests from the Dominican Order in Hispanola. The Catholic Church has been saying for quite a few years now that the document Sublimis Deus served to correct a number of papal documents of subjugation and colonization that were issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493.

The Church is taking this position because the papal document Sublimis Deus said that the Indians are to be regarded as truly human (evidently they were not regarded as human before that). The document Sublimis Deus also said the Indian nations were not to be deprived of their liberty or property. There is, however, two problems with the Catholic Church’s contemporary argument about the bull Sublimis Deus. First of all, as a result of political pressure from Emperor Charles V, who had all copies of the document retrieved and returned to Spain, Pope Paul III later removed all ecclesiastical penalties (interdict and excommunication) for any violation of the terms of the document Sublimis Deus. Secondly, by 1537 millions of Indians had already been deprived of their lives, their liberty, and their property because of the papal bulls of 1493.

The bull Sublimis Deus was not retroactive. It could not be projected back in time. It could not remove the death, destruction, and dehumanization that the Holy See had unleashed for more than four decades on the basis of the Alexandrian bulls of 1493. Nor did Pope Paul II intend for the bull Sublimis Deus to liberate the Original Free Nations from the Spanish Catholic system of domination that had already been imposed on them based on the Alexandrian papal bulls. The most that the Indians could hope for as a result of the bull Sublimis Deus was to be “free” under or beneath the Spanish crown’s domination.

The history of political reality in the fifteenth and later centuries reveals that the Catholic Church never intended for the bull Sublimis Deus to remove Spain’s claim of sovereignty and dominium (it’s claimed right of domination) from the Original Free Nations. Pope Paul III and the Holy See remained protective of Spain’s claim to political sovereignty (domination) over the Original Nations. In fact, Pope Alexander VI had specified in his document Inter Caetera bull of May 4, 1493 that the Christian empire’s (imperii Christiani) system of domination was to hold the “barbare nationes” (original free nations) in subjection (“subjicere”) and domination “forever” and “in perpetuity.” And the centuries-long effectiveness of Pope Alexander VI’s authorization is demonstrated by the fact that the claim of a right of domination imposed in the past continues to be imposed on our Nations and Peoples in the present by state governments.

In a recent interview, Bishop Donald Bolen from the Catholic Diocese in Saskatoon, Canada, used the word “would” to communicate something hypothetical when he said: “The statement Sublimis Deus, issued by Paul III in 1537, nullified any previous decrees that would deny the right of Indigenous Peoples in America to their freedom and property.” (emphasis added)

Notice the phrase, “that would deny” in Bishop Bolen’s comment. In that context, the word “would” is being used for unreal or imagined situations. It is also being used for unreal or hypothetical situations. In other words, Bishop Bolen is claiming that the 1537 document nullified any previous papal decrees that hypothetically or supposedly had the potential to deny the Indians their right to their freedom and property. Unfortunately, his use of the word “would” keeps us from focusing on the fact that the papal authorization of domination in the Alexandrian bulls had been used for forty plus years against the Original Nations in the most brutal and dehumanizing manner by Spanish leaders and conquistadors representing the crown of Castile.

Bishop Bolen failed to acknowledge that from 1493 to 1537, the Alexandrian papal decrees had in fact been used for more than four decades to dominate Indigenous Peoples by depriving them of their freedom and their property, and by claiming the territories of all Original Nations as dominions held in subjection by the Crown of Castile. If Bishop Bolen had acknowledged this, he would have thereby acknowledged that by the year 1537 a fact situation of domination had already been created on the basis of the Alexandrian papal decrees. He would have thereby acknowledged, on behalf of the Catholic Church in Canada, that the bull Inter Caetera had already been used for forty years to deny the Indians their freedom and their property.

Bishop Bolen’s hypothetical use of the word “would” failed to acknowledge that the bull Sublimis Deus could do nothing to change forty years of destruction and institutionalized domination. Through that single word, he skillfully directed attention away from the fact that by 1537 a grinding and deadly system of Christian domination was already fully in place and being invasively maintained on Original Nations under authorization of the Alexandrian bulls.

The Alexandrian papal bulls serve as the illustrative prototype for the claimed right of domination still used against us. A claimed right of domination imposed on all our Original Free Nations in the past continues to be perpetuated and maintained against our Nations and Peoples today by international state governments such as Canada and the United States, and many others. Today it’s called “state sovereignty” and “plenary power” and other names.

By means of his ceremonial revocation of those terrible documents, and others proceeding them, such as Dum Diversas and Romanus Pontifex, Pope Francis will undercut the very basis of the arguments of domination now being used against us.

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 is a producer of the documentary movie, “The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code,” directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree).The movie can be ordered from38Plus2Productions.com. Go to http://orginalfreenations.com (under construction).

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