This page uses content from the English Wikisource. The original article was at Sublimus Dei. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with the Religion wiki, the text of Wikisource is available under the CC-BY-SA.

Sublimus Dei (also seen as Sublimus Deus and Sublimis Deus) 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. 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of Indian rights, others see it as part of an inconsistent and politically convenient stance by Paul III, who later rescinded Sublimis Deus or the Pastorale in 1538.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 as well as for any people known or that could be discovered in the future, entitles their right to liberty and property, and concludes with a call for their evangelization.

The Pastorale Officium has been seen as a companion document for Sublimis Dei. 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 The Pastorale actually mentions Charles V. However, such a view would mean that the Pope was unaware that Charles had rescinded that decree in 1534.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.[1]

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 bull is cited at times as evidence of a strong condemnation of slavery in general but other scholars point out that Paul sanctioned slavery in Rome, including those who had become Christians, as well as the enslavement of Muslims.


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, 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. After all, the New Testament says that the gospel has been preached to all nations;[2] since the gospel had not been preached to the Native Americans, perhaps they didn't 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 Dominican friar named Bernardino de Minaya (born ca. 1489). He evangelized parts of Mexico, and his advocacy of Indian rights eventually resulted in a clash with Juan Garcia de Loaysa (1478-1546), the first president of the Royal and Supreme Council of the Indies, which was responsible for administering the holdings of Spain in the New World. Minaya had some allies, who recommended him to Paul III. In 1537, Minaya arrived in Rome and plead his case on behalf of the Indians.

In response, Paul issued "Sublimus Deus" on June 2, 1537. "Pastorale officium", a papal brief apparently used in conjunction with the Sublimis Dei by Minaya, declared automatic excommunication for anyone who failed to abide by the new ruling.[3] Stogre (1992) notes that "Sublimus Dei" 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.[4] Davis (1988) asserts it was annulled due to a dispute with the Spanish crown.[5] 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.[6]

According to Falkowski (2002) "Sublimus Dei" 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.[7] Prein (2008) observes the difficulty in reconciling these decrees with "Inter Caetra".[3]

Father Gustavo Gutierrez describes "Sublimus Dei" as the most important papal document relating to the condition of native Indians and that it was addressed to all Christians.[8] 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". He further argues that the Indian nations had every right to self-defense.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

In 1545 Paul repealed an ancient law that allowed slaves to claim their freedom under the Emperor's statue on Capital Hill, in view of the number of homeless people and tramps in the city of Rome.[12] 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.[13] Stogre (1992) asserts that the lifting of restrictions was due to a shortage of slaves in Rome.[14] In 1548 he authorized the purchase and possession of Muslim slaves in the Papal states.[15]


The wording of Sublimus dei 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.


  • "The problem of slavery in Western culture", David Brion Davis, Oxford University Press US, 1988, ISBN 0195056396
  • "Indigenous peoples and human rights", Patrick Thornberry, Manchester University Press, 2002, ISBN 0719037948
  • "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 0859920151
  • "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 2890395499
  • "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 0313334803
  • "The problem of slavery in Western culture", David Brion Davis, Oxford University Press US, 1988, ISBN 0195056396
  • "That the world may believe: the development of Papal social thought on aboriginal rights", Michael Stogre S.J, Médiaspaul, 1992, ISBN 2890395499
  • "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 080282417X
  • "Christianity in the Caribbean: essays on church history", Armando Lampe, 2001,University of the West Indies Press,ISBN 9766400296


  1. "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)."
  2. Colossians 1:23, Romans 16:25-26
  3. 3.0 3.1 "The Encyclopedia Of Christianity", p. 212
  4. Stogre, p. 115, fn. 133
  5. "The problem of slavery in Western culture, P. 170, fn. 9"
  6. Lampe, p. 17
  7. Thornberry 2002, p. 65, fn. 21
  8. Father Joel S Panzer, 2008
  9. Stogre, p. 115-116
  10. Stark 2003
  11. Falola, p. 107
  12. "The problem of slavery in Western culture, P. 56"
  13. Noonan, p. 79, Stogre, p. 116
  14. Stogre, p. 116
  15. Clarence-Smith


sl:Sublimus Dei fi:Bulla sublimis Deus sic dilexit humanum, et infra

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.