3 minute read

Every few years, when the Doctrine of Discovery gets traction, someone raises the old chestnut of Sublimis Deus as apparent proof that the Catholic church did already rescind the Doctrine and therefore it’s not necessary. I should probably do a blog post that I can just repost.

Whenever Sublimis Deus (also called Sublimis Dei) is raised in this fashion I see it as a kind of red flag for groups that aren’t really ready to reckon with history, or be accountable to history, but rather be absolved of their role in history.

There are numerous issues with citing Sublimis Deus in this manner.

  1. It was effectively rescinded nearly exactly a year later in June 1538 through the letter Non Indecens Videtur. This is because the conquistadors complained about being ex-communicated for killing, raping and robbing Natives (which was the punishment accorded by Sublimis Deus) - and so King Charles V of Spain (who was also the Holy Roman Emperor) lobbied on their behalf to have it rescinded, claiming it to be damaging to the important task of colonization and spreading the word of God. So Sublimis Deus was only in place for a year and rescinding it was a relatively simple affair - as opposed to however many decades/centuries of trying to get Inter Caetera, Romanus Pontifex, Dum Diversas, the Treaty of Tordesillas or any of the other relevant Papal Laws rescinded.

Ironic huh. Just goes to show how easy rescinding a papal law is when they want.

Also interesting that whenever people raise it in this fashion, they rarely acknowledge that it was rescinded just one year later.

  1. As Steve Newcomb points out, it was not retrospective, and by the time Sublimis Deus was published, mass slaughter and dispossession had already taken place.

  2. It did not address the (assumed) “responsibility” of the Church, Monarchs or their explorers and armies, to convert Natives, which of course they continued to do violently.

  3. If you look at the date, it was just 13 years before the 1550 royal debates of Valladolid, ordered by the Holy Roman Emperor an King of Spain, Charles V where De Las Casas (who was in fact one of the monks that petitioned Paul III for Sublimis Deus) and de Sepulveda argued about the relative rights of Native peoples. The parameters of the debate were:

A) Native peoples are inhuman, savages, enemies of Christ and should have war waged against them and be exterminated (de Sepulveda) OR B) Native peoples are human, but are lesser humans, like women, or children, and should therefore be converted to Christ and brought under the “wing” of more civilised and advanced (ie white) races (De Las Casas).

These were both Catholic monks. So not only were they arguing that native peoples could be dispossessed, enslaved and harmed, but that they could also be righteously slaughtered because they’re not actually human and are enemies of Christ.

They were able to be cast as enemies of Christ because Pope Paul did NOT actually rescind the previous bulls, so they still stood (and still stand)… but even over the year within which Sublimis Deus was in effect June 1537-June 1538, European thugs like Pizarro and De Salazar were still invading, killing, & enslaving Native peoples on behalf of the Catholic church and Monarchs of Europe because they were deemed ‘enemies of Christ’ and the previous papal bulls still compelled them to do that to enemies of Christ.

  1. It’s self evident that Sublimis Deus did nothing to halt the Catholic church, or the monarchs of Europe, from expanding their empires around the world, continuing to enslave, slaughter, rape, torture, dispossess and displace Native peoples for the following centuries.

The other argument offered by the church against rescinding the papal bulls is that they “mean nothing” and are irrelevant. Of course, if they mean nothing to the church but clearly mean something to Indigenous Peoples then rescinding them should be a simple matter, and not rescinding them is an abuse of privilege and power. So there, anyone raises Sublimis Deus to you, smack em with that.

an image of Sublimis Deus with the words so what super imposed over it.

original published on Facebook.


Tina Ngata, "Sublimis Deus (Sublimis Dei)," Doctrine of Discovery Project (1 August 2022), https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/papal-bulls/sublimis-deus/.

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