"Columbus and the Age of Discovery," winner of the Age of Discovery Theme Prize in 1993 at Millersville University.

Before the Protestant Reformation, the head of the Catholic Church exercised much influence on every aspect of European society. The Pope, as Christianity's spiritual leader, received deferential treatment from leaders of Europe's emerging nation-states. These monarchs sought God's approval via the Pontiff for their actions and policies. Thus, the various popes during the Age of Discovery through encyclicals, bulls, and edicts molded relations between European states. Their involvement in such affairs and influence on events is clearly evident from Papal activity during the Age of Discovery.

The various popes of the era dictated the course of explorations and legitimized claims of discovery. Through its large-scale involvement with European politics, the Vatican played a significant role in determining who gained from the New World. Papal involvement encouraged the establishment of international relations and international law among European states, and significantly determined the progress of this period. The various popes received petitions from rulers regarding actions in the New World, and as Christ's Vicar on Earth, confirmed their actions. From Papal bulls and initial Papal condonement of Spanish conduct in the New World, monarchs and conquistadores found justification for their treatment of the natives.

Papal support authenticated the behavior of Europeans in the New World, and determined the future of the Americas and its peoples by establishing and enforcing Portuguese and Spanish dominance in the New World.

In the decades before Columbus' first voyage, Portuguese sailors explored the west coast of Africa and would eventually circumnavigate that continent. During this time, the King of Portugal petitioned the Pope for rights over this territory. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the bull Dum diversa which granted King Alfonso of Portugal "general and indefinite powers to search out and conquer all pagans" and to enslave them and appropriate their lands and goods. This provides an early example of assumed European superiority over pagan peoples and its endorsement by the Papacy. In 1455, the papal bull Romanus pontifex expanded on the earlier bull and granted to Portugal exclusive rights to "a vast southerly region" in which missionaries could pursue converts. Both bulls were issued by Nicholas V, who favored the Portuguese crown. This type of papal favoritism would prove to be of significant importance to later voyages of the Age of Discovery.

Pope Calixtus III, in 1456, issued the bull Inter Caetera, which also promoted European evangelization of pagan peoples. Inter Caetera 1456 specifically confirmed Romanus pontifex and conferred upon the Portuguese the responsibility for the spiritual development of all lands they had acquired; including the Azores, Cape Verde Islands, Madeira Islands, and African outposts. Thus began the granting by the Pontiff of spheres of influence outside of Europe. According to this bull, Portugal was also permitted to claim the coast of Africa and the Spice Islands.

With each new Pope came confirmation or derogation of previous bulls, issuances of new bulls and possibly a change of favorites. When Sixtus IV came to power, he issued the bull Aeterni Regis 1481. This confirmed Romanus pontifex 1455 and Inter Caetera 1456, and sanctioned Portuguese claims to exclusive rights in Guinea (West Africa). Pope Sixtus IV, like Nicholas V, also promoted Portuguese interests over Spanish, French or others. Aeterni Regis 1481 also brought Papal authority to bear on Castille and encouraged it to abide by the Treaty of Alcacovas. In this treaty, Castille promised to avoid trade and mission work in Guinea and other Portuguese Atlantic possessions. Enforcement of the treaty by the Vatican demonstrates Vatican influence over events and the actions of powerful monarchs, and papal power to advance or hinder a state's progress in overseas commerce and colonization.

Through the fifteenth century, the Papacy steadily lost influence as nation states coalesced. These waxing political units gained influence through consolidated power and alliances. The growth of secular government threatened the Pope's position and forced him to engage in alliances also. In 1492, amid this weakening of Vatican authority, Alexander VI ascended to the Papacy. As a member of the Spanish Borgia family, he held strong ties with the Spanish Sovereigns. Pope Alexander VI appears as a prime example of a pontiff who rewarded the state he favored. In order to secure alliances in northern Italy, Alexander granted concessions to Spain. He needed the support of Ferdinand and Isabela to ensure his hold over certain regions.

According to Linden:

"...Alexander VI could refuse nothing to Ferdinand and Isabela; eager to give them evidence of his good will he did not hesitate to comply entirely with requests relative to Columbus' discoveries without examining whether their claim menaced the rights of other sovereigns or not".

So eager was Alexander to please the Spanish monarchs, thus keeping their alliance strong, that he issued bulls that contradicted previous bulls. These contradictory articles created conflict among the Spanish and the Portuguese concerning new lands and rights of possession. In 1493, Alexander issued a series of bulls which established Spanish dominance over the people and the lands they discovered. The first of these bulls, Inter Caetera 1493 was issued on May 3 and:

"assigned to the present and future sovereigns of Castille the lands discovered and to be discovered by their envoys and not previously possessed by any Christian owner".

It also provided that Ferdinand and Isabela send men to convert the natives to the Catholic faith and instruct them in Christian morals. Inter Caetera 1493 also confirmed Romanus pontifex, which now applied to Spanish possessions, thus no other country could trade in Spanish America without Spanish permission.

Alexander VI issued a second bull Inter Caetera 1493 on May 4 of that year. This bull elaborated and expanded the authority of Spain over their new possessions. Instead of simply granting Spain the lands discovered, this bull provided for:

"A line of demarcation one hundred leagues west of any of the Azores or Cape Verde Islands and assigned to Castille the exclusive right to acquire territorial possessions and to trade in all lands west of that line, which at Christmas 1492 were not in the possession of any Christian prince".

Evidence exists that it was Columbus who suggested the position of the line "believing he found there `a great change in the sky, the stars, the air temperature and in the ocean'." This Line greatly favored Spanish interests, while it provided no safeguards for conflicting Portuguese rights. This bull fixed a boundary for Spanish and Portuguese spheres, yet the meridian was indefinite and the text too unclear to allow a definite determination of its location. However, the Line was fixed in such a way that all of America was assigned to Spain.

Spanish and Portuguese authorities clarified the confusion and intangibility created by the Papal Line of Demarcation by drafting the Treaty of Tordeseilles. This treaty of June 7, 1494 moved the line to 370 leagues west of the Azores, and granted Portugal part of Brazil. This is odd, since Brazil had not yet been discovered by the Portuguese. Problems with this treaty would arise later when Spanish and Portuguese missions began exploring the actual East Indies. The global nature of the treaty was debated, but both Spain and Portugal agreed that the Line extended through the earth and divided the world into two spheres of influence. The Treaty of Tordeseilles thus applied to the East and West Indies.

Throughout his reign, Alexander VI would continue to issue bulls which favored Spanish interests. In the bull Piis fidelium 1493 Spain was granted vicarial power to appoint missionaries to the Indies. The removal of this important aspect of Papal control in favor of control by the Spanish Sovereigns demonstrates the influence of Papal actions during the Encounter. This bull initiated a series of Papal actions which ended with Spanish Sovereigns in control of the church in America. Ferdinand and Isabela received concession after concession with regard to the New World;

"The different bulls of that year [1493] were but successive increments of the favors granted to the Spanish Sovereigns, Alexander VI being at that time but an instrument in their hands".

The Sovereigns essentially wrote their own rules for their new possessions; they held the favor of the Pope and were able to secure many of the grants they requested, to the dismay of Portugal. They promised floods of converted heathens, tributes and tithes, and were granted increasing ecclesiastical power in return. Alexander's readiness to grant such petitions contributed greatly to Spain's eventual domination of the New World.

In Alexander's time, it was still assumed that Columbus had found a western route to the Indies and Orient, so he issued a bull to even further secure Spanish discoveries. Bull Dudum Siquidern 1493 extended bull Inter Caetera May 4, 1493 and claimed that regions found by Spanish captains sailing west to India would fall under the sole proprietorship of Spain despite their location in the eastern regions, which were previously assigned to Portugal. This bull excluded all other countries from navigating, fishing or exploring in those areas without permission from Spain. What is so striking about this bull is the assumption that the Pope had the authority to dispense lands of the world irregardless of any pre-existing government in those areas or of the wishes of the inhabitants. This authority can be traced to an obscure and questionable eighth century document known as the Donation of Constantine. Based on a fifth century document by Emperor Constantine I, the Donation granted to the western pope "all provinces, localities and towns in Italy and the Western Hemisphere". Despite fifteenth century proof of its forgery, popes continued to use the document as justification for land grants to Portugal and Spain. Another obscure papal doctrine, the omni-insular doctrine drew upon the same eighth century forgery which granted the Papacy dominion over the "various islands". Based on this ambiguous phrase, popes in the fifteenth century felt they enjoyed authority over all the islands of the world, including those of the Caribbean. Under these claims, Alexander justified granting to Spain control over the islands found by Columbus. This dubious article also invested the Papacy with the power to impart ecclesiastica jurisdiction to Spain over its newly found lands. In 1501, Spain requested the receipt of tithes in order to finance the costly missions, and Alexander under the omni-insular doctrine conceded all the ecclesiastical tithes from Spanish American possessions to be used for the building of churches in America.

The Vatican, under the reign of Alexander VI, had given Spain every advantage in the New World. Spanish Sovereigns gained increasing power over the appointment of ecclesiastical offices and the direction of ecclesiastical affairs, in exchange for promises to engage in the conversion of natives to Catholicism. Alexander's issuance of Papal bulls and grants of power which specifically favored Spanish interests can be labelled as Patronato Real, or Royal Patronage. These grants secured Spain's rise as an empire while ensuring the mediocrity of England, France and others. Portugal, despite Alexander's Spanish patronage was able to gain control in Africa and in the East Indies. Through these bulls, the Spanish monarchy came to exercise as much influence over the church in America as they did over their own army.

Spanish patronage would continue with Julian II, who became Pope in 1503. He soon issued Universalis Ecclesiae in 1508, which commanded that no church or monastery should be built in the newly found lands without permission from the Spanish Sovereigns. Control over the church in America grew in degrees until Spanish Sovereigns were essentially the Popes of the New World.

"The American church became in fact a national church living within the orbit, not of the Roman Papacy, but of the Council of the Indies and attached to Rome by very tenuous bonds".

Patronato Real signified the surrender by the Vatican of direct authority over affairs in a particular region. The presiding monarchy determined geographic bounds of the new dioceses, appointed officials and paid their salaries. They also determined where and when a church could be built, and how it was to be decorated. For this authority, Spanish monarchs were obligated to convert the natives to the Catholic faith. Beyond simple conversion, they also gained enormous power and influence in the New World through the grants of the Alexandrine and Julian Bulls. At the time of their issuance, the Papal Bulls and Patronato Real were insignificant, as were the first Spanish lands in the New World; however, this policy would prove to be very important in the development of Spain's American Empire.

Over the years, Spain's treatment of Native Americans and their administration of colonial affairs drew the attention of other European powers. Envious of Spain's waxing power, England, France and others propagated the "Black Legend". These tales of Spanish cruelty to natives and immoral activities in America, were an attempt to discredit their rival and destroy the favorable relationship between Spain and the Papacy. The Black Legend was heard in Spain where ecclesiastics met to debate the issue. Parts of the Black Legend troubled the consciences of Spanish church leaders and the Vatican. They began to question whether the maltreatment of the Indians was morally right and whether enslavement was within the bounds of colonial authority. The debate led ultimately to questions concerning the precise position occupied by Indians in the scale between animal and man. Despite its benevolent appearance, this debate concerned con- version more than the morality of mistreatment. If the natives were beasts and soulless, then the entire missionary effort became questionable. Indians could not be converted if they were not human, so it had to be established that they were indeed human and possessed of souls, thus capable of conversion. This distinction was of great importance to Europe since the entire Spanish pretext for American occupation depended on gaining converts.

In 1537, Pope Paul III sought to resolve this dilemma by issuing Sublimis Deus Sic Dilexit which established that Indians were human and capable of conversion;

"We...consider..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...We define...that...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...nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen it shall be null and of no effect."

This bull was quite noble, but it had little practical effect in a world thousands of miles away, despite its authority. However, it declared conversion possible and reimposed Papal endorsement of Spanish conversion efforts.

When Spanish Sovereigns sought the endorsement of the Papacy in 1493, it was seeking ecumenical validity for its intentions in the New World.

"When Alexander VI and Julius II approved the Spanish Conquest of the New World, the justice and propriety of the Spanish action was presupposed and during the first years of Spanish rule in America there was little or no overt opposition".

Alexander determined Spain's success in the New World. He promoted Spanish petitions over those of other European powers and granted the Spanish rights of enormous scope. Alexander's patronage of the Spanish Sovereigns was politically motivated. He needed their support, thus he promoted their New World endeavors. This type of behavior by Pontiffs in the Age of Discovery significantly influenced the future of the Americas.

The initial response of the Vatican provided some of the justification for the exploitation of the New World and for the superior attitude of Europeans. Papal bulls determined who received exclusive rights to lands and peoples, and supplied legal and moral validations for conquest. Through Papal actions, the Vatican plainly influenced European policy regarding the New World. European monarchs were able to achieve Papal grants without fully exploring the lands they found or consulting with the inhabitants. By 1508, the Vatican, through grants and bulls, had surrendered its authority over events in the New World to Spain. The role and influence of the Vatican in the Encounter is lucidly represented by its unique support of Spanish interests in America. Spain gained immense amounts of land, treasure and laborers in consequence of Papal favor and approval.

Besides exercising a political influence, the Vatican also dictated social behavior in the New World. The various popes encouraged missionary activity and the conversion of natives. They also perpetuated the belief in the inferiority of natives, and not until 1537 did the Papacy at last declare the Indians human. However, that apparent benevolence further strengthened Spain's "right" to the New World.

The role of the Vatican was simply as the unwitting arbitrator between Portugal and Spain on the issue of the new worlds. With each Pope, power and influence in the New World and control of its natives shifted among the European powers. The Vatican's inconsistent response to the Encounter contributed considerably to the violent clash between the Old and New Worlds.


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Ellis, John Tracy. Catholics in Colonial America. St. Paul: North Central Publishing Company, 1965.

Gibson, Charles, ed. The Spanish Tradition in America. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

Greenleaf, Richard. E., ed. The Roman Catholic Church in Colonial Latin America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.

Hanke, Lewis. The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949.

Latorre Cabal, Hugo. The Revolution of the Latin American Church. Frances K. Hendricks and Beatrice Berler, trans. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978.

Linden, H. Vander. "Alexander VI and the Demarcation of the Maritime and Colonial Domains of Spain and Portugal 1493 -1494". The American Historical Review 22:1 (October 1916): 1-20.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia 1. New York: McGraw Hill,1967 pg.306

________ 4. New York: McGraw Hill, 1967. 996-997.

________ 8. New York: McGraw Hill, 1967. 446-448, 464-468.

________ 10. New York: McGraw Hill,1967. 1000-1001,1114-1116.


UCTP Taino News Editor's Note: Bo'matum (Thank you) to Jimmy Running Fox for forwarding this article. If you would like additional information on the Papal Bulls and the movement to revoke this ancient edict, check out the UCTP website at http://www.uctp.org/#3 . If you have not done so already, please also sign the petition to Revoke the Papal Bull located at http://www.petitiononline.com/1492/

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