THE ROLE OF THE VATICAN IN THE ENCOUNTER, by RICHARD W. SCHULTZ
for History 392 “Columbus and the Age of Discovery,” winner of
the Age of Discovery Theme Prize in 1993 at Millersville
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 ex-
clusive 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 spir-
itual development of all lands they had acquired; including the
Azores, Cape Verde Islands, Madeira Islands, and African out-
posts. 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
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
“…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 contra-
dicted 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. 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  were but successive
increments of the favors granted to the Spanish Sovereigns,
Alexander VI being at that time but an instrument in their
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 contri-
buted 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 justifi-
cation 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 ecclesiastical
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 Catho-
licism. 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 Sove-
reigns. Control over the church in America grew in degrees
until Spanish Sovereigns were essentially the Popes of the New
"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
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 favor-
able 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
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
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
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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