According to a recent report,
The Vatican has abrogated three papal bulls, claiming that the documents are offensive to indigenous peoples and “have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.”
The bulls Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera (1493) contain the basis for the “doctrine of discovery,” which “is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church,” the Vatican has announced.
“The Church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples,” the dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development said in a joint statement published Thursday [March 30, 2023].
While the above sounds open-minded and “progressive,” the all-important context is, as usual, missing. The above referenced bulls, or edicts, were primarily focused on neutralizing Muslim powers that were otherwise terrorizing virtually every corner of Christendom.
For example, Dum Diversas was issued the same year (1452) that Sultan Muhammad II laid siege to Constantinople, leading to that ancient Christian city’s brutal fall in 1453. At the same time, Muslims from North Africa were terrorizing Spain and the broader Mediterranean through constant and devastating slave raids. Whether in Christendom’s furthest east (Constantinople), or furthest west (Spain), Muslims were massacring and enslaving countless Christians.
As such, these bulls, like so many before them, were designed to inspire Europeans to rise up and defend Christendom against Muslims—to “restrain the savage excesses of the Saracens and of other infidels, enemies of the Christian name,” to quote from the Romanus Pontifex.
Because some of these bulls deal with Christians invading and seeking to conquer North Africa, modern day “enemies of the Christian name” have sought to spin these as unprovoked wars of conquest and colonization. For example, the Romanus Pontifex authorized King Alfonso V of Portugal (1432–1481) to “invade [North Africa], conquer, defeat and subjugate all Saracens and pagans and other enemies of Christ,” and to “enslave their persons perpetually” and seize their possessions for profit.
Again, such ruthless language must not be read in a vacuum. The atrocities Muslims were committing against nearby Christians, especially against the subjects of Spain and Portugal, make Islamic State (“ISIS”) atrocities seem like child play. It was all out war to the death.
Moreover, while expeditions into North Africa were very similar to the Crusades, in that they featured Christians traveling to and seeking to conquer Muslim lands, often left out is that all of these “Muslim lands”—all of North Africa and the Middle East—were Christian centuries before Islam invaded and conquered them in the seventh century.
The popes and other Christians were well aware of this, and, as such, these expeditions were seen as Just Wars, both to quell Muslim aggression, but also to return North Africa and the Middle East to the fold of Christendom—including by liberating the indigenous Christians, who, in the fifteenth century, were experiencing especially severe bouts of persecution. For example, contemporary sources concerning Egypt’s Coptic Christians under the Mamluk dynasty (1250-1517) are riddled with accounts of Christians being slaughtered, immolated, crucified, their women and children raped and enslaved, and their churches razed to the ground.
Most of these bulls were further issued at a time when Muslims made it impossible for Christians to reach the East by land. Any merchant or traveler caught was instantly slaughtered or enslaved in keeping with Islamic law. Indeed, it is often forgotten, but all of the Spanish and Portuguese vessels that set sail and eventually found the New World in the late fifteenth century, including Christopher Columbus’s, did so in the context of their long war with Islam—not in search of “spices,” as is today taught in classrooms.