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The Holy See’s Whopper of a Falsehood at the UN

On November 25, 2015, the Holy See (‘the Vatican’) appeared before the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Responding to an intervention on the doctrine of discovery by the Apache-Ndee-Nee Working Group, CERD member Carlos Manuel Vazquez asked the Holy See to clarify its position on the papal document Inter caetera of 1493, and the doctrine of discovery. Mr. Vazquez requested that a repeal of the papal bull “be discussed at the high-level meeting scheduled to take place in Rome between the Pope and representatives of indigenous peoples” (CERD/C/SR.2395, Report of December 1, 2015, p. 8).

Archbishop Tomasi responded for the Holy See. He said that the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal “effectively” made the papal bull “inoperative.” “Changing the historical consequences of the ideology reflected in those instruments would thus require changing the Treaty rather than the papal bull,” remarked Tomasi (p. 8). In law, the term “inoperative” generally means “without practical force, invalid.” If the Holy See is correct, it should be impossible to find evidence that the Crown of Castile, or other governments, have considered the Inter Caetera papal bull operative after 1494. If the Crown of Castile or other governments have regarded the Inter catera bull as still operative after 1494, then the Holy See’s claim to the CERD is clearly false.

Insight into the truth of the matter can be gained by looking at territory that was first claimed by Spain, and then, based on the international law of territorial succession, by Mexico, and, ultimately, by the United States. This pattern of succession is tacitly found in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between Mexico and the United States. Because of that transfer, the United States Department of State wrote on April 3, 1849, of the necessity of gathering reliable information “as to the condition of land titles in California.” “It is important,” said the State Department, “that the archives in that Territory [California] and also in the city of Mexico (so far as they touch on those titles) be examined and reported upon by a competent person.” Attorney William C. Jones was commissioned to perform this work “under authority from the Department of State.” (John Rockwell, A Compilation of Spanish and Mexican Law, 1851, p.425).

Forty seven years later, in 1895, which was four hundred and two years after the Inter caetera papal bull was issued, an attorney in California named Frederick Hall published his book The Laws of Mexico. Consistent with the State Department directive to Jones, Hall had compiled much of his research in Mexico City, where he received the assistance of Ignacio L. Vallarta, ex-chief justice of the Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice, and of Don Justino Rubio, keeper of the general archives of Mexico.

Hall’s Table of Contents opens, “Compilation and Treatise on the Laws of Mexico,” “Part First. Crown Lands of Spain, Public Lands of Mexico, and Mines,” “Chapter I. Possession and Early Government of Mexico By Spain, § 1. Grant by the Pope to the Crown of Spain. § 2. Right by Discovery” (emphasis added). At “§ 1” of Frederick Hall’s book, we find: “For the purpose of overthrowing heathenism, and advancing the Roman Catholic religion, Alexander the sixth issued a bull in 1493, granting to the crown of Castile the whole of the vast domain then discovered, or to be discovered, between the north and south poles, or so much thereof as was not considered in the possession of any Christian power.”

Hall then quotes some of the Latin from the papal bull: “‘Ut fides Catholica et Christiana religio nostres praesertim temporibus exaltetur, etc., ac barbarae nationes deprimantur, et ad fidem ipsam reducantur,’ was the language of the bull: 1 Haz. Coll. 3.” The Latin calls for “barbarous nations” to be dominated by being reduced to the Catholic faith and Christian religion. Hall’s book opens by first citing the papal bull because, according to the international law of succession, the United States is the successor country to the Vatican papal bulls in relation to many vast areas which were claimed by the Crown of Castile.

That the Inter caetera bull is still operative is also verified by a book that the United States government printing office published in 1909. It was “Compiled and Edited under the Act of Congress of June 30, 1906, and its title is, The Federal and State Constitutions[,] Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming The United States of America. The book was authored by Francis Newton Thorpe.

In the Table of Contents of Thorpe’s book is a list of the documents that constitute the organic laws of the United States. Areas that were initially claimed by Spain, namely, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California, are traced in the book to two of the documents found in the Table of Contents: “Privileges and prerogatives granted to Christopher Columbus—1492” and “Bull of Pope Alexander—1493.” The above documentation clearly demonstrates that the domination ideology of the Inter caetera papal bull is still operative by being treated to this day as a critical part of the organic law system of the United States.

Additionally, in his book A Violent Evangelism (1992), theologian Luis Rivera Pagán, states: “In the juridical area, the Alexandrian bulls maintained their authorized character, as shown by the first sentence in the first law of the first chapter of the third book of ‘the Compilation of the Leyes de Indias’ (1680), which recognizes them [the papal bulls] as the first foundation for the possession in perpetuity of the Americas by the Crown of Castilla” (p. 32).

Rivera-Pagán says that the Leyes de Indias “is based on consecutive royal declarations by Carlos V aand Filipe II, who during the sixteenth century propounded the doctrine of Castilian dominion in perpetuity over the Ibero-American peoples. All those declarations allude to the Alexandrian bulls as the crucial point of reference” (Ibid.). In a major contradiction to the Holy See’s testimony before the CERD, Rivera-Pagán states: “Although we cannot dwell on this point, it is appropriate to point out that at the beginning of the 19th century the papal grant in perpetuity was used as justification for discrediting the Latin American independence movement….” Rivera-Pagán also quotes the Leyes de Indias as follows:

By donation from the Apostolic Holy See . . . we are Lord of the Western Indies, isles and mainlands of the Ocean See, discovered and to be discovered and incorporated in our Royal Crown of Castillia . . . [so that] they may always remain united for their greater perpetuity and firmness, we forbid their being taken away.

In short, Archbishop Tomasi’s statement to the CERD in 2015 was dead wrong about the Inter Caetera bull being no longer operative because of the Treaty of Tordesillas. If the papal bull had been without practical force as of 1494, there would have been no reason for Castile’s Laws of the Indies from 1680 to acknowledge a “donation from the Apostolic Holy see,” by means of which the Crown of Castile considered itself “Lord of the Western Indies, isles and mainlands of the Ocean Sea, discovered and to be discovered.” Furthermore, the papal grant was made to Castile’s heirs and successors, in perpetuity, or forever, which is why the papal grant also appears in the books by Hall and Thorpe.

In his book On Bullshit (2005), Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt remarks that “One of the most salient features” of the dominant society “is that there is so much bullshit.” I doubt that we will ever know if the Holy See truly believes its own bull about the Inter Caetera papal bull. It falsely claimed in 2007 that the Treaty of Tordesilla between two civil powers, Spain and Portugal, had basically abrogated the Inter caetera. Again, in 2015, it made an equally bogus claim to the UN CERD that the Treaty of Tordesilla rendered the entire papal bull document “inoperative.” The good news is that we will continue to call the Holy See on its bull.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery(Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie,The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree).