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Papacy - Introduction

Papal Seal

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And in 1493 Pope Alexander VI, in the Inter caetera bulls, drew a line down that ocean, giving the "New World" to Spain. As Robert A. Williams, Jr., says, "Alexander's papal donation provided Spain with what it considered to be a secure title to Columbus's discoveries in the West. No Christian European monarch, at least in the pre-reformation era, dared to interfere with Spain's papally conferred rights without risking excommunication. The path was now clear for Spain to carry out its papal mandate to colonize, civilize, and Christianize the 'well-disposed' inhabitants of the New World" (81). The literature of justification had begun.

But what gave Alexander this power, not only over European nations, but through them over Native Americans as well? What justifies the Pope's justification? Williams takes us back to Jesus appointing Peter his vicar on Earth, giving him the keys to the kingdom (Matthew 16:19), and traces a direct line through contests for power between popes and kings and through holy wars with heretics and non-Christian peoples, such as in the Crusades, to Inter caetera. "Numerous Church documents attest to the seamless web of connections between the Crusades," he says, "and the West's colonizing conquests in the New World during the Renaissance era of discovery" (13).

In what Williams calls "the most famous and influential Crusading-era discussion of the rights and duties of pagan nations under natural law" (13), for example, Pope Innocent IV had already asked and answered the key justification question around the year 1245: "Is it licit to invade a land that infidels possess, or which belongs to them?" On the eve of "discovery," then, no one disputed the supremacy of papal jurisdictional power, and popes took very seriously the responsibility of governing all humankind explicit in such divine charges as "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matthew 28:19).

If we would know the ideological framework into which European nations fit their interactions with the newly encountered Native Americans, then, we must understand something of the history of the papacy. For starters we recommend "The Medieval Discourse of Crusade," chapter 1 of Williams's The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest.

Melissa Morris launched this Papacy section of our Literature of Justification project in spring 2004. We hope that other students and faculty, even beyond Lehigh University, will build on her work, so we welcome suggestions, corrections, questions, and, especially, appropriate contributions of all types from bibliographical entries through full essays.

Contact Professor Edward J. Gallagher, Department of English, Lehigh University via e-mail at