To convey important ecclesiastical laws, the Catholic Church issues old-fashioned sealed edicts by the Holy See which are known as the Papal Bulls. This SpiritualRay post defines, signifies and explains the importance of these Vatican Papal Bulls to the Catholic community.
Pope Adeodatus I also known as Deodatus I or Deusdedit, was the first Pope to use lead seals (bullae) on papal documents, which came to be known as papal bulls.
The Catholic Church has been a major religious and political force in dominating the course of history from time immemorial. The laws made by the Holy Pontiff are followed with religious fervor by the practicing Catholics. There have been many such discerning decrees that have played significant roles in deciding the future of nations, an individual, or the whole congregation. These are known as the ‘Papal Bulls’ or ‘Papal edict’. This term came into existence only after the 13th century.
In simple words, a papal bull could mean ‘An Apostolic letter with a leaden seal,’ in which the Pope addresses himself humbly as ‘servus servorum Dei’ (Latin) meaning Servant of the Servants of God.
Papal Bull is an official edict by the Pope of the Catholic Church on a wide range of subjects that comprise from excommunication to canonizations of Catholic saints. It is distinguished by the metal ‘bulla’ or seal of the Pope used on the official document to authenticate it.
Brief Description & Etymology
◆ A ‘bulla’ was primitively a circular metal stamp termed from its likeness to a bubble drifting upon water (Latin bullire, to boil). During the early Middle Age, the term was used to describe leaden seals which were embossed on papal and royal documents to authenticate them. Later the ‘bullae’ were tied to the official document itself. This term got popular only after the fifteenth century and has since been the official identity of papal documents ever since.
◆ A Papal bull is an exceptional kind of manifest or law issued by a Pope and named on the seal (bulla) for attestation. They were earlier used to address various church concerns but after the fifteenth century they are used only for the most formal or solemn of occasions.
◆ The most official and important bulls were signed by the Pope himself, in which case he signed himself as Ego N. Catholicae Ecclesiae Episcopus (I, N., Bishop of the Catholic Church). Earlier this signature used to be an elaborate monogram, with the signatures of any witnesses, and then the seal. At present, the documents are signed by a member of the Roma Curia on behalf of the Pope, mainly by the Cardinal Secretary of State, thus dropping off the earlier monogram.
◆ The metal Papal seal is the typical feature of a bull made of lead, but during the Byzantine era the seals were often made of gold. It features the founders of the Church of Rome, the Apostles Peter and Paul, distinguished by the letters Sanctus PAulus and Sanctus PEtrus on one side and the name of the issuing Pope on the reverse side. This seal was then attached to the official document either by cords of hemp if it contains letters of justice or execution orders (litterae de iustitia) or by red and yellow silk if it contains letters of grace (litterae de Gratia) which are then curled through pricks in the parchment.
◆ Since the eighteenth century, the lead seal has been substituted with a red ink seal of the Apostles Peter and Paul with the prevailing Pope’s name girding the impression, through very conventional letters of the alphabet.
◆ Since centuries now the ‘bulla’ connotes both the seal and the document. In general, a bull is a document of utmost importance to the society and the Roman Catholic Church acknowledge-able either with a red stamp or with a conventional lead or gold bulla.
Significant Historical Examples
There have been numerous significant ‘bullae’ issued by various Popes throughout history. Given below are a few distinguishing events and situations that exemplify papal bullae:
◆ Sicut Judaeis (Latin: “As the Jews”) was a Papal Bull issued by Callixtus II in the year 1120 to protect the Jews during the First Crusade. Before the bull came into existence, around 5000 Jews were killed in the ongoing Crusade.
◆ Omne Datum Optimum (Latin for “Every perfect gift”) was a Papal Bull issued by Pope Innocent II in the year 1139 that certified and officiated the Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon (Knights Templar). These orders carried out church missions under papal security.
◆ Papal Bull annulling Magna Carta: There was an ongoing conflict between King John of England and Pope Innocent III over the election of the Archbishop of Canterbury, as the king had refused to recognize papal nominee, Stephen Langton. In retaliation, Pope Innocent III banned priests in England from celebrating the holy mass, solemnize marriages and bury the dead on sacred grounds.
King John avenged by confiscating the lands and finances of the Church. By 1209, the Pope excommunicated the king for this act. In the year 1213, King John had to accept Langton as the Archbishop and made peace with the Church due to the prevailing attack by the French army. After the forced yielding of the Magna Carta, the Pope declared the charter, null and void through the papal bull issued on 24th August 1215.
◆ Dudum in generali concilio (31 Dec. 1312): (Latin for “General Council”) was a Papal Bull issued by Pope Honorius III which instructed the Jews to wear distinguishable clothing and pay tithe to the local Catholic church.
◆ Inter caetera (“Among other [works]”) was a Papal Bull issued by Pope Alexander VI on 4th May, 1493 which declared “by the authority of the Almighty God” that the Spanish crown and its successors’ sole right to move around, patronage and colonize with Cuba and Hispaniola.
The bull prohibited other countries from trading with the native lands by declaring “all persons, no matter what rank, estate, degree, order or condition to dare, without your special permission to go for the sake of trade or any other reason whatever, to the said islands and countries after they have been discovered and found by your envoys or persons sent out for that purpose.”
All the territories lying to the east of the dividing line were declared to be Portuguese, and all the territories to the west were solely given to Spain. The penalization for breaching this papal decree was excommunication from the Catholic church. Thus this decree finally resulted in the Treaty of Tordesillas in June 1494 between Spain and Portugal.
◆ The famous Exsurge Domine (Latin: Arise O Lord) was a Papal Bull issued on 15th June, 1520, by Pope Leo X. It was issued against Martin Luther in response to his heretic teachings against the papacy. It rebuked the forty one proffers of Luther from his 95 theses and accompanying writings threatening him with excommunication unless he withdrew his teachings within a sixty-day time period, beginning with the issue of the papal bull in Saxony and its adjacent areas.
Martin Luther publicly resisted by penning controversial pamphlets against the papacy and by burning a copy of the bull on 10th December 1520 at the Elster Gate in Wittenberg.
Following this, the church responded with the Decet Romanum Pontificem (English: It Pleases the Roman Pontiff) papal bull in 1521, excommunicating Martin Luther from the Church thus giving rise to Protestant reformation.
◆ The Doctrine of Discovery had supported the ideology of the Europeans to own Native Indian slaves. Chief Justice John Marshall cites this in his writings as “the age when the Christian European nations had assumed complete control over the lands of America during the “Age of Discovery.” To stop slavery and its resulting discrimination the Sublimis Deus [English: ‘From God on high’] Papal Bull was issued in 1573, by Pope Paul II. It prohibited the captivity of the endemic people of the America known as the Indians of the West and the South and other tribes. Further Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) officially excommunicated anyone still keeping Indian slaves.
◆ Aeterni Patris (“Of the Eternal Father”) was a Papal Bull issued on 29th June, 1868, by Pope Pius IX confirming the opening of the First Vatican Council on 8th December, 1869.
◆ Humanae salutis (“of human salvation”) was a Papal Bull issued on 25th December, 1961, by Pope John XXIII confirming the opening of the Second Vatican Council on 11th October, 1962.
The Papal Bulls reaffirm the political and religious powers of the Holy Pope and adjudge him not only as the religious head of the Roman Catholic Church, but also a pivotal figure in the historic decisions of the nation’s politics.