November 1997
By Jean Thaler

On November 1, 1567, Pope Pius V (1566-1572), issued a papal bull entitled "An injunction forbidding bullfights and other similar sports with wild animals and the annulment of vows and oaths previously made." Jean Thaler explains the background to the bull and the extremely mixed record of this particular pope.

He excommunicated Queen Elizabeth the First of England. He burnt heretics in the piazza. He terminated the Turks. But... he saved the bulls!

At first I was chagrined to learn the history of Pius V, the most animal-friendly prelate since St. Francis. His life's work was the Inquisition. He increased the burnings of heretics and kicked the Jews out of the papal territories. People said he was turning the Vatican into a monastery. He took severe measures against blasphemy and tightened the censorship of books. Yet, modern sensibility aside, a pope with a grander vision had not been seen in generations. In Pius V's lifetime, priests were sleeping around and selling tickets to heaven. Each pope outdid the last in conspicuous consumption (the results are being admired this very moment by busloads of Perillo tourists). The Church rebuffed Martin Luther's petition for reform, triggering the first of many Protestant movements to come. The Council of Trent's attempt at Counter Reformation barely gained ground. Meanwhile, the Turks were battering the gates of Vienna. Pius V was elected to turn back the clock. He put teeth into Trent. He formed and financed the alliance that defeated the Turks at Lepanto, the biggest naval battle since the days of Antony and Cleopatra. Above all, his virtuous example restored the moral standing of the papacy. Pius V was canonized 200 years later for making the impossible happen. The past thousand years boast only a handful of papal saints.

The papal bull that follows prohibited bullfights and other public spectacles where animals are fought and killed for enjoyment. I see the bull primarily in the context of Pius's efforts to wipe out the decadence he found everywhere around him. He seeks to save the souls of men who engage in these sports or sponsor them. He also seeks to save the life and limb of men in the ring. To these ends, he excommunicates princes and other secular authorities who would set up -- or even permit --blood sports. He also excommunicates churchmen who participate in blood sports. He exhorts churchmen to carry out the papal bull. Bullfighters who succumb in the ring are banned from a Church burial.

When Pius refers to souls and to his responsibility for the Lord's flocks, he means human souls and flocks. Still, concern for the Lord's non-human flocks is very clear. Pius calls bloodsport the cruel and base spectacles of the devil, removed from Christian piety and charity. It is erroneous, he says, to think that blood sports can honor a saint or religious event. I like to think that today Pius V's prohibition is also applicable to sport hunting.

Binding Prohibition

Pius V's bull is extremely important because its prohibition of blood sports should be binding for 700 million Catholics. A bull is an official pronouncement of the pope. It is named for the bulla, or metal seal, which marks its special status. Over the centuries, several popes and other prelates have confirmed that blood sports remain prohibited, although excommunication for these deeds has been dropped. The doctrine of papal infallibility also throws weight behind the bull. Even a Catholic encyclopedia in my local library states that wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain on animals should be discouraged or forbidden.

Why, then, haven't lay folk and many church people ever heard of the prohibition? In the 1930s Pius XII forbade priests from attending bullfights in Spain. He consistently denied an audience to torreros and rejected a present offered by their union. After him, the bull does not appear to be enforced at all.

Today Pius V's legacy lives on in Italy, where gladiators and coliseums are ancient history. Unfortunately, we see still see blood sports in Spain and several other countries with Catholic majorities. We see bullfights and similar atrocities committed in the name of holy days and saints. We see church people promoting the bullfights. The only thing that has changed is that now the bulls are often drugged or maimed, so they are less likely to harm the torreros. To anyone who thinks it was enough for the Vatican to condemn bullfighting 430 years ago, I say it's not working.

The Papal Bull

"Divine Providence granted us the responsibility for caring for the Lord's [human] flock and with deep concern we are so compelled by relevant pastoral duties to at all times deviate all the faithful of our congregations from imminent perils to the body and from condemnation of the soul.

"Verily, although the abominable use of the duel, introduced by the devil to also gain condemnation of souls through the cruel death of bodies, was forbidden by a Decree of the Council of Trent [the council that from 1560-1563 formally began the Counter Reformation], up to now in many cities and places, so as to demonstrate their strength and courage at public spectacles, many individuals have not ceased engaging with bulls and other wild animals, frequently resulting in the death of men, in mutilation of members and endangering [human] souls.

"Therefore, considering such spectacles which are removed from Christian piety and charity, in which bulls and wild animals are challenged in circuses and plazas, and desiring to abolish such cruel and base spectacles of the devil and not of man, and to take measures for the salvation of souls as far as we are able with the power of God -- to each and every Christian prince, in any kingdom or enjoying any high position, whether ecclesiastical, civil or imperial, proclaimed by any name by any community or republic in perpetuity, by means of our constitution valid for the future, on pain of ipso facto excommunication and anathema, we interdict and prohibit the carrying out of spectacles of this nature in their provinces, cities, lands, castles and places where spectacles of this kind are realized, where bullfights and similar sports with other wild animals are permitted. We forbid military personnel and other persons from daring to join such spectacles, whether on foot or on horseback, to confront bulls or other animals.

"Ecclesiastical burial will be denied to anyone who is killed as a result of participating in such bullfights.

"We also prohibit churchmen, both regular and secular, with ecclesiastical benefices or constituted in Holy Orders, from participating in such spectacles, on pain of excommunication.

"We totally prohibit, we abrogate, annul and decide and declare forever invalid, null and useless all obligations, oaths and vows made by persons, communities or groups of persons to this date, or which may be made in the future, related to bullfights, even though they may have erroneously thought that they were honoring the saints or giving greater splendor to ecclesiastical solemnities and festivities. Such festivities must be celebrated with divine praise, spiritual joy and pious works and not with similar sports. ...

"And all venerable patriarch brethren, primates, archbishops and bishops and other high Church officials, by virtue of the holy obedience and on pain of divine judgment and eternal interminable condemnation, shall adequately divulge and seek to obey our letter in their own cities and dioceses, on pain of incurring ecclesiastical punishment and censure. ...

To ask Pope John Paul II to condemn bullfighting publicly, write to: His Holiness Pope John Paul II, Vatican City, Palazzo Apostolico, Rome 00187, Italy. Jean Thaler is the founder of Big Apple Vegetarians. Thanks to Adela Pisarevksy for help on this article.

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