When the pope banned bullfighting on pain of excommunication

Pius V is a pope known in history for several reasons. First of all, he was commissary general of the Inquisition, where he became famous for his severity. Then, as pope, he promoted with impetus the proliferation of the Holy League, a military coalition composed, among others, of the Spanish Monarchy and the Papal States to fight against the Ottoman Empire in 1571. He was also the first pontiff to wear the white cassock. In addition to being a leader of Catholicism, he was also an influencer of ecclesiastical tendencies. But in Spain he was famous for another reason: the publication of the bull De salutis gregis dominici, where he prohibited bullfighting under penalty of excommunication.

Pope Pius V

Portrait of Pope Pius V. | Wikimedia

Spectacles of demons

A bull, not a hoax, is a pontifical document related to matters of faith or general interest. In that case, the document published in 1567 read as follows: ‘We, considering that those spectacles in which bulls and wild beasts are run in the circus or in the public square have nothing to do with piety and Christian charity (…), we strictly prohibit under penalty of excommunication (…) the celebration of these spectacles’. The pope, moreover, was of the opinion that these ‘bloody and shameful’ events were not proper to men, but to demons. Pius V also warned that those who practiced bullfighting would not be given ecclesiastical burial.

Philip II’s disregard of the bullfighting ban

The bull was published instantly in Italy, where it took immediate effect. However, in Portugal it took three years to be published and in Spain it did not even reach the public, since King Philip II preferred to keep this document hidden. The monarch tried to get Pius V to repeal the bull, but was unsuccessful. Even so, he knew that the pope needed his help to confront the Ottoman Empire and decided to draw a veil over the matter.


Bull in the square. | Shutterstock

Thus, Philip II let time pass, waiting for a change of pontiff to allow bullfighting again. The moment arrived in 1572, when Gregory XIII ascended to the Christian ‘throne’. This pope did relax the bull De salutis gregis dominici and allowed bullfighting again, but the following ones recovered the prohibition in spite of the pressure exerted on them by the Spanish monarch. With Pope Clement VIII, in 1596, the bullfighting restrictions were softened again. In the latter case, it was only requested that the spectacles not be held on public holidays and that measures be taken to avoid fatalities.

Since then, the issue has had its ups and downs in the Church, but without too many changes until today. However, in Spain, the option of suppressing these spectacles, which have always been controversial in one way or another, was not even considered for a moment.

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