Catholic Church in Iberian America

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Catholic Church in Iberian America

By the time Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) first reached the Caribbean on October 12, 1492, the kingdoms of Spain had been united under the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand (1452–1516) and Isabella (1451–1504). The last Muslim kingdom, Granada, had surrendered in January of that same year. The move towards unification had been encouraged by the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1469, but it was above all the Catholic religion that conferred a universal character on the monarchy.

The campaign against Granada coincided with an internal campaign against heresy, specifically directed against lapsed converts from Judaism to Christianity, known as conversos. The apparent threat they posed to the faith led to the establishment of the Inquisition in 1478. In March 1492, only two months after the fall of Granada, the Spanish Crown issued an edict that gave the Jewish community the stark choice of conversion or exile. While many thousands did convert—many of them, most probably, out of expediency—great numbers also chose exile.

After the Christian occupation of Granada, the monarchs appointed Fray Hernando de Talavera (1428–1507) as the first archbishop of Granada. His respect for the terms of "capitulation," which gave Muslims the right to continue to practice their religion, even allowing for the protection of Christian converts to Islam, earned him both the admiration of the newly assimilated population and the harsh criticism of members of the hierarchy, such as the archbishop of Toledo, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (1436–1517). In 1499 Cisneros sidelined Talavera and began a much more forceful policy of conversion involving the persecution of apostates, burnings of the Koran, and mass baptism. His contravention of the capitulations caused riots in Granada and a revolt in the Alpujarras that swiftly spread throughout the region. Once Ferdinand had put down the rebellion, the capitulations were dissolved and the Muslim population was given the same choice that had been given to the Jews in 1492.

Meanwhile, in the newly discovered lands across the Atlantic, Columbus seemed impressed by the suitability of the native peoples for conversion to Christianity. As a result, in 1493 Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503) issued a bull in favor of the rights of the Spanish monarchs over all the lands already discovered by Columbus and any more as yet unknown beyond a line 100 leagues (about 555 kilometers, or 345 miles) west of the Azores in the North Atlantic and the Cape Verde Islands off the western coast of Africa, on the condition that the indigenous peoples were evangelized. That same year, a number of priests and friars under the leadership of Bernal Boyl (ca. 1440–1507) accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, but it was not until the beginning of the sixteenth century that formal missionary activity began to have an impact. Meanwhile, in 1494, with papal agreement, the Treaty of Tordesillas redrew the line of demarcation between Spain and Portugal to 370 leagues (about 2,055 kilometers, or 1,277 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands, unwittingly including the yet-to-be-discovered Brazil within Portuguese jurisdiction.

Papal bulls in 1501 and 1504 establishing new dioceses and granting the Spanish Crown the right to tithes from the new territories were followed by Pope Julius II's (1443–1513) bull of 1508, the Patronato Real (Right of Patronage), granting the Spanish monarchs full control over the Catholic Church in the Americas, including the appointment of bishops. In 1574 King Philip II (1527–1598) redefined the Right of Patronage as perpetual and inviolable, effectively excluding the papacy from interference with royal authority over ecclesiastical institutions in the Americas. The Portuguese Crown received its Right of Patronage in 1522, and the first bishop in Brazil was appointed to the newly created diocese of Bahia in 1551. Both Spain and Portugal directed church appointments and policy in the Americas through the use of councils: in Spain, the Royal Council for the Indies; in Portugal, the Ultramarine Council, together with the Table (literally, Mesa) of Conscience and Orders.

Given the speed with which vast territories were incorporated and the difficulty of maintaining lines of communication between the Iberian Peninsula and the Americas, it was no mean task to establish an entirely new ecclesiastical structure that functioned alongside secular institutions. As a result of the Portuguese preoccupation with the African spice route to the Indies, the colonization of Brazil and the subsequent expansion of the Catholic Church were much slower than those of Spanish America and were also hindered by the Dutch occupation of Bahia between 1630 and 1654.

In 1511 the local Hispanic population of Santo Domingo was scandalized when the Dominican friar, Antonio de Montesinos, preached a sermon that accused them of being in a state of mortal sin for their cruel treatment of the indigenous population. His sermon addressed a pressing issue in the Caribbean, where disease, slavery, and exploitation had practically depopulated the archipelago. Queen Isabella had already taken exception to Columbus enslaving Indians (her vassals) and distributing them among the Spanish settlers. However, the capture and Christianization of indigenous peoples was encouraged and even institutionalized under the encomienda, an institution that allowed Spaniards to be granted the labor of a number of Indians on the condition that they were well treated and given catechesis.

Montesinos's sermon marked the beginning of a long campaign against the encomienda system and the enslavement of Indian populations. The polemic led to the issuing of the Laws of Burgos in 1512, which regulated the treatment of native peoples in an attempt to prevent abuse. Largely due to the efforts of the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas (1474–1566), the phasing out of encomiendas was formally initiated with the promulgation of the New Laws in 1542. The controversy continued throughout the colonial period, sometimes even turning into armed conflict, as between the Jesuit-Guaraní missions of Paraguay and the bandeirantes (armed groups of slavers) from São Paulo, Brazil, in the seventeenth century. During the eighteenth century this fed into a wider antagonism between church and state.

With the conquest of Mexico in 1519, the optimism that had accompanied the conquest of Granada resurfaced. Initially, responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the population lay with the regular orders, especially the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Augustinians, all of whom showed a genuine concern for the protection of the indigenous peoples from the more devastating effects of colonial exploitation. Nevertheless, this did not prevent disputes arising over methods of evangelization and jurisdiction over parishes. The Franciscan approach favored mass baptisms to confer God's grace on the people alongside the establishment of schools and catechesis in indigenous languages. The Dominicans, however, contested that mass baptisms without previous and thorough catechesis would lead inevitably to apostasy and idolatry.

As the conquest continued, and dioceses were founded across Spanish America (for example, Panama in 1511, Mexico in 1530, Oaxaca in 1535, and Quito in 1546—the same year that Mexico, Lima, Bogotá, and Santo Domingo were made into archdioceses), seminaries and universities were instituted to train new priests in theology, philosophy, canon law, and classical and indigenous languages. As the numbers of the secular clergy increased, bishops were able to establish cathedral chapters and appoint clergy as parish priests (doctrineros) to outlying towns. Gradually, secular clergy replaced the regular orders as priests to indigenous parishes. Subsequent disputes over regular and secular parish boundaries and the numbers of indigenous parishioners were not uncommon. Alongside the corregidor (crown judicial representative) and the cacique (official indigenous leader), the local parish priest was one of the most powerful figures in the town.

The relationship between church and state was not always felicitous. Notwithstanding the Patronato Real, the clergy were not above voicing criticisms. In the 1570s, for example, Viceroy Francisco de Toledo (1515–1584) of Peru came under severe criticism for ordering the execution of the last Inca, Túpac Amaru. During the Hapsburg period (1516–1700), therefore, church and state were mutually interdependent but separate enough to act as a check on each other's power: Both, in their own way, represented the monarch. With the onset of regalist reforms during the Bourbon period (1700–ca.1812), the delicate balance between church and state was overturned as the state attempted to weaken the power of religious orders, take control of education and social welfare, and appropriate collective wealth.

The most significant attack was directed against the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), whose influence in the field of education was second to none and whose collective wealth and powerful semiautonomous missions flew in the face of Bourbon ideas about the defense of private property under the direct control of the state. The expulsion of the Society of Jesus (in 1759 from Portuguese lands and in 1767 from Spanish ones) caused much ill-feeling among the general populace. Moreover, since the majority of Jesuits were Creoles, the expulsion encouraged the growth of an identification with a land that was not Spain and which should not be subject to Spanish rule.

Conflict between peninsular Spaniards and Creoles had increased over the years with growing frustration at the tendency to place Spaniards in positions of authority over equally (and perhaps more) capable Creoles. As rebellions and independence movements gained momentum, lesser clergy were often able to act as a bridge between the ideals of the Creole elite and the social aspirations of their campesino, and often largely indigenous, parishioners. Numerous clergy participated in the Túpac Amaru rebellions of the 1780s across the central and southern Andes, and, in fact, two heroes of the 1810 precursor to Mexican independence, Miguel Hidalgo (1753–1811) and José María Morelos (1765–1815), were priests.

After independence, social groups vied for positions of influence in the new regimes. Governments attempted to assume the continuation of the Patronato Real, but soon the Catholic Church found itself out of alignment with the Liberal thought of the ruling elites, who increasingly undermined the church as an archaic and anti-modern institution.

see also Christianity and Colonial Expansion in the Americas.


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Catholic Church in Iberian America

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