Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

The Splendors and Miseries of the Spanish American Missions

(The Angelus, November 2023.)

As is so often the case with respect to their boasting in other realms, liberal and modernist apologists often talk about “missiology”---the “science” of missionary activity---as though they invented it ex nihilo. This pretension is definitively refuted by even a cursory glance at the history of Spanish missionary work in America. And given the depth of the Spanish academic revival at institutions like the Universities of Salamanca and the Alcalá that paralleled the voyages of discovery and played an enormous role at the Council of Trent as well, one wonders how anyone of good will could possibly neglect it. Nevertheless, the splendors of Spanish American missiology and the practical achievements emerging from its speculations were marred by a battery of real miseries as well: some of the consequences of which continue to weigh down heavily on the life of the Church in this entire region.

It seems to me that one major reason for neglect of Spanish missiology is the fact that many Catholics feel that the two Dominicans first popularly associated with it in America, Antonio de Montesinos (1475-1540) and Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566), threw the entire work of Christianization of the New World into disrepute with their bitter criticism of the early colonists’ behavior towards the Indians in the Caribbean. But whatever contribution their assault may have made to the growth of the anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish Black Legend, there is no denying that the great theologians of the school of Salamanca, with Francis de Victoria (1483-1546) heading the list, took the issues concerning evangelization and its relationship to Natural Law that they raised extremely seriously.

The debate that de Montesinos and de Las Casas immediately aroused helped to shape the future attitude of the Spanish Monarchy toward the activities of the different Conquistadors and the spread of the Faith in general. Its policies were reflected in the Ordinances on the Good Treatment of Indians of 1526, the New Laws of 1542, and other decisions taken after the Assembly at Valladolid of 1550-1551. Moreover, the problems brought up by the two Dominicans were discussed by many other missionaries as well, particularly Franciscans, Jesuits, and energetic prelates in the Viceroyalties of New Spain (Mexico) and Peru.

Hernán Cortés (1485-1547), the most religiously committed of the Conquistadors, enthusiastically welcomed the first Franciscan into Mexico in 1523. His arrival was followed the following year by the dramatic entrance of the “Twelve”, brother friars whom Cortés greeted on his knees. The most famous member of this highly motivated apostolic band was Toribio de Benavente (1482-1565), who took upon himself the Nahuatl language nickname Motolinía, the “poor (or afflicted) one”, due to the positive impression that his ragged clothing made upon the Aztec population. Two other central Franciscan figures appeared on the scene in the latter 1520s: the great scholar, Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590), and Juan de Zumárraga (1468-1548), the first Bishop of Mexico. A secular prelate, Vasco de Quiroga (1470-1565), who presided over the diocese of Michoacán from 1537 onwards, matched them in their zeal.

Even though all of these Mexican evangelists shared Las Casas’ complaints regarding the venality of many of the Spanish colonists, and also vigorously sought to protect the powerless Indians, they, unlike him, felt that the conquest itself represented a providential opportunity for the spread of the Faith. A good number of them, speculating widely regarding who these millions of natives actually were, and whence they might originally have come, even entertained the hope that their evangelization would lead to the creation of a Christendom much better than that existing in the still pre-Tridentine Old World. This was perhaps most obviously the case with Vasco de Quiroga, who had read St. Thomas More’s Utopia, and decided to begin the longed for regeneration of a corrupt Christendom from an Indian inhabited center of his diocese.

Agreement over the providential conquest aside, Spanish-Mexican missiology reflected serious differences of approach. Perhaps most famously, there were divisions over the question of the lasting value of the early, massive, and swift baptism of the millions upon millions of indigenous Mexicans. Motolinía saw this as an essential part of the whole miraculous development, while Sahagún adopted Las Casas’ earlier thoroughgoing critique of the practice, which he believed should have followed a more serious catechesis.

Sahagún’s position is best described in conjunction with the scholarly and educational work to which he dedicated most of his energy; a labor based upon a project that he did share in common with Motolinía and most of the other missionaries: the desire rapidly to annihilate the old pagan idolatry. That idolatry was being fought by means of the swift destruction of five hundred temples and tens of thousands of cult figures. Sahagún, however, felt that this destruction had to be accompanied by a deep study of the indigenous Nahuatl tongue and the whole of Aztec culture along with it.

Failure to undertake such a labor would cause two problems. On the one hand, missionaries, lacking an understanding of the nature of Aztec paganism, would be incapable of seeing how its idolatry might continue, hidden, under outward Christian forms. On the other hand, they would lose the chance of perhaps actually finding in aspects of the civilization of the defeated people the kind of good “Seeds of the Logos” that had existed in Classical culture and had proven to be enormously useful in the more solid Christianization of the Greco-Roman pagan population. He thought that examples of these Seeds might be seen in the profound messianic spirit found among the Mexicans, and, mirabile dictu, even in the importance placed on human blood sacrifice, the whole focus of which could conceivably be directed to the self-offering of Christ on the Cross. (For Sahagún, see, L.N. D’Oliver, Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, Utah, 1987).

Although Pope Paul III (1534-1549) declared the earlier swift baptism approach valid, he urged more rigor---and more respect for the rational character of the Indians along with it--- in the future. Sahagún, with the support of Bishop Zumárraga and the Viceroy Mendoza, was given the time and resources to go about a massive work of plumbing the depths of Aztec culture, producing his twelve-volume General History of the Things of New Spain, in both Spanish and Nahuatl. And from 1536 onwards, he was able to pursue his goal of educating the youth of the old indigenous nobility in the fullness of the Catholic vision in the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlaltelolco. This he saw to be the pathway also to the rapid development of a native clergy. Other Franciscans were to follow his model, producing works on all manner of subjects involving New Spain, ultimately in twenty-two Indian languages and dialects.

Let us now move further south. The Viceroyalty of Peru was served by Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, Mercedarians, and, ultimately, Jesuits as well. Its center, the Archdiocese of Lima, was a model from the very outset of its history under the Dominican Jerónimo de Loaysa (1486-1575). Mexican enthusiasm for the catechesis of the native population was reflected here as well, as, for example, in the calls of numerous archdiocesan provincial councils for priests to master the local languages. It was most vigorously expressed by St. Toribio Alfono de Mogrovejo (1538-1606), the so-called “Apostle to the Indians”, who took charge of Lima in 1581. He conducted pastoral journeys extending over three thousand kilometers to learn of the problems of his native flock, fostered solid seminary training in the spirit of the Council of Trent, and also, like Sahagún, hoped for the swift creation of a native clergy.

Another great scholar of missiology from Salamanca and the Alcalá, Jose de Acosta, S.J. (1539-1600), was also active contemporaneously with St. Toribio in Peru, his most important works being his De procuranda Indorum salute (1588) and the Historia naturales et moralis de Inde (1590). Firmly “providentialist” in his estimation of the deeper meaning of a conquest of America that he in no way denied involved much sinful activity, de Acosta was noted for distinguishing among different approaches towards evangelization the globe over. While arguing that the populations of high civilizations like those of China and India had to be treated in line with the earlier process of Greco-Roman conversion, he saw the New World as offering a less sophisticated field of action. Some of its tribal peoples were vix homines---“scarcely human”---and had to be tamed with a more rigid hand. The Mexicans and Peruvians, who did possess a serious culture but had had no writing of their own, formed a kind of a middle category, one that indeed called for application of Natural Law principles, required a respect for their free use of the own goods, but also demanded a measure of tutelage as well. This attitude led him to oppose the hope of St. Toribio for a native clergy in the immediate future, not to speak of dreams of any general development of a New World Christendom that might itself serve as a better model for its Old World tutor.

Religious policy did not develop as men like Sahagún and St. Toribio had hoped. The Indian population, which, for a variety of reasons, declined precipitously in the decades after the Conquest, was only partially incorporated into the fullness of Catholic life. Although earlier hopes for full assimilation seem to have persisted at least somewhat in Peru, New Spain limited native access to Holy Communion and shut down plans for building a native clergy from the 1540s onward. Santa Cruz de Tlateloco was closed. Sahagún’s works were confiscated and consigned to several centuries of oblivion. Indeed, all publications stressing the virtues of the Indians, their possible qualifications for the priesthood, or making any statements that could bring the actions of the Conquistadors into disrepute were prohibited.

Indian Catholicism, watched over by the religious orders, nevertheless remained lively, with popular piety channeled through confraternities dedicated to everything from mutual, charitable assistance to exuberant public celebration of feast days, with processions and pilgrimages to churches and nearby holy sites. The native officials in charge of such confraternities exercised a serious local influence. Unfortunately, however, the religious authorities periodically expressed suspicions that Sahagún’s concerns regarding a dangerous Catholic-pagan syncretism were accurate. Questions were raised regarding whether holy sites and sacred rituals were really understood in a Christian sense or in that associated with the idolatrous spirits of nature referred to by the Incas as huacas. In fact, Sahagún was fearful of the possibility of a bad syncretism even with respect to the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Spanish civil policy ultimately did not reflect the earlier messianic vision either. Yes, a decision was made to create a “Republic of the Indians” and a “Republic of the Spanish” in settlements and cities separate from one another, with the noble goal of hindering abuse of native property and labor. Nevertheless, Spain was far away, and exploitation of forced Indian labor always remained a temptation for influential Creoles and Viceroys alike--- the most famous example of the latter being found in the Viceroyalty of Peru with the silver mines of Potosì.

These mines, high in the mountains, were worked by large numbers of forced laborers who were kept active with the aid of a great deal of cocaine. Many only lasted a few months before contracting diseases and dying. De Acosta accepted the Potosì system because he said it supported the common good of all. The Franciscan Buenaventura Salinas y Cordoba (1592-1653) even waxed eloquently over its benefits:

Potosì lives so that the Turk bends under the whip, the Moor collapses from envy, Flanders remains in fear, England in terror. Yes, Potosì lives, the pillar and obelisk of the Faith! (J. Marie Mayeur, ed., Histoire du christianisme, Desclée, 1992, Volume 8, p. 720.)

Many more religious were horrified by what took place in Potosì. The Dominican, Domingo de Santo Tomàs (1499-1570) described it as “the mouth of hell” (Mayeur, p. 720), and the Archbishops of Lima, who were in effect bribed to accept it by being offered revenues from its profits, looked upon it with deep dismay. It was not just religious purposes, but also the hunt for a better protection of the Indian population from these and other secular abuses--- permanent enslavement among them---that led to the expansion of what at first had been called doctrinas into the great Jesuit “Reductions” sheltering 150,000 Guarani Indians in South America.

Other “miseries” that were all too familiar from the Old World further hindered construction of a regenerated Christendom in Spanish America. Religious orders fought one another over their specific territories and tactics. Bishops eager to protect their episcopal authority and their secular clergy crossed swords with religious in general, the battles of Bishop Juan de Palafox y Mendoza of Puebla (1600-1659) causing important immediate problems for the Franciscan missions in outlying areas and long-term difficulties for the Society of Jesus throughout the globe.

Moreover, traditional attempts by the laity to secure control over sources of ecclesiastical power and revenue for less than spiritual purposes were unceasing, complicated by a particularly unique New World phenomenon. This was the clash effecting both the clergy and the laity between the American born Spanish population—the Creoles—and influential figures coming from the old country to play either a temporary or long-term role in Church and State: the Peninsulares. Both the religious orders and the Spanish Monarchy entertained a deep suspicion of the ambitions and venality of the Creoles. Men like de Acosta warned against allowing anyone coming from their ranks to be ordained due to this fear. Nevertheless, Creole families, both rich and poor, found their way into the less esteemed secular clergy. Once having entered, they benefited from Palafox’ battles against the religious orders, especially when the bishop transferred all missionary responsibilities and the properties connected with them to the secular, Creole dominated clergy. Ignorant of the languages needed to fulfill their spiritual labor, and susceptible to pressures from their lay relatives to exploit native labor, they contributed mightily to the corruption and decline of the missionary endeavor in northern Mexico. Many religious now moved to the Spanish cities, which were overstaffed with priests and nuns, and Creoles came to enter their ranks as well. Even when the Franciscans began a highly successful revival of their missionary activity, through the inspiration of Fra Antoni Llinàs (1635-1693) and the College of the Holy Cross in Querétaro in 1683, the Creole-Peninsulares problem continued, with leadership roles having to be alternated to avoid internecine battling. Other orders experienced the same difficulties.

Familiar Church-State quarrels---often intense personal spats between viceroys and bishops over questions of precedence and revenues---were rendered potentially much more complicated due to Rome’s granting of vast powers over ecclesiastical appointments and administration to the Iberian monarchies in the lands gained through the voyages of discovery in the late fifteenth century: creating what in the Spanish case was called the Patronato. Privileges of the Patronato were jealously guarded by the Council of the Indies, founded in 1524, and defended both theologically and legally by clerics and lay servants of the Crown alike. Most famous among the latter was Juan de Solórzano Pereira (1575-1655), with his massive De Indiarum Jure published in Latin between 1629 and 1639, and its Spanish version, Politica Indiana, in 1647.

Post-Tridentine Rome was not happy with this situation, one that had prevented the whole question of what was going on in the Patronato and its Portuguese equivalent to be addressed at the Council itself. The Papacy quickly began to try to find ways to get closer control over the missionary territories, and Gregory XV, under the inspiration of the work of the Discalced Carmelite, Thomas of Jesus (1564-1627), De procuranda salute omnium gentium (1613), created the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda) in 1622 to rectify the situation. The establishment of the Urbaniana in 1627, which was put under Propaganda’s aegis, with its goals of promoting the knowledge of native cultures and preparing for the birth of native clergies, was an integral part of the same project.

Although Asia always seems to have been at the top of Propaganda’s concerns, Francesco Ingoli (1578-1649), its first secretary from 1622 until his death, did not spare Spanish America from criticism. The Patronato as a whole was obviously targeted by the placing of De Indiarum Jure on the Index in 1642. But more specifically it was the question of the abandonment of the creation of a native clergy that agitated him most. As he wrote to the General of the Augustinians in 1638: “If the Spanish regulars do not consecrate any Indians, the Church in both the Indies will always be a small child and will never grow inwardly strong” (Mayeur, p.759).

Propaganda certainly had good reason to complain of at least certain aspects of the Patronato, because the greatest of the “miseries” of the Spanish missionary endeavor in the Americas could not have come about without it: its almost utter dismantling at its hands. For the Spanish Monarchy under the Bourbon Dynasty dedicated itself to an Enlightenment inspired secularization in the latter part of the eighteenth century that cruelly annihilated the Jesuit missions and hamstrung almost all of the others. That secularization was accompanied by a transformation of the glorious universities of Spanish America into centers of naturalist bent and the encouragement of an immense growth in influence of Freemasonry. Both of these developments played a central role in continuing the assault on Catholicism in Spanish America in the nineteenth century and down to our own day.

Yes, miseries there were, and of great import. One special horror that I did not have the space to discuss here---but well known through the work of St. Peter Claver, S.J. (1581-1654)---was the abuse of black slaves (and Indians) in the northern reaches of the Viceroyalty of Peru. But can the splendors of the missionary effort be denied in consequence? That would appear to be impossible to anyone who has encountered the beauty of Spanish America’s churches, the continued piety of the pilgrims at Our Lady of Guadalupe, and a great deal else. For after all, it was the initial labors of the Spanish missionaries that gave birth to the kind of Faith that inspired the firmness of the Cristeros and their beautifully Catholic call for the Social Kingship of Christ: a sign of vigor if ever there were one!

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