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Essay: What was the role of the church in the conquest and colonization of Latin America? Did it vary in different areas and was there a true spiritual conquest?

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by Nicholas Klar

This article is recommended reading from University of Auckland, New Zealand and

The role of the Catholic Church in the 'New World' was of the upmost importance to both the colonizer and the colonized. However, too often it has been seen in a generalized role where the church and state acted hand in hand, without differentiation between areas, religious orders, and ecclesiastical authority. On closer inspection it can be seen that the church was often at odds with the state, local elites, and even those they sought to convert. In addition there were battles between the different orders, between bishops and laity, and between the secular church and missionaries.

This paper will endeavor to outline these differences, along with the attempts made by the church to adapt to the different conditions encountered. It will be contended that due to these varying circumstances and different attitudes a true 'spiritual conquest' did not take place. Also, many individual Spaniards, not of the church, sought to impose their own particular idea of Christianity on the Indians. This has left the legacy of a peculiar mix of traditional Catholicism and indigenous religion.

The power of the Catholic Church is seen from the very beginnings of the 'New World'. Columbus set forth believing himself to be ordained by God in his purpose. His goal was supposedly ' propagate His holy name and His Gospel throughout the universe.', but as Todorov points out spiritual expansion is tied to material conquest. [Todorov pp.10,44] The Catholic Church had begun issuing papal bulls in 1452 which granted rights and privileges in order to promote missionary activity. [Las Casas p.15] The American continent was 'bestowed' by God (through the Pope) upon the Spanish and Portuguese.[Todorov p.147]

Hernan Cortes considered it vital that the Indians subjected themselves not only to the Spanish throne but also to the 'mysteries of Christ'.[Portilla p.58] This was important as the Church had ruled that enslavement and war could only be made on groups that had rejected the Gospel.[Ibid] When encountering a people the Requerimiento was to read to them. Afterwards, if they still chose not to submit to God's will, violence was permissible. This was regardless of whether the people actually understood.

These sort of actions were still happening as late as 1550 when the Arawaks of Chile were forced to submit by Pedro de Valdivia. [Todorov p.148] From early on many priests spoke against the violence, including Fray Olmedo who was present with Cortes. Parallels can be drawn between the conquest and the defeat of the invading Moors in Spain who showed some form of civilization but were still unenlightened. The 'Ten Plagues' that befell Mexico were God's punishment on a sinful people.[Ibid p.135]

Indians had to be Christian before they could even be considered human. This was highlighted when Cortes talked of Indian temples as Mosques. He was the first to attempt superimposing of the Christian faith on local religions by 'cleansing' temples of idols and substituting Christian icons. [Cortes p.91] Idols were broken in public in an attempt to break the Indians spirit. The Spanish insisted on their religion of monotheism, and convinced many Indians to accept the Christian God. However this brought about the first contradictions in the 'spiritual conquest'.

This was probably because Indians converted to appease the Spanish, because they saw the Spaniards God as more powerful than their own, or in their own polytheistic sense. Conversion brought cultural baggage and disruption of lifestyles. Clendinnen states the Mayan 'hid' their old religion in an attempt to perpetuate it. This helped develop a distinct form of Mayan Christianity which later expressed itself in the caste wars. [Clendinnen p.190]

This brings forth the theory that for Indians the battle was viewed as cosmic and not earthly. The fight was between the Spanish and Indian Gods, and the most powerful would prevail. The christianized author in 'Broken Spears' stated that the 'false gods' had been overcome. In the Huamanga region the Taki Onqoy rebellion was seen as a cosmic battle between the Incan Huacas and Spanish God. [Stern p.52] The Huamangans had been receptive to Catholicism, albeit a modified form, but Taki Onqoy brought a vicious backlash from the church, costing some 8,000 lives.[Ibid pp. 39, 51-2]

What of the intra-church battles? Three powerful orders, the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits all fought each other, and the secular church, for power, prestige and souls. Each was different, and tended to dominate in different areas. Franciscans, who were the largest order in Spain, dominated in Mexico and the Yucatan. They adopted a paternalistic relationship with 'their' Indians and took up a protector role in the spirit of Las Casas' urgings. Many chose to adopt Indian ways in an attempt to proselytize more effectively. [Todorov pp.200,248] This can be compared to the rigorous transformation required by the Dominicans, whose friars committed themselves to conversion in the New World with as much zeal as they had to persecution in the Old. [Prescott p.121]

Cortes, who admired St. Francis, had asked for spiritually minded priests to be summoned to New Spain, not pampered bishops. The Franciscans responded by sending a select twelve, in the likeness of the twelve apostles. [Ibid pp.637,8] How were these few, and the comparatively small numbers that followed, able to bring about the massive amount of conversions and baptisms that followed? Indians were trained, and chiefs were targeted for conversion. Franciscan values appear to have been admired, with much less apparent greed.[Clendinnen p.46] Thus the Franciscan way of adaption became more dominant, thereby adding to the syncretism of native and catholic values.

The Franciscans came into conflict with the state and other orders as they began to consolidate their control in the Yucatan. They indoctrinated the Indians in Hispanic ways but did not teach them Spanish, thereby giving themselves a role of mediator. They consolidated villages and patterned them by the sounds of church bells. The state was condemned for its violence as the order contended that conquest and Christianity did not automatically give rights.[Ibid pp.47-53,58-9,73] However, the tide was soon to turn with these indefatigable priests.

In reality accommodations to native ways and religions were shown by the church. Despite this, its primary aim, along with conversion, was destruction of native religion. The Indians were considered spiritual waifs, under the influence of the devil. The Aztec religion in particular was discerned as part of Satan's damnation, beheld of in the book of revelation. [Prescott pp.275,338] Temples were destroyed and replaced with cathedrals, monasteries and schools. After a battle with the Inca in Peru a church was constructed on the site, and the war dead buried in its walls. [Ibid p.1051]

Cruelty by the Franciscans in the Yucatan was justified under the leadership of Fray Diego de Landa. He had consolidated control in this area and fought off the challenges of both state and secular church. After discovering evidence of idolatry he justified violence through the philosophy of 'destroy and rebuild'.

The friars who had previously preferred psychological manipulation over physical punishment now judged themselves above the law, and inflicted punishment without right of redress. Roles were inverted as the frightened Indians sought refuge with the encomenderos who considered the church a threat to their livelihood and wanted to protect their interests. [Clendinnen pp. 66-80,115,122]

Contradictions were not only confined to the church. The Spanish were not told to actually be good Christians but only to appear to be so. [Todorov p.174] The conquistadors would support or oppose the church as best suited their interests. This was the case when the encomderos supported the Indians in the Yucatan. Slavery was justified because Indians could not be brought into the light of God without a work ethic. One Indian about to killed refused repentance, he could not bear to go to a heaven where cruel white men resided. [Prescott pp.122,3]

Much also had to do with the accommodation of the Indians to the new intruders. Prescott contends that the Indians of Guatemala were far more hospitable than those of the Yucatan, or Mexico in general. [Ibid p.650] The Huamanga in Peru welcomed the Spanish in the hope that they would be better than their Incan lords. Initially untutored in the skill of subjugation, the Spanish may have simply become more adept as they moved on.

This too may have been the case of the spiritual conquest which had been 'spent' by the time it reached Peru from Mexico. [Stern p.46] Priests in Huamanga were described as being powerful, entrepreneurial, and able to turn the system to good use for themselves. Here the Jesuit order enjoyed quite some political muscle, in particular being able to draw free mita labor. Cristobal de Alboronz brought sweeping reforms to the church, laying the blame for many indiscrepancies at the feet of the priests. [Ibid p.75]

Indians were drawn to the church, where as lay assistants they could avoid rigors of mitayo labor. [Ibid pp.101,163] Yet still many Indians found genuine faith. In a letter to the Spanish King the Council of Huejotzingo praise the Spanish for bringing them the word of God. [Portilla p.154] Conversion amongst the wealthy and city dwellers was particularly successful. [Stern p.169]

The state had sensibly used missionary priests as a cheap 'frontline' in its efforts to conquer and civilize. Yet fearing the fate of the Indians many orders refused to yield authority to the state, or the secular church, once it had become established within a certain area. Las Casas attempted twice to bring settlements to fruition without the interference of the state. Both experiments were miserable failures. [Prescott pp.204,5]

There is no doubt today that there was never a true spiritual conquest and the failures of the church were many. The priests did not understand the Indian religions, nor did many attempt to. Some priests were more interested in gaining treasure on earth than in heaven, like those who could not baptise Montezuma because they were too busy collecting gold. Others perpetuated the violence they had wanted to stop. Priests were subject to the vagaries of different bishops and local lords. The Spanish did not just conquer the Indians just with religion, but also with technology, disease, and exploiting divisions between the different peoples.

Yet there were still many priests who put aside the vices and entrapments that so many others fell into, and sought to live humbly with their native brethren. In this they learnt their ways, tried to teach what they considered a better way of life, and to protect them from the exploitation and misery they knew would befall them if left to the mercy of the Conquistadors. Some like Bernardino de Sagahun recognized the Indians virtues. Whilst concluding that Christianization on the whole had brought more harm than good, he judges the main evil as the tie to the Spanish state. In a true independent Christian state of Mexico he idealistically believes that, free of Spain, it would be a much better place for all. [Todorov pp.237-8] One can only surmise on this point, because even today the legacy of the Catholic Church and its role in the conquest still runs deep.


Hernando Cortes 'Five Letters 1519- 1526' NY:

Inga Clendinnen 'Ambivalent Conquests' Cambridge:1987

Roy Hassig 'Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control'

Bartolome de Las Casas 'Devastation of the Indies' Baltimore:1992

Miguel Leon-Portilla 'The Broken Spears' Boston:1992

William Prescott 'History of the Conquest of Mexico and Peru' NY: nd

Steve Stern 'Peru's Indian People:The Challenge of the Spanish Conquest' Madison:1982

Tzvetan Todorov 'The Conquest of America :The Question of the Other' NY:1984

© 1993-2008, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1993, "What was the role of the church in the conquest and colonization of Latin America? Did it vary in different areas and was there a true spiritual conquest" - + date accessed

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