As the Middle Ages came to a close, the ideas of the renaissance started to take hold and the power of the Church gradually began to lessen. The monarchies of Europe also began to grow replacing the Church’s power. Monarchies, during the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance, did not so much seek the guidance of the Church as it sought their approval. However, during the age of discovery, the Church was still a great influence. The discovery of the New World and its inhabitants presented problems to the Church in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.
When Spain’s rulers and emissaries decided to physically conquer and populate the New World, the transplantation of Christian institutions followed. The Church established contact with the New World, and made it a goal to establish the Catholic doctrines among the native population there. However, the Church and the Spanish monarch looked upon the natives in the New World as souls to be saved. They did not consider or treat the Indians as equals. The implanting of Christianity in the New World plus the treatment of the natives by the missionaries and the Christian conquerors were detrimental to the New World. One of the reasons for this was the alliance between the Spanish monarchy and the Catholic Church. The status of the Indians was disregarded as the Christian conquerors and missionaries who wanted to convert them subjected them to violence and reduced them to a laboring population. However, the Indians did not always respond in a negative way to the works of the Church.
The Catholic Church arrived to the New World immediately after Christopher Columbus made a claim for it to Spain. After Columbus’ discovery of the new lands, he wrote a series of treaties as to what the European purpose there was. In his writings, Columbus stated that the
purpose of the New World had two folds to it. First, he said the gospel message of the Church should be spread globally beginning with his discoveries in the New World. Second, he stated that the riches discovered in the New World should be dedicated to the recapture of Jerusalem from the Moslems. Columbus saw the discovery of the New World as a prophecy coming true. He also saw the Indians that liver there as a labor source that should be Christianized and used for the good of the Church.
Two papal bulls were issued in the year of 1493 that established the Spanish position in the New World. They also established the role that the Church was going to play in the New World. The first bull was issued on May 3rd and it was called the “Inter Carter”. It said that Spain, not previously under a Christian ownership, could claim the lands discovered by the Spanish envoys. The bull also gave the Spanish monarch the power to send men to convert the natives to the Catholic faith and instruct them in Catholic morals. The second papal bull issued the same exact year, expanded on the meaning of the first. The bull fixed a boundary for Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence in the New World. This boundary heavily favored Spain, showing more greatly the alliance between Spain and the Church.
The history of the Catholic Church in the New World began the year after Columbus’ first voyage. The Spanish monarchy sent the first missionaries to establish Christianity there. The number of missions sent to the New World accelerated in tempo until the final decade of the 16th century. The crown paid for the sending of missionaries, and its officials kept track of the many “shiploads” of religious personnel sent and the expenses they incurred. The records show that the Spanish dispatched missionaries to more than 65 destinations, ranging from Florida and California to Chile and the Straight of Magellan.
When the Spanish were choosing whom to send as their principle emissaries of the Catholic Church, they called upon the friars belonging to several monastic orders instead of the many bishops and clergy. There were three monastic orders of friars that came to the New World. These were the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Augustinian. There were many reasons on why Spain chose to send friars instead of secular priests to the New World. By sending the friars instead of the priests, Spain took advantage of an old evangelical strain in European monasticism. In the times before the Christianity of Europe, wandering monks roamed the countryside converting the rural population. The monarchy but this old idea back in to work. The Spanish monarch also picked the monastic orders to fulfill this task because they were among those who possessed an education. At this time, Spain lacked seminaries. The local priests were uneducated and were seen largely as ignorant.
Once in the New World, the missionaries played an indispensable role in subduing the Indian population. They created large towns and villages; they also took charge of administration. Sometimes colony administrators largely left these settlements in the hands of church officials because they were unreachable.
These missions were not always run in the best interest of the Indians. The natives were often subject to harsh conditions, and they were not always protected by the missions. The missions instituted by the government, with few exceptions, were accompanied and legitimized genocide, slavery, ecocide, and exploitation of the wealth of the land. In simpler terms, the mission left a bitter fruit for those descendents of the survivors of the invasion.
At this time, no country conceived of setting up anything but a Christian empire. Because the Church was under the Spanish monarchy, it also participated in the wrongs that incurred in the New World. The Church went along by instituting the unfair practices against the native population.
In Mexico, Hernando Cortez recognized the need for religious instruction among Indians. Hernando Cortez was a conqueror that received direct instructions from both the Spanish monarch and the pope to, ”Spread the knowledge of the true faith and the Church of God among those people who dwell in darkness.” Cortez folled these instructions very diligently. When he encountered the Indians of Central America, he undertook their religious conversations. He explained the Christian religion to them, and wanted the native to renounce their idols and embrace the Christian religion. He went on to preach against sodomy and human sacrifice to the tribes that he encountered.
In Mexico, like other Spanish colonies, numerous friars and priests came and worked to Christianize the native population. However, this was largely ineffectual because of the number of holy men compared to the many Indians who populated this area.
Cortez realized the need to convert the native population in the New World into Christian. He wrote to the king of Spain, Charles V, about the need for missionaries to convert the natives. He asked for friars of the St. Francis or St. Dominic order who would set up monasteries to instruct and convert the native population.
Shortly after Cortez’s request, arrived the famous “Mission of Twelve” at San Juan de Ulna on May 13th, 1524. They began the methodical conversion of the Indians. Cortez’s envisions of monastic communities, where the natives could be converted to Christianity, came true. Huge monasteries were built for the purpose of converting the native population. These monasteries built were enormous size and decorated very lavishly. It is said that the beautiful churches helped in the conversion of Indians and strengthened their devotion.
These churches, supposedly built for the benefit of the native population, were built or supported by the native population. For them this was a heavy burden, whether they built the churches or had to pay workmen the labor. They had to do this at the cost of neglecting their fields or trades. There were also accounts of friars physically punishing the Indians for their work or the lack of it.
The reasons for the acceptance of Christianity vary, but one of them is fear. Some Christian conquerors threatened lives if the Indians were not baptized and did not actively participate in the church. Another reason for conversion is that the Indians were in the awe of the conquerors. The Spanish represented power and the Indians were in reverence of their great amount of power they represented. Some accepted the religion because the missionaries demonstrated boundless zeal, high morals, and great courage. Not all of the missionaries sent by the Church were violent or corrupt. There were some that really worked for the benefit of the native population. The Indians saw this and respected it. In many cases though, they were forced to convert to Christianity, and their view about God and religion were not taken into account.
The Church helped the Spanish monarchy administer the native population in the New World. The Church, by being subject to the Spanish monarchy, is also held accountable to the numerous evils inflicted upon the Indians in the Spanish colonies. The Indians were reduced to second class citizens, and were forced to work toward goals they did not fully understand.
In conclusion, because of the alliance between the Church and Spanish monarchy, most of the missionaries were corrupt, but there was also a lot of good that came out of the colonization/conversion. Both the Indians and the Church came across hardships, but they finally managed to live in peace.
Terrar, Toby. “Catholic Mission and the 500th Anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s Arrival.”
Giles, Thomas S. “How Did Native Americans Respond To Christianity?” Christian History Issue 35 Vol. XI, No.3
Richard, Robert. The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966.
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