Catholic Evangelism & Spanish Colonialism
I. The Merging of Catholic and State Power
“The empire on which the sun never sets”
This phrase encapsulated Spanish pride during the 16th and 17th centuries. Behind all of that however, the Spanish Golden Age involved the systemic subjugation of indigenous peoples, expropriation of their natural resources, and assimilation of their respective cultures. Generations destroyed by Spanish (and other Western) colonialism left a crippled continent that lacked the capital to upstart its uphill battle from subservience, even to this day. As Uruguayan journalist writes in his book The Open Veins of Latin America: “Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations.” And with the arrival of Spanish boats on the Latin American continent emerged a new chapter in their once-proud history; one marked with decline and subservience to a power that simply saw their blood as money. The Spanish invasion of Latin America was pushed by its thirst for economic prowess, and was facilitated by demands that held Spain and its Habsburg royal family by the handles. These included mineral profiteering, religion, and finance. Ideologically, the Catholic Church and its thinkers played a crucial role in legitimizing colonial expansion. Monetarily, the influx of silver and gold from Spain’s colonial plunders financed the growth of arms and territorial expansion. This vicious cycle was largely made systemic until the steady decline of the Spanish Empire in the 19th century.
Before creating conflict, presumably war, it is essential to have academic backing beforehand to hold popular support. Despite being an autocratic monarchy, an ideology was necessary to justify Spain’s colonial ventures. The Catholic Church proved to be a viable outlet since its power was diminishing on the European stage. Critics, such as Martin Luther, questioned the Papacy and threatened the Catholic rule that had been the status quo for over a millennium. The Church struggled to counteract the powers that were splintering its unity and it found leverage in Spanish politics. Given the expansionist aims of Spain, the Catholic Church viewed this as a proper opportunity for evangelical expansion. Therefore, the Spanish state and the Catholic Church worked hand in hand but for different reasons – the former wanted to reap profit and the other wanted to expand its mode of theological thinking. Throughout the Spanish Empire, the Catholic Church worked alongside colonial interests to build on its influence although its prevalence was most prominent in the formative years of the empire. Many conquistadors pursued conquest for materialist and religious aims. Declarations titled Requerimiento were read aloud by Spanish authorities upon calling a new region their own, citing divine law and God’s plan as their justification. Written by Juan López de Palacios Rubios, a Council of Castile jurist, these degrees were given credibility through the Catholic Church and its dominion. The language was purely Catholic, naming Saint Peter and his Papal successors as proper evidence that God had the right to rule over the entire earth. Naturally, by association, God had given this authority to the Spanish monarchy. And if the indigenous people refused to be converted or ruled, they were threatened with murder, torture, and enslavement. Oftentimes, such theological justifications were read to indigenous people despite language barriers and to empty towns as a rationalization for murder and destruction. Dominican friars usually accompanied the conquistadors as they read the declarations, granting the decree holy justification. Despite enriching the coffers of the Spanish ruling class, the Requerimiento was abolished in 1556, since it was deemed unjust to impose a religion by threats if the victims had never heard of Christ prior. However, Requerimiento served its purpose – it established the religious justification for Spanish imperialism.
The marginalization of the New World began with the creation of administrative regions of control. The North and South American continents were carved up by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 between the Spanish Crown and Portugal. Another treaty was signed between them in 1529 titled the Treaty of Zaragoza, which aimed at determining their respective regions of control in Asia. With the territorial lines set, the Spanish empire could now employ its ecomienda system of labor which institutionalized the enslavement of indigenous peoples and spread its Catholic evangelical message by sword even more efficiently. The Catholic Church sanctioned these territories with the papal bulls given in 1493, setting the groundwork for the Treaty of Tordesillas and Zaragoza. Called the Bulls of Donation, it granted overseas territories to the Catholic Spanish monarchs and Portugal. The major area of contention was Latin America, but is also involved a few islands in Asia among other regions. This holy sanctioning of land fundamentally usurped the power away from the Native Americans and granted the Spanish Crown the divine right to rule. Likewise, this was evoked many times over in conquest. Aside from the Requerimiento, which was read after a region was conquered, the Spanish Crown also instated the Spanish Requirement of 1519. This solidified Catholic rule in the colonies. It decreed that the Spanish Empire was divinely decreed to take the land of the New World. It also explicitly granted Spain the privilege of exploiting, subjugating, and enslaving the native inhabitants when they saw fit. The conquistadors that invaded, then, evoked this and believed those who resisted occupation also resisted God’s plan. Thereby, from then on, the colonial mission was fully set in motion – it had a monetary incentive, since territorial expansion provided bullion for the coffers of those in power, and it provided an ideological justification through God’s will.
II. The Catholic Theological Debate Over Colonialism
The Spanish Empire was unique in that it had a strict religious undertone. Other empires, such as the British and French, lacked such a prophetic message and were not as fervent in their religiosity to new-found lands. The difference was that the religious and governmental spheres of Spanish societies overlapped. This was especially evident in the Spanish Crown’s insistence in spreading Catholicism by lawful decree. The law of Burgos was passed in late December of 1512 and it was the first set of laws to govern the behavior of Spaniards living in the Americas in their treatment of indigenous peoples. It forbade them from being “mistreated” and facilitated converting them to Catholicism. However, it was largely ineffective in preventing the former. The system of ecomienda was too ingrained in the colonial economic system to be ruined by Spanish decree. This was tried to be corrected again in 1542 by King Charles V, but it was again largely ignored in the largest colonial regions. The native peoples of the Americas were then left with mistreatment and forced Catholic conversations, the decrees doing little to better their condition beside force more religion upon them.
In theological circles, the question of forced conversation and treatment of indigenous peoples in the Americas was one of much debate. Although the political sphere justified its colonization of peoples through a religious lens, the Catholic consensus on the matter within the upper echelons of its administration were split. This disagreement on the treatment of Native Americans would eventually reach its culmination in the Valladolid debate, which was held in the Colegio de San Gregorio of the Spanish city of Valladolid. The two debaters were the Bishop of Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas, defending their right for equality, and Dominican Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who argued that their enslavement was justified by divine law. Casas was one of the first individuals to criticize Spanish colonization and argued that the Native Americans were capable of reason and could be brought to Christianity without coercion. And, according to natural law, they were to be treated just as the Europeans were. Sepúlveda, on the contrary, argued from a strangely secular position. Arguing from an archaic Aristotelian point, he stated that indigenous peoples have a predisposition for slavery since they fall into the definition of “barbarian.” Hence, they were to be considered “natural slaves.” He went on to outline four mine reasons for the enslavement of native peoples of the Americas. Firstly, their condition in nature was one that was akin to slavery and demanded a Spanish master. Secondly, it prevented the indigenous peoples from engaging in obscene acts such as cannibalism and sexual perversion. Thirdly, it prevented chaos amongst them and stopped them from engaging in forms of offensive sacrifice. And finally, slavery was the most effective way of teaching them of European Catholic culture. Casas, furious, responded that there is an international duty to protect innocence from being treated unjustly. Remarkably, this was one of the first public callings for universal human rights. The debate ended with both sides polarized and there was no clear “winner” of the Valladolid debate. However, Casas’s arguments had an effect on policy to some degree. The ecomienda labor system was marginally weakened and the New Laws of 1542 were passed, however this did little to better the condition of the Native Americans. All in all, neither side came out truly victorious – to Cases’s dismay, Spanish colonialism and expansion continued and Sepúlveda, who wanted to strengthen the ecomienda system, failed to tangibly do so.
III. The Ultimate Victor
Despite the winner the argument being ambiguous, Sepúlveda argument for “natural slavery” is one that was prevalent in Christian circles. It originates from Aristotle, that certain individuals have a predisposition for slavery and subservience. The ideologically basis for it is inherently racist, Euro-centric, and was used to justify enslavement of the Native Americans by political, military, and Church leaders. However, it would be unfair to argue that the entire Church condoned the actions of the Spanish empire. Bartolomé de las Casas was only one of many that opposed such mistreatment on the basis of natural rights. Much of the opposition grew out of the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which was interpreted as a rebuttal to the enslavement of Native Americans. This would eventually form a new school of ecclesiastical thought, from the turn of the 16th century, which aimed to reconcile the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas with the new emerging political order. It was titled the School of Salamanca. They tackled the topics of the Spanish empire and its treatment of peoples, the Reformation, and the rise of humanism. The school represented the eventual end of medieval thinking and the focus on individual liberty in ethics. Natural rights were elaborated upon and were argued to have been given to all humans, including Native Americans. This was contrary to the dominant opinion in Europe at the time, which was that indigenous peoples lacked such rights and were made for subservient positions. Moreover, this was one of the first times in history when a group of intellectuals questions the basis of imperial conquest rather than merely justifying it. One of the leaders of this group was Francisco de Vitoria, who was also the founder of the School of Salamanca. He argued that the claims to land by the Spanish Crown were largely illegitimate and that the peoples of Latin America also possessed property rights. From this, he outlined a rough conception of international law, which was the first of its kind, and his Just War theory. Thereby, he concluded as did others in the intellectual movement, that the enslavement of the indigenous peoples was unjust on the basis that it was provoked and it usurped them of their natural right to free will. Contrary to mainstream thought, Vitoria made the bold claim that wars for glory or forced conversion against “heretics” or “infidels” were inherently unjust since they were inherently aggressive rather than defensive.
The history of Spanish plunder in their occupied territories is one of complete destruction – not just in Latin American, but elsewhere also. Generally speaking, the purpose of colonization was to expropriate mineral-rich reserves from the colonies while maintaining it benevolent in the eyes of Catholic dogma. Largely efficient for Spaniards in power, some questioned it and such criticisms lead to the establishment of natural rights in intellectual circles. International justice came from ills of Spanish colonization, from within the Catholic establishment, and a set a precedent for future human rights movements. Thinkers along the likes of Bartolomé de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria argued against the subjugation of indigenous peoples from a principled position of ethics. Rejecting the Aristotelian argument of “natural slavery,” their writing focused on the soul of each man as being equal. This consequently broke the chains of medieval thinking, but it would take a long while until such criticisms reached the mainstream. Despite the dissenters, Spanish colonization was based largely on Catholic evangelism. Catholicism was the underpinning of all of Spain’s imperial conquests, one of the only empires to exclusively do so, and it provided a rationalization for the torture and violence that they would inflict on the native peoples. The synthesis of the Church, with the Pope’s involvement, and the political system of Spain created a deadly dualism that would eventually lead to one of the greatest tragedies in human history –involving the complete destruction of certain cultures and peoples just for the sake blood profiteering. With the Catholic justification as the mainstream ideology supporting colonization, its critics scrambled to stop the bloodshed. Eventually, their voices would be heard, but only after millions have been victimized by the brutal labor system imposed by the Spanish Crown. And this plunder would roll the clock back on the Latin American experience, and other colonies, hundreds of years. It is a tragic setback that is still felt today, in culture and in economy, and a wound that will perhaps never be fully healed.