Did the organization of the Spanish Church limit its success in the New World

In order to decide whether or not the organisation of the Church limited or extended its success in the New World we must define ‘success’ and examine evidence for its achievement or otherwise. If the conversion of the Indians to Catholicism was one of the two main justifications of the Conquest then success may be defined by the extent and depth to which this occurred.

The Jesuits realised, after the rush of the early achievements when progress was made relatively fast, that the conversions were in fact quite shallow: it was impossible to deny the fact that old beliefs remained, mingled with the newly imposed Christian doctrine. There were unavoidable similarities between Christianity and the old native religions: the Indians took to the custom of building churches and placing crosses on holy places remarkably well, but it was common in the 1560s for Augustinian missionaries in Guamachuco to use Andean textiles to adorn Christian buildings1.

Even more alarmingly, there rose a trend in the later stages of conversion of the restatement of non-Christian beliefs and practices, as the Indians in Peru looked back to the Incas having settled after the first enthusiastic wave of Christianity: they would obey the need to fast during Lent, but would do so using Indian traditional methods; non-Christian holy objects began to be incorporated into the structure of Churches; and ancient Andean festivals were celebrated under the guise of Christian ones.

The countryside remained pagan, and so although the traditional religion was destroyed there the old huacas were rarely replaced by saints2. Fundamental to the success of the Church in any state and especially in the period of its establishment in the New World was its wealth. In order to facilitate the spreading of the Word, the funding of community work and new buildings, and the payment of the clergy the Church required a constant flow of finances.

The Spanish Church in the New World does not seem to have had a problem with regards to income and on this basis may be regarded as successful: the size and splendour of the churches still standing today indicate the power and wealth of the Church in this period. A study of colonial architecture carried out by Markham in Guatemala City mentions no less than forty-one religious structures whereas only three non-ecclesiastical buildings are cited. Thus it is clear that in the period of colonisation the Church was the dominant force in architecture and the establishment of new buildings, proving the wealth it obviously had at its disposal.

The organization of the Church helped it gain these riches: although the Crown enjoyed ‘patronato real de las Indies’ and thus could control the tithe income of the Church in the New World, the tithe was fundamental to the organisation of the Church itself. The increase in commercial agriculture in New Spain, Peru and Central America in the 1590s provoked a large rise in the levels of tithe being received by the Church, and thus the regular orders became active and successful landowners3.

Furthermore, the success of mining in New Spain and Peru after the Conquest period produced excess capital which could be subsequently used for pious works such as the building of chantries, monasteries and colleges. Thus the combination of tithes, the fees received for the performance of marriages and burials, gifts from various generous individuals and the pious works enabled by the success of mining and agriculture resulted in the Church becoming a very wealthy institution by the end of the period of consolidation, and allowed it to establish itself by whatever means possible with no financial difficulties.

One of the Spanish Church’s biggest expenditures in the New World was building projects and in designing and creating entire communities they managed to restructure Indian communities to make it easier to convert them to Christianity and consolidate the new faith. The monastic nature of the conversion and the strength of the regulars in spreading Catholicism meant that the new settlements grew up around monasteries, which consequently became marketplaces and commercial centres.

The Indians’ natural settlement patterns were very dispersed and lacked urban centres, and thus the missionaries brought communities together to make conversion easier and more intense. Not only did the bringing together of the Indians strengthen the government’s hold of the Viceroyalty of Peru, but the reducciones – resettlements in villages of previously dispersed natives – meant that one priest could oversee the conversion of an entire community, making the whole process more streamlined, thorough, and efficient.

Furthermore, the physical upheaval of the Indians’ way of life involved in this relocation of their communities provoked a mindset more geared towards upheaval in other more spiritual aspects of their lives: in other words, being uprooted from what they knew and planted in totally alien circumstances in newly created villages would have made the Indians more open to other dramatic changes in their lifestyles, in this instance with regards to their faith. In this way the Church’s organisation and policies enabled it to convert more Indians more thoroughly in the New World.

A significant part of these new communities were the institutions that were established at the same time, namely schools, colleges, and convents. The College of Santiago Tlatelolco, set up in 1526 near Mexico City to train prospective members of the clergy, failed due to an increasingly prevailing anti-native sentiment. This is not, however, representative of the general trend: later in the conquest period many schools and colleges were successful established. In 1551 the Franciscan priest Juan de Zumi?? raga founded the University of Mexico; the Jesuits in Lima first started setting up schools in 1568; and by 1589 the Jesuit college at Bahia had 215 students. These institutions gave way to a rise in the amount of creoles working in the Church and consequently bound the Catholic Church to American soil in a way that prvious missionary work had not. In accepting creoles into the clery the Catholic Church cleverly integrated the clergy into society, de-alienating it and making it inextricably founded in Indian communities.

The founding of convents also enabled the Church to further immerse itself in Indian society. First built in 1570, at their height the thirteen convents of Lima housed over 20% of the female population of the city4. These attracted investment and gifts from the rich families whose daughters attended them, and benefited from compulsory dowries. Furthermore, they were economically integrated into society through the fact that they were important consumers, owned property and often provided mortgages.

In this way the introduction of convents to the Church in the New World allowed women too to get involved in the conversion and thus incorporated another important section of society into the system, and in doing so further cemented the relationship between the Indians and the Catholic Church. The introduction of an Inquisition to the New World was another way in which the Catholic Church integrated itself into the native way of life.

The Tribunals of the Inquisition began in 1569 in Mexico City and Lima, with the aim of maintaining the purity of the Catholic faith against the heretical Protestant word which, it was feared, would be brought to the New World by foreign interlopers. Due to the fact that the Inquisition conflicted with both civil and ecclesiastical authorities it quickly won the support of those who disapproved of other methods of conversion. Furthermore, the judicial privileges which came with being a member of the Inquisition attracted the support both financially and socially of wealthy families.

Thus in introducing the Inquisition the government successfully harnessed the support of those who may not otherwise have been behind the Catholic Church, therefore ensuring that the Church’s involvement in the everyday lives of individual Indians and creoles was even more fundamental. However, the organisation of the Church in the New World did not always benefit the process of conversion or contribute to its success. Internal conflicts, both between the regulars and the secular clergy and the different religious orders, led to tensions and disagreements which hindered the efficiency of the spread of Christianity.

The secular clergy were seen as wholly inferior by many of the Friars, who on Corti?? s’ demands were the first clerical group to arrive in the New World: Nobrega, a Jesuit in Bahia, described the secular clergy there as “irregular, apostates and excommunicates”. The problems arose from the fact that the original missionary work could not be carried out be secular priests: due to the hierarchical constitution of the Church, secular priests could not be involved in the organised activity of the Church until the regulars had established diocesan and parochial administration.

Neither the papacy nor the Crown ever settled in their support for one side or the other, and the conflict was never fully resolved. Although theoretically once the orders had done their work the secular clergy would be able to move in, in practice this process was always rather more complicated, and undermined by the Friars’ feeling of superiority. The regulars were understandably proud of their achievements thus far, and were thus unwilling to let go of their responsibilities or share their glory with the seculars. However, this resentment was by no means unequal: the secular clergy often acted against the religious orders.

In the Toluca region of Mexico the Franciscan order gave bows and arrows to 600 Indians, ordering them to destruct a local church which was run by the secular clergy. However, in 1559 the Dominican convent in Puebla, Mexico, was sacked by seculars, who broke the prior’s teeth before leaving. Thus both parties were guilty of promoting tension, disagreement and even violence between the secular clergy and the religious orders, and despite Philip II’s attempts to investigate this phenomenon and put an end to the troubles the internal rifts within the Church wasted the time and resources of those trying to convert the Indians.

It is difficult to conclude the question of how successful the conversion to Christianity actually was, and thus equally tough to evaluate the organisation of the Church and to what extent it contributed to any success the missionaries enjoyed. Certainly whatever form Christianity took was very different to what was expected, and the Spaniards learnt that imposing a completely alien religion on an already formed culture is impossible without alterations and compromises.

However, the organisation of the Church and its practices certainly lent to the successes: the introduction of schools, colleges, convents and the Inquisition allowed the integration of Christianity into society, as did the promotion of creoles into the clergy. The establishment of new settlements enabled the conversion to run more smoothly and easily than it otherwise would have done, and the whole project was fuelled effectively by the great wealth which the Church harnessed.

With the exception of the great rifts between the religious orders and the secular clergy, it can be argued that the organization and structure of the Church was remarkably suited to not only adapting to the Indian way of life, but also promoting Christianity over a widespread population. Thus although the success which the Church enjoyed was ultimately quite shallow and perhaps not exactly the type which they wanted, one can conclude that its organization contributed to its success rather than limiting it.