Thesis: Role of the Church in Colonial Latin America

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Church and Colonial Latin America

The relationship between the Catholic Church and Latin America is one that goes back to the earliest history of European Spain's first explorations of South America. The Church has had an integral role in the development of Latin America in an economic, political, and social capacity that continues to be reflected in Latin America today. It began with the conversion of indigenous peoples during the colonial period, which was the most pivotal period in gaining control of Latin America. The indigenous people had, as we know from archeological artifacts and study, a sophisticated society, albeit different, but nonetheless comparable to that of the Europeans with the exception of Catholicism (Lockhart, James and Schwartz, Stuart, 1983, 1). Therefore, it was essential to eliminate the authority that governed the South American indigenous peoples, and to indoctrinate them into the authority of the Church and to socialize them in the Catholic ways, which would make them susceptible to the political and economic reforms that would be implemented through colonization of the lands. This makes the colonial period and the Catholic Church the most significant time and system in the history of South America.

This brief essay is going to examine the relationship between the Church, the economics, and the political systems in South America during the colonial period to analyze in understanding those relationships as they translate to the changes that occurred in the indigenous peoples, and the current environments in Latin America.

The Conquest of the Indigenous People

The indigenous people of Latin America were sophisticated in their social structures, economic structures, and political structures. It was perhaps more complex than the early Spanish Conquistadors realized. Where the indigenous people were weak, was in their inability to physically combat exposure to European disease, or the sheer numbers of Spanish who continue to pour onto the continent from Europe. In this way, the Spanish colonization of Latin America was not so different than that experienced by Native Americans in North America. However, unlike the Native Americans of North America, South American indigenous people were not aware of one another as social groups, largely because of the vast space between them, and the nature of the terrain that made becoming aware of one another much more unlikely than did the terrain of the plains and more open spaces of North America (Lockhart and Schwartz, 31). Therefore, when the Spanish began arriving in South America in large numbers, the individual indigenous societies were poorly numbered to deal with the overwhelming presence of the Spanish (Lockhart and Schwartz, 31).

Immediately upon successful conquest of the indigenous peoples, the Spanish set about establishing cities and especially ports that could receive goods, and, of course, more people (Lockhart and Schwartz, 86). Certainly the Catholic Church, which was intricately woven into the Spanish society, was transferred to the new cities. Building churches were a priority, because it was necessary to indoctrinate the indigenous peoples as rapidly as possible into the Spanish culture. Catholicism replaced the indigenous people's belief in monotheism and paganism. The expansion of the Spanish cities and social areas of influence spread with the discovery of natural resources that helped create interest in specific locations (Lockhart and Schwartz, 91).

Into the Spanish cities of the central areas, the moment their wealth was evident, there began to pour hundreds and then thousands of immigrants, including all the elements of Spanish civil society: the now-familiar merchants, artisans, professional people and notaries, and Spanish women. Except for the women, the immigrants were types similar to those who had carried out the conquests, and in fact the newcomers were primarily the conquerors' relatives and fellow townsmen, drawn by promises of help and tales of opportunity. Like immigrants of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, both the conquerors and those who came after them wrote letters home, telling an attractive mixture of lies and truth about available jobs and wealth. Some of the richest of the conquerors and early migrants returned home to Spain, where their stories and ostentatious displays convinced those around them to follow their example. This transatlantic movement of nephew following uncle, townsman following townsman, continued across the entire span of the colonial period (Lockhart and Schwartz, 91."

The earliest authorities of the cities and expanding social areas were the ruling governors, mayors and appointed officials. However, the Church spread more out into the rural areas in a way that the appointed official's network of control did not. The Church took on an increasingly political role in the colonization of South America (Turner, Frederich, 1971, 3). This, historian Frederich Turner says, would come as a surprise to people whose understanding of the Catholic Church as a political body as synonymous with its Christian mission is disjointed, and who perceived the Church as a religious body without political affiliation (Turner, 3). That, however, is a false impression, especially in the early years of Christianity. The Church was actually on the same political footing as were the emperors and kings, and in South America, Church politics were an assurance that both the goals of the Church and the Spanish monarchy were being met (Turner, 3). Then, as is now, the triumph of the church was the triumph of humanity, and from that perspective the Catholic Church was able to exert an enormous amount of control and influence in the development of South America (turner, 41). As far as the indigenous peoples were concerned, the Catholic clergy began to see themselves as the protectors of the indigenous people, spiritually and politically (Turner, 56). This helped to assimilate the indigenous peoples into Spanish society, and even gave rise to a high incidence of obscuring the blood lines between the indigenous population and the Spanish (Turner, 56). The indoctrination of the indigenous people into the religious fold and belief system, combined with intermarriage, helped serve to establish a social order, and to keep the Church socially and politically viable amongst the people of Latin America. The influence of the Church politically and socially during the colonial period of the states of South America was a strong combined influence.

During times of rapid political and socioeconomic change (e.g., military coups), citizens frequently rely upon trusted public figures to provide guidance concerning political and social action. Even under "normal" political situations containing considerable uncertainty and imperfect information (e.g., voting), trusted public figures can provide indications to the public about appropriate behavior. In many societies, members of the clergy are uniquely situated to perform these tasks, given their advanced level of education, supposed moral integrity, and relative independence from the secular work of politics. Therefore, the content and tenor of their statements and actions regarding political matters may significantly influence the public's perception of any given policy, politician, or regime, in turn affecting the outcome of various political actions. Even when the clergy wish to avoid political entanglement, the public may interpret their silence as implying acceptance of certain policies, politicians, or regimes (Gill, Anthony, 1998, 2)."

In this way, it becomes easier to see the emerging picture of Church influence in the early and continuing development in Latin America.

Intermarriage, however, was not as widely accepted amongst the colonial period's Spanish elite (John, Lyman and Lipsett-Rivera, Sonya, 1998, 18). There was the social patriarchal hierarchy found in the indigenous societies that were consumed into Latin American colonial societies; and the patriarchal society of the Spanish elite. The Spanish elite, however, and unlike the Church, held a greater regard for pure blood lines (Lyman and Lipsett-Rivera, 18). The church, however, was represented by clergy in Latin America, who, although they recognized the political significance of the elite over the lower class in Latin American society, really were not so concerned with maintaining pure bloodlines.

The Catholic Church and Economic Link to Latin America Society

The Catholic Church has never attempted to justify or defend its economic focus throughout the world. It was no less reticent about asserting its influences politically and socially in order to realize an economic gain in Latin America. Historian Anthony Gill, in his book, Rendering Unto Caesar: The Catholic Church and the State in Latin America, identifies four general phases in the early church-state relationships when the Church established its power and authority in Latin America to the detriment of the governing authorities of the Latin American states. The first was the colonial period, which Gill identifies on the timeline of Latin American history as between 1493 and the early 1800s (Gill, 19).

As previously mentioned, the Church and the governing bodies began as an almost inseparable interest (Gill, 19). This is supported by letters exchanged between Queen Isabella of Spain, and the Governor of Hispaniola, in 1503 (Gill, 19). The exchange represents a primary document supporting the inseparability of Church and Spanish state economic interests (Gill, 19). It reads:

W]e are informed that because of the excessive liberty enjoyed by the said Indians they avoid contact and community with the Spaniards to such an extent that they will… [END OF PREVIEW]

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