The Church in Latin America

In order to understand the behavior of the conquistadors and Spanish colonizers in the Americas, one must also understand the atmosphere of Spain at the time of Columbus’ discovery. Remaining Arabs and 150,000 Jews were expelled from Spain and Queen Isabella had become one of the chief advocates of the inquisition. Catholicism had been united with the battle to spread Spanish power throughout the world. With this knowledge and religious fervor in hand, the Spanish colonizers entered South America with both the Crown and God behind them as they plundered the land and decimated the Indian population. It appears that their insatiable quest for treasure was also legitimized by their faith. Columbus himself claimed that gold “even sends souls to Paradise” and a Count, in describing the Zacatecas mining district, highlighted the abundant treasures that would serve “both Their Majesties”.

The Church itself profited significantly from the procured wealth of America and so, had much incentive to be involved in the legitimization of colonial expansion and destruction. In Mexico, approximately half of all real estate and capital was in the hands of the Church, who also controlled the remaining land through mortgages. Income was also garnered through donations from miners, in a system not dissimilar to indulgences in Europe, and in Cuzco the Church received much of their income from a tithe on the trade of the drug coca. In Brazil, the Crown banned all religious orders from one mining district, as clergymen had been accused of abusing their positions to smuggle gold and not being genuinely interested in the faith of the people. In Cuba, priests offered Christian absolution in return for a 5 percent tax from sugar production. It is clear from the well adorned clergymen and richly constructed places of worship with silver and gold decorations, that the Church had chosen wealth over its spiritual mission and had constructed a legitimizing position for the Spanish colonizers in America.

In return for its affluence, the Church generated justifications for the harsh treatment of the indigenous populations throughout America. The Pope himself was involved in the colonizing process by granting territories to the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns with little consideration of the native populations. The Requerimiento appears to be one such invention of the Catholic Church which was read to Indians in Spanish and without an interpreter, and effectively gave the conquistadors the right to enslave the locals if they did not “adopt the holy Catholic faith”. The Spanish had entered a “kingdom of the Devil” and it was their mission to correct the ignorant ways of the natives by giving them Catholicism. As the Spanish charged through the lands of America, the missionaries spread tales of the sacred origin of the horses the Spanish rode, instilling fear among the native population. When the colonizers required labor for their mines, they justified forced labor as a cure for the “natural wickedness” of the Indians or a suitable punishment for “their sins and idolatries” that were in contradiction to the Christian god.

As were the colonies granted by papal bull, so too was the right to own and trade slaves. The Portuguese made sure to baptize and enforce mass attendance of their African slaves and it appears that in most South American colonies the practice of converting slaves to the Christian faith was exploited as a tool to control and assimilate the slaves. Their motivation in doing so appears to be in line with their attitude towards the native populations, which was to justify harsh treatment in return for material wealth.

In contemporary times, North American missionaries are still at work in Latin America. U.S. missions have been involved in the sterilization of thousands of women in Amazonia. Considering most Latin American countries are not overpopulated, limiting the population in these areas cannot be the main reason for sterilization programs. Instead it appears that these missionaries are concerned with limiting the population of people in the third world, perhaps because they see their culture as superior to the culture of those they sterilize. In Haiti recently, this sense of superiority was highlighted when 10 U.S. missionaries were arrested for smuggling children out of Haiti as orphans even though their parents were still alive. To take a child away from a parent, even if the parent willingly gives up the child, leads one to believe that the missionaries believe that the children will benefit more from a life in America than growing up with their own family and learning their own culture.