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Christianity in the New World

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Christianity in the New World

The Catholic Church during the Middle Ages played an all encompassing role over the lives of the people and the government. As the Dark Ages came to a close the ideas of the Renaissance started to take hold, and the church's power gradually began to wain. The monarchies of Europe also began to grow replacing the church's power. Monarchies, at the close of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance, did not so much seek the guidance of the church as much as it sought their approval. However, the Church during the Age of Discovery was still a major influence. The discovery of the New World and its previously unknown inhabitants presented new problems in the Catholic Church in the late 14th and early 15th century. When Spain's rulers and emissaries decided to physically conquer and populate the New World, and not just trade with it, 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. The Catholic Church and the Spanish monarch, however, looked upon the native population 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, and the treatment of the native population by the missionaries and christian conquerors was detrimental to New World. Through men such as Cortez and Las Casas accounts of the conversions have been recorded. One of the reasons for this was the alliance of the Catholic Church with the Spanish monarchy. The status of the Indians was disregarded as the Christian conquers and missionaries who wanted to convert them subjected them to violence and reduced them to a laboring population. The Indians, however did not always respond in a negative way to the work of the church.

The Catholic Church arrived in the New World immediately after Christopher Columbus laid claim to it for Spain. After Columbus's discovery of the new lands he wrote a series of treatise as to what the European purpose there was. Columbus, in his writings, said that the purpose of the New World was two fold. He said that 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 prophesy coming true. He saw the Indians that lived there as a labor source that should be christianized and used for the greater 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 3 and it was called Inter Caetera. It said that the lands discovered by Spanish envoys not previously under a christian owner could be claimed by Spain. 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 that 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 futher showing the alliance between Spain and the Church.

The history of the Catholic Church in the New World began in 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 of 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 Strait of Magellan. (Van Oss 5) Between 1493, when the first mission left for Espanola, and Spanish American independence (roughly 1821) more than 15 thousand missionaries crossed the Atlantic under royal auspices. (Van Oss 4)

The Spanish, when choosing who to send as their principle emissaries of the Catholic Church, went over the heads of the Spanish bishops and clergy, and called up friars belonging to several monastic orders. There were three monastic orders of friars that came to the New World. These were the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Augustianians. (Ricard 3) While secular priests were not discouraged from going to the New World, the Crown did not sent them as missionaries. "By sending friars instead of secular priests to convert the Indians, Spain took advantage of an old evangelical strain in European monasticism". (Van Oss 3) In the times before the Christianity of Europe wandering monks roamed the countryside converting the rural populations. The monarchy put this old idea back at work. The Spanish monarch also picked the monastic orders to fulfill this task because they were among those who possessed an education. Spain at this time lacked seminaries. The local priests were uneducated and were seen as largely ignorant.

Once in the New World the missionaries played an indispensable role in subduing the Indian population, concentrating it in towns and villages and taking charge of administration. Some times these settlements were largely left in the hands of church officials because they were unreachable by colony administrators. "Rural churchmen, in the frontier settings of the 16th century acted in an atmosphere of independence which bordered on impunity". (Van Oss 9) These missions were not always run in the best intrest of the Indians. The natives were often subject to harsh conditions, and they were not protected by the missions. The missions instituted by the government were described this way, "The church, with few exceptions, accompanied and legitimized the genocide, slavery, ecocide, and explitation of the wealth of the land. The mission left a bitter fruit inheritied by the descendants of the survivors of the invasion". (Terrar 1)

No country at this time conceived of setting up anything but a Christian empire. "The monarch of Castile not only exercised supreme secular authority, but he was also the head of the colonial church. Indeed, his laws of the Indies began with the words, 'On the Holy Catholic Faith' ". (Vas Oss 2) The Church because it was under the Spanish monarchy participated in the wrongs incurred in the New World. The Church went along with the government in instituting the unfair practices against the native population.

Las Casas writings about the treatment and conversion of the Indians are some of the best that survive today. Las Casas was a Spanish bishop who late in life became a renowned champion of the Indians. He was born in Seville in August 1474, and he first went to the New World in 1502. He became a priest and participated in the acquiring of Cuba. He received land and slaves as a reward for his contribution. In 1514 he experienced a radical change of heart and came to feel that the native population had been unjustly treated by his countrymen. He then became determined to dedicate the remainder of his life to their defense. Las Casas was one of the notable authorities on the Indians, and was remarkable because he realized the indians should not be measured by the Spanish yardstick, but must rather be understood with in the framework of their own culture. He saw the indians not as heathens and savages, but in a different stage of development from Europe. Las Casas contended that the indians had many skills and accomplishments, and in fact possessed a culture worthy of respect.

Las Casas writes about the treatment of the Indians upon being subjected to the Spanish Christians. He accompanied the Spanish entourage on the occupation of Cuba. In this venture he accompanied the expedition in the office of clerico. He stated that one of the chief cares of this office was when they halted in any ...

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