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Catholic Churchin the New World

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During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church played an all-encompassing role

in 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 diminish. 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 to the Catholic Church in the late 14th and early 15th

century. The Spanish colonization of the New World introduced Christian ideals to the local inhabitants.

The church established contact with the New World, and made it a goal to

enforce Catholic doctrine among the native population. 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 introduction of Christianity in the New World, and the treatment of the

native population by the missionaries and Christian conquerors were detrimental to the

New World. Accounts of the conversions have been recorded through men such as Cortez and Las Casas. One of the reasons for this was the alliance of the

Catholic Church with the Spanish monarchy. The Indians' status was completely

disregarded, 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' discovery of the new lands he

wrote a series of treatise as to the purpose of the European occupation. In

his writings, Columbus states 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 perceived the discovery of the New World as a prophecy coming true. He viewed the Indians that dwelled 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 which established the Spanish

position in the New World. They also established the role of the Catholic church in the New World. The first bull, referred to as the Inter Caetera, was issued on May 3. It declared 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 Inter Caetera. The bull fixed a boundary for Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence in

the New World. This boundary heavily favored Spain, continuing to show its alliance

with the Catholic Church.

In the year after Columbus' first voyage, the history of the Catholic Church in the New World began. The first missionaries sent by the Spanish monarchy began 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 whom to send as their principle emissaries of the

Catholic Church, bypassed the Spanish bishops and clergy, and called upon friars belonging to several monastic orders. There were three monastic orders of friars, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Augustinians that came to the New World.(Ricard 3) While secular priests were not discouraged from going to the New World, the Crown did not send 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 ignorant.

Once in the New World, the missionaries played an indispensable role in

subduing the Indian population, concentrating in towns and villages and taking

charge of administration. Some times, colony administrators left these settlements largely in the hands of church officials because they were unreachable. "Rural

churchmen, in the frontier settings of the 16th century acted in an atmosphere of

independence which bordered on impunity".

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