Scholar looks at influence of Catholicism on New World
Acting as de facto imperial representatives, colonial Catholic missionaries in the Americas drastically changed and continue to affect native populations today, professor of religious studies Robert Green said in a lecture on Feb. 15.
In his lecture, Green, a scholar from the Department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross, spoke about the Spanish National Church’s role in the New World in the 1500s on — “Patronato Real” — and the Church’s assumptions about different races, “limpieza de sangre,” or purity of the blood.
Missionaries in the Americas acted as de facto imperial representatives, forcing natives in the Americas to interact with the Spanish empire, Green asserted. “If they came into your village, … you would have to deal with them,” he said.
He explained that the Church also believed that blood purity was linked to morality, and to have pure, Catholic blood was to be a good Spaniard.
Per these notions of blood purity, there was a racial hierarchy, with pure-blooded Spanish Catholics considered “rational and brave,” and those with Jewish or Muslim blood considered “rational but devious” or “irrational and violent,” respectively, Green said.
Because this caste system was based in assumptions about blood purity, rather than wealth or achievement, “there was really no notion of social mobility,” he said.
In the Americas, Green added, missionaries split the populations into further hierarchies, with Spanish-born Catholics at the top and a special distinction for “Indios of reason” and “barbarian Indians” — those who had converted to Catholicism versus those who had not.
According to Green, the demographic breakdown of Spanish America showed an 80 percent indigenous population, with 10 percent African, 5 percent Spaniard and the remaining 5 percent mixed race and other.
Upon arrival in the Americas, the Franciscans and Dominicans employed similar strategies for converting and subverting the indigenous populations, Green said. Namely, both religious orders destroyed temples and icons, put the daughters of indigenous leaders into domestic service and forced religious indoctrination.
“Again, not winning friends here,” Green said.
Notably, Green said, the indigenous communities did not have a concept of what the devil was, so missionaries would evoke images of traditional native “boogeymen” to put fear of the devil in natives’ hearts. However, because these boogeymen were primarily used to scare children, the attempt did not have as great an effect on the adult population, Green said.
When the Jesuits arrived in the Americas, they attempted to discern between idolatry and non-idolatry in indigenous culture, destroying native icons much like their predecessors, Green said. However, since many religious sites were naturally occurring, like rivers and rock formations, the Jesuits chose to mass relocate the native populations, rather than attempt to destroy the sites.
Additionally, the Jesuits differed from the Franciscans and Dominicans because they chose not the image of a boogeyman for their devil but the image of an enslaved African, Green said. This was to convey the message, “‘This is the power we have. We are in charge of the devil,’” he explained.
Ultimately, missionaries played as significant a role in the Spanish colonization of the Americas as true dignitaries and state officials did, Green asserted. “The empire couldn’t have done it without them,” Green said, calling missionaries “colleagues of the state.”
In a question-and-answer session that followed his lecture, Green spoke briefly about how the history of Catholic theology in the Americas has continued to affect indigenous populations today. Namely, he said, some forms of anthropology research have been traditionally invasive in indigenous communities, involving little consent on the natives’ behalf. “It would be like me following you home, … going into your apartment, going through your medicine cabinet,” he said. “It would get annoying after awhile.”
“Indigenous people, even today, are a colonized people,” he concluded.