Catholic Church and the Age of Discovery

The Catholic Church during the Age of Discovery inaugurated a major effort to spread Christianity in the New World and to convert the Native Americans and other indigenous people. The evangelical effort was a major part of, and a justification for the military conquests of European powers such as Spain, France and Portugal. Christian Missions to the indigenous peoples ran hand-in-hand with the colonial efforts of Catholic nations. In the Americas and other colonies in Asia and Africa, most missions were run by religious orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Jesuits. In Mexico the early systematic evangelization by mendicants came to be known as the “Spiritual Conquest of Mexico.”

Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican friar on the island of Hispaniola, was the first member of the clergy to publicly denounce all forms of enslavement and oppression of theindigenous peoples of the Americas. Theologians such as Francisco de Vitoria and Bartolomé de las Casas drew up theological and philosophical bases for the defense of thehuman rights of the colonized native populations, thus creating the basis of international law, regulating the relationships between nations.

In the early years most mission work was undertaken by the religious orders. Over time it was intended that a normal church structure would be established in the mission areas. The process began with the formation of special jurisdictions, known as apostolic prefectures and apostolic vicariates. These developing churches eventually graduated to regular diocesan status with the appointment of a local bishop. After decolonization, this process increased in pace as church structures altered to reflect new political-administrative realities.

Age of Discovery

The European discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus did not occur until 1492. However, two papal bulls announced several decades before that event to help ward off increasing Muslim invasions into Europe affected the New World. When Islam presented a serious military threat to Italy and Central Europe during mid-15th Century, Pope Nicholas V tried to unite Christendom against them but failed. He then granted Portugal the right to subdue and even enslave Muslims, pagans and other unbelievers in the papal bull Dum Diversas (1452). The following year saw the Fall of Constantinople to Muslim invaders. Several decades later, European colonizers and missionaries spread Catholicism to the Americas, Asia, Africa and Oceania. Pope Alexander VI had awarded colonial rights over most of the newly discovered lands to Spain and Portugal. Under the patronato system, however, state authorities, not the Vatican, controlled all clerical appointments in the new colonies. Thus, the 1455 Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex granted the Portugueseall lands behind Cape Bojador and allows to reduce pagans and other enemies of Christ to perpetual slavery.

Later, the 1481 Papal Bull Aeterni regis granted all lands south of the Canary Islands to Portugal, while in May 1493 the Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI decreed in the Bull Inter caetera that all lands west of a meridian only 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands should belong to Spain while new lands discovered east of that line would belong to Portugal. A further Bull, Dudum siquidem, made some more concessions to Spain, and the pope’s arrangements were then amended by the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 negotiated between Spain and Portugal.

After the discovery of the Americas, many of the clergy sent to the New World began to criticize Spain and the Church’s treatment of indigenous peoples. In December 1511, Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican friar, openly rebuked the Spanish rulers of Hispaniola for their “cruelty and tyranny” in dealing with the American natives. King Ferdinand enacted the Laws of Burgos and Valladolid in response. However enforcement was lax, and the New Laws of 1542 took a stronger line. This caused a revolt among the Spanish colonists, and the alarmed government backed down, softening the effect of the laws. Some historians blame the Church for not doing enough to liberate the Indians; others point to the Church as the only voice raised on behalf of indigenous peoples. The issue resulted in a crisis of conscience in 16th-century Spain. The reaction of Catholic writers such as Bartolomé de Las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria led to debate on the nature of human rights and the birth of modern international law. (French, English, and Dutchreactions against the maritime monopolies granted to Portugal and Spain, meanwhile, culminated in Hugo Grotius’s work articulating the doctrine of freedom of the seas.)

In 1524, Franciscan missionaries known as the Twelve Apostles of Mexico arrived in what is New Spain, followed by the Dominicans in 1526, and the Augustinians in 1533. They worked hard to convert the Indians and to provide for their well-being by establishing schools and hospitals. Because some people questioned whether the Indians were truly men who deserved baptism, Pope Paul III in the papal bull Veritas Ipsa orSublimis Deus (1537) confirmed that the Indians were deserving men. Afterward, the conversion effort gained momentum.

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