Examine the Role of the Church in Spain’s Conquest and Colonization of Continental America.

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Question:Examine the role of the Church in Spain’s conquest and colonization of continental America.

The role of the Roman Catholic Church in Spain’s conquest and colonization of continental America was a two-fold process whereby under the façade of conversion and control lay the primary goal of gaining wealth, enforcing laws and the inevitable extension of control while condoning the beginnings of European slavery in the Caribbean.[i] Alternately, behind the movement for converting Indians lay some important influences in Spain. The Spanish Crown established royal controls over the ecclesiastical benefices and over the immense wealth of the church.[ii] 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, issued on May 3, 1493, was called the Inter Caetera. It declared that lands discovered by Spanish envoys, not under a Christian owner, could be claimed by Spain. The bull also gave the Spanish monarch 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, showing an alliance between Spain and the Church. Under the Spanish Crown the Inquisition was resurrected in the form of the conquistadores to hunt down heretics. In repressing the last non-Christian state in the Iberian Peninsula, Granada, and in forcibly expelling Jews and the Moors, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sought to purify Spanish society in a spirit of Christian unity. The acts were militant expressions of religious statehood on the establishment of the American colonization in the latter part of the 1490s.[iii] The church which arrived in the Caribbean advocated what has been called ‘warrior Catholicism’[iv], which is the belief that military conquest and evangelization were compatible.[v] Acting in conjunction with the conquistadores, the Roman Catholic Church played a vital role in the Spanish system of colonization and is argued to be one of the most outstanding revolutionary devices of the Spanish Government.[vi] By its discipline and methods it assumed, the Church was almost a military and political agency designed to push forward and defend the colonial frontiers, pacify the natives and open the way to European occupation.[vii] The subjugation of the native Indians and the extension of the territorial boundaries emphasized the role of the Church. The Church also served to maintain colonial borders against foreign encroachment. By its exclusion of heretical Protestants and by its strict censorship of books, the Church made foreign political and philosophical ideas difficult or dangerous to obtain and served as a defensive mechanism of the Spanish Empire.[viii] It was largely through the Roman Catholic Church that Spain succeeded in transmitting its culture and political dominance in the colonization of continental America during the 16th century.[ix]

The Church was not only an advance post of the Spanish Empire and a political device of colonialism. It had its own religious objectives and interests. The Spanish colonial empire was served exclusively by the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church which received active government support and encouragement in the form of grants of land to build churches, free passages for priest, free wine and oil for the monasteries. A hierarchy if archbishops, bishops, and lesser clergy were dispatched by the Crown to the New World. Priests were chiefly concerned with superintending the work of converting the natives, whom they thought of as primitive, to Christianity and “protecting” them from exploitation. The earliest groups were the friars, of whom the Dominicans were...
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