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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 12 Jan 2002

Forced Religion QUESTION from Juan M Robles January 29, 2001 I am currently taking a class on early American history and we are discussing what the Spanish did to the Natives of North and South America. My teacher says that the missionaries and conquistadors imposed Christianity upon the natives by force and tells us that they were terribly abused by them. And claims that the Christians of that time period were only interested in conquering. How do I answer such remarks?
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on February 4, 2001 Dear Juan,
I think the goal should be to implant at least a doubt in the minds of your classmates (and hopefully your teacher, but I wouldn't bet on it). In a ten second comment you make to the class, you can't hope to change people's minds or answer all these attacks. What you might to do though is do a paper on this subject, if the opportunity comes up. If you document your claims very well, then in all fairness your teacher must give you a good grade, and he'll be made to acknowledge some points that attenuate his thesis.
The conquistadors can't all be lumped into one category. They had a variety of motives. Some, like Pizarro, were greedy. Others, like Cortes, truly desired to spread the faith, in spite of his character flaws. It is also true that many Spaniards justified the conquest of the New World on the notion that they discovered it first, and that the Indians were a primitive society and that they couldn't govern themselves. This was not the teaching of the Church, but there were many theologians who spread such ideas.
I am most familiar with the situation with Cortes. When he discovered the Atzec civilization, he found a people whose religion compelled them to constantly go to war to find their victims for human sacrifices. At their altars, they would slay thousands upon thousands of people by ripping out the victim's heart. If I hadn't read of it myself, I wouldn't have believed it. I think that to a certain extent, Cortes was justified in wanting to impose Christianity on these people because of their barbaric practices. Mind you, not all Latin American Indians had such a cult, but as you can see, the details of the situation show that Cortes was not trying to be tyrannical, he was trying to save the Indians from this devastation.
Even if some Indians resisted some efforts at conversion, not all of them did. Some happily adopted Catholicism. The episode of the Marian apparitions at Guadalupe, which led to the voluntary conversion of numerous Indians, shows that the Church as a whole was not trying to coerce them into their religion. One Mexican Franciscan noted that the Indians were easy to teach because they were docile and humble. They must have wanted to learn about it if they had been so open. If all Indians had not wanted to become Catholic, they certainly would have shown hostility and rejected the faith, which most of them didn't. What did happen though is that Indians often mixed their old practices with Catholic ones. It was a constant complaint of the Church.
That some Christians abused Indians and enslaved them is a fact; but the Church was always the greatest protector of the Indians. The most famous defender of the Indians was Bartolomeo de Las Casas, who made it his life's work to promote the rights of the Indians. The Spanish Crown also legislated laws for the protection of the Indians, but since they were far away these laws were not enforced very well.
I find that when people make broad generalizations about the history of the Church, they are only looking for the negative and make little effort and trying to see the other side of the coin. No doubt, the Indians were often exploited by Catholics, but they were also defended by the Church. Anti-Catholics will often call the Church guilty for the sins of her followers, but will not look at the efforts she made to eradicate those abuses.
Thank you for your question.
God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
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