The relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the centuries of European colonial expansion that began to take shape in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is complex, and at times enigmatic. The church acted as a legitimating institution for various colonial projects, at times as financier, and profited tremendously from the revenue generated by its increasingly global presence. It often acted to buttress colonial regimes in the face of internal and external criticism and in large part remained antagonistic toward later independence movements. Yet, the church also worked to impose strict laws regulating treatment of indigenous peoples, outlawed certain forms of exploitation and slavery, deeply criticized the violence of European wars of conquest, and purported itself to be the conscience of the European monarchs. The Roman Catholic Church was both a legitimator of the early phases of the colonial enterprise, and a critic of what it perceived to be its excesses.

The Roman Catholic Church, while hierarchical in organization and in control over its own official dogma, was by no means of one mind in its interactions with European colonial projects. Tension between the Vatican, members of the religious orders, and diocesan priests among themselves or with European monarchs and colonial administrators was often palpable. Debates over the legitimacy of European wars of expansion, the nature of colonial regimes, and the rights of indigenous peoples often created immense conflict.

Although it did occur in the colonial context, no church doctrine actually supported the forced conversion of peoples to Christianity, and there were ample resources for legitimating the use of force to create social, cultural, and political conditions in which conversion by “persuasion” was more likely to be successful. Yet the requirements for those conditions sometimes ran against the interests of the European monarchs, colonial administrators, and colonists themselves, who were at times less interested in the conversion of indigenous peoples than their potential for economic profit. Colonists who exploited indigenous labor for agriculture or mining were constantly reprimanded by the church for failing to see to the religious education and conversion of their laborers to Christianity. Hence, it is precisely the tensions and edges of the colonial experience that shaped the Catholic Church’s complex relationship to European colonialism rather than its own dogmatic or ideological positions.

The colonial projects of early modernity were also not homogenous, and the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to those projects differed according to national context, shifts in the geopolitical realities of Europe, and significant variations in the church’s own institutional and moral power vis-a-vis European states and monarchies. The first phase of modern European expansion coalesced around the efforts of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns—with church backing—in the middle of the fifteenth century. Hence the relationship between the Catholic Church and those colonial projects also reflected the political and ideological particularities of the Iberian empires.

By the seventeenth century, however, other European nations joined the race for establishing a global colonial presence. The power of the Spanish and Portuguese empires began to decline and those of England, France, and Holland began to ascend. As the religious experiences of both the English and Dutch colonial enterprises were quite different from those formed by Catholicism, marked shifts in the relationship of the Catholic Church to those colonial projects also followed, inaugurating what may be considered a second phase of European colonial expansion.

Each of those phases, however, witnessed a recurrence of certain themes of Christian thought and practice that marked the structural and cultural aspects of its relationship to European colonial projects. The transformation of the early Christian communities into institutions that wielded almost incomparable political, moral, and economic power was itself a long historical process. That process involved coming to terms with the legacy— political, theological, institutional—of the Roman

Empire and its successors. On the other hand, it may be rightly argued that throughout the Middle Ages and by the end of the seventeenth century the Catholic Church constituted an empire of its own, whose reach spanned from Canada to Patagonia (in southern South America), and from China to Madagascar. The Spanish and English colonial projects both constituted empires on which the sun never set, yet the reach of global Catholicism exceeded them both by constituting forms of colonial relations even where there was no formal colonial jurisdiction.

Thus, the first and foremost of the recurrent themes that emerged by way of defining or shaping colonial relations with the Catholic Church was the relationship between the Christian evangelium pacis (literally, ”good news of peace”) and the political, legal, and ideological superstructure of imperium that underwrote the Roman Empire and later European expansion. As the church acquired instruments of political power by the fourth century, debates emerged over the use of the coercive force of the Roman Empire for specifically Christian ends. As the debate sometimes divided the early Church Fathers, later Christians who were to reread the Fathers and dispute these things anew in the wake of the European colonial enterprises would find support for multiple and conflicting positions. Yet as a consequence of the Christianization of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, these disputes were not merely theological, but had deep ramifications for the institutions of civil and religious laws, patterns of commentary on those laws, and theological reflection over how those institutions and laws reflected upon the political and social shape of the church.

Centuries of Christian thought and practice also produced questions that deeply affected the intellectual culture and identity of the Catholic Church. The experience of missionaries sometimes served to remind Catholics that Christianity was no more natural to Italy than it was to China, and that the Christianization of the old Roman Empire and the remainder of the European continent had been a long, arduous, complex, and even violent process. The identification of Christianity with European cultural norms was therefore itself a historical product of significant cultural transformations in European history and in Christian thought and practice. The necessity of differentiating between what was European and what was Christian became important enough to be codified as instructions to missionaries in Vatican documents by the seventeenth century. Hence Christianity’s views of its own history, attitudes toward other religions, and theological reflections on how God orchestrates history and ostensibly uses empires for his own purposes would deeply affect the ways that the church would interact with various colonial projects.


The tensions that shaped Catholic thought and practice in relationship to the first phase of European colonialism reflected very deep conflicts within the long history of Christian thought and the particularities of the Spanish and Portuguese imperial projects. These monarchies enjoyed a privileged relationship to the Vatican vis-a-vis other European nations, through direct rivalry over control of southern Italy and other cultural relations as much as through papal nepotism. Portugal established successful outposts in Africa, India, and eventually the coast of China, while Spain conquered the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco in the late fifteenth century, with the islands becoming a staging ground for the further exploration to the west that covered much of the Americas and ended only with the conquest of the Philippines.

Spanish colonization of the Americas proceeded initially from wars of conquest and the establishment of territorial control and colonial governance, while the Portuguese were less concerned with large-scale colonization and worked rather to monopolize sea routes and established independent garrisons to protect commercial interests. The Catholic Church played a central role in both cases by sending missionaries to work in Spanish territories from California to Paraguay, and in the Portuguese territories from Africa to Japan. The church also granted ideological and institutional legitimacy to those imperial projects, if not always to what it perceived to be the excesses of the conquistadors.

However, the long history of Christian thought on questions of governance that ranged from scholastic theology and jurisprudence to commentary on canon and civil law would see to it that the relationship of the Catholic Church to European colonial projects was shaped in complex ways. First of all, it was commonly held and codified in canon law that neither popes nor Christian rulers had any authority outside their own jurisdictions; this meant that Christian rulers could not impose laws on lands not under their direct rule except in the case of a ”just war,” and that popes held no authority over nonbelievers and could not compel them to accept Christianity against their will. Yet the extension of Spanish jurisdiction over the New World, accompanied precisely by the use of violence, and ostensibly for the purposes of evangelism, created conditions in which many of the qualifications that accompanied those earlier arguments about the limits of authority were invoked or otherwise found to justify substantive aspects of the colonial projects even while working to check what were thought to be colonial excesses. Hence the church emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as both the enabler of and impediment to Spanish and Portuguese imperial ambitions. It justified their possessions but required them to facilitate the evangelization of their respective domains—a requirement that often clashed with other commercial or colonial interests.

The success of the voyages of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and of the Portuguese establishment of commercial colonies in Asia occasioned what was to become the defining structure of Catholic relationships with early modern colonial projects: the so-called patron-ato real (”royal patronage”), which legally obliged missionaries and other church representatives to work under the jurisdiction of the Catholic monarchs of Spain and Portugal. Thus, the dependence of Christian missionary work on commercial interests occasioned by new discoveries and sea travel was furthered by legally obliging the Spanish and Portuguese monarchs to oversee the missionary endeavors of the church in their own jurisdictions.

The occasion for this new arrangement was the ”donation” made in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) of”temporal and spiritual dominion” over newly discovered territories in the east to the Portuguese and in the west to the Spanish monarchs. This papal bull, Inter caetera (1493), and related decrees and treaties were known collectively as the Bulls of Donation. They effectively carved the non-European world into two domains. Dispute over how to interpret the boundaries of the donations indeed raged, and the Portuguese eventually laid claim to Brazil in 1532 and the Spanish to the newly conquered Philippine Islands in 1565. Missionaries to the newly discovered Americas or to Asia included Italian, German, English, and Irish priests and members of religious orders, but they remained legally subject to the patronage of the Iberian monarchs.

The Bulls of Donation were not new to Catholic thought and experience, although by the time of Alexander VI’s decrees, such donations were in substantial ways dubitable and disreputable. Alexander’s own reputation was that of a warlord and nepotist, and the legality of such donations was subject to increasing critique. One Spanish theologian and jurist quipped that for the pope to donate what was not rightfully his was nothing short of theft.

The institutional and ideological cache of the donations was not, however, easily cast aside even by its critics. The Bulls of Donation and their precedents in church history were the vehicle by which claims to the legitimacy of European presence in the New World were carried, and the long history of canon and civil law upon which the donations rested determined much of the jurisprudential vocabulary that sustained property rights in the New World, rights over indigenous labor, rights to use at least indirect coercive force in the service of evangelization, and rights to suppress heresy, idolatry, and ”crimes against nature” wherever they were found to exist under the jurisdiction of a Christian ruler. Other crimes ostensibly against persons, nature, or God that occurred not under the jurisdiction of a Christian ruler may be occasion for a ”just war” that sought to vindicate the innocent against harm done to them. Both the proper jurisdiction of Christian rulers over territories granted to them and the occasion for a just war were invoked repeatedly as justifications for the Spanish conquest of the Americas and the Philippines. Although the terms of the Alexandrine donations and the applicability of the just war argument were subject to continuous criticism, rejection, and reinterpretation throughout the Spanish and Portuguese empires, the relationships of patronage and responsibility were established nonetheless.

The ideological weight of the Bulls of Donation rested on a long history within Catholic thought and practice that went back to the fourth century. Legend had it that as a token of gratitude to God for victories over the rival claimant to the imperial title at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312) on the Tiber River, the Roman emperor Constantine (ca. 234-337) converted to Christianity and then ”donated” jurisdiction over the city of Rome and the Western Empire to Pope Sylvester (d. 335). Constantine then relocated the seat of the empire to the Bosporus and the newly founded city of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), leaving the jurisdiction of Rome to the pope, who in turn bestowed ”temporal” jurisdiction over the empire to a successor to Constantine while retaining ”spiritual” jurisdiction to the papacy.

Although the so-called ”donation of Constantine” was itself a fiction, papal coronations of Holy Roman emperors for the next several centuries were not. Later Christian theologians would argue that the papacy possessed ”two swords” representing both temporal and spiritual power, and that it would grant the exercise of temporal power to secular rulers so that the popes could focus more exclusively on the needs of spiritual governance. The language of proper jurisdiction that remained central to the development of canon and civil law during the Middle Ages also drew extensively from Roman codes and the significant transformations that did occur with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity and the transformation of the Roman Empire from a pagan power to an empire thought to be divinely ordained for the service of Christianity.

Although the story of the so-called donation of Constantine was suspect throughout Christian history— not least by Holy Roman emperors who resented receiving their legitimacy from the popes, with whom they were sometimes at war—the documentary basis for the legend was definitively established as a forgery in the middle of the fifteenth century by the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla (ca. 1407-1457). The full impact of Valla’s arguments was not immediately realized, but the practice of such donations was cast under a shadow from which it did not easily emerge. The donations of Alexander VI, made a half-century after Valla’s exposure of that forgery, contain language explicitly reminiscent of the Constantinian donation, and wholly dependent upon it both theologically and institutionally. It was also a contested donation, and the practice of such territorial and jurisdictional donations ended with Alexander VI.

The institutional and ideological power of the Catholic Church to legitimate the new colonial enterprises of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not rest on the theological legitimacy of the Alexandrine donations, but upon the terms of royal patronage made initially possible by the donations. Most importantly, the donations obliged the Catholic monarchs to finance and support the increasingly global Catholic missionary enterprise. Even critics of the Spanish conquests of the Americas, such as Bartolome de las Casas (1474-1566), accepted the donations of Alexander VI only insofar as they required the monarchs to finance and support the evangelization of the American Indians—and see to it that Spanish greed and avarice was restrained enough to allow missionaries to peacefully persuade indigenous communities to convert of their own accord. Other critics rejected the donations entirely. Augustinian missionaries first to arrive in the Philippines quite routinely denied the Spanish monarchs just title to dominion over the indigenous populations there, but also appealed to the crown for material support and stricter laws against exploitation of indigenous labor.

In 1580 King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) also claimed succession to the crown of Portugal, offering to unite the Spanish and Portuguese domains into a single global monarchy that effectively undid the division of the world enforced by the terms of the Bulls of Donation. He was heralded by some as a ”new Constantine” capable of bringing Christianity even to China, but his claims were fiercely contested by Portuguese and Italian missionaries in Goa in India, Macao in southern China, and Japan, who often used the Bulls of Donation to derail Spanish ambitions in the Pacific after Spain’s conquest of the Philippines.


As the legitimacy of any claims to property rights in the New World rested on often contested and shaky ground, the predominant language of justification that emerged by the middle of the sixteenth century was that of the ”just war.” If the pope could not donate territory, it was often argued, it could be legally acquired as the legitimate spoils of a just war. Hence, whether or not the conquests of the Americas or the Philippines constituted just wars became a topic of not inconsiderable dispute among jurists, theologians, and missionaries.

The Spanish wars of conquest in the Caribbean, Mexico, Peru, and the Philippines were thought to be just wars by their protagonists. In fact, they were also enacted as just wars—not that they were fought justly, quite the contrary—but in that they imitated the very archaic Roman practices meant to establish just wars. Hernan Cortes (1484-1547), leader of the conquistadors responsible for the conquest of Mexico, established the practice of approaching an indigenous village and reading a formal complaint, followed by demands for restitution and a declaration of a just war should the community fail to comply by a certain time—precisely the formula that any Spanish schoolboy taught his Latin by reading Livy’s histories of Rome could easily find.

The just war argument is often thought to be derived from the early Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo’s (354-440) reflections over just and unjust wars in his monumental The City of God. However, both the ideological framework and the technical vocabulary of the iustum bellum (Latin, ”just war”) emerged a thousand years before Augustine, and remained deeply imbedded in Roman civil theology and legal practice from the time of the second Roman king Numa Pompilius (753-674 b.c.e.). A just war was properly defined, as Augustine affirmed, as the rectification of injuries done to an innocent party. In cases in which there was no formal court of appeal in which to settle the matter, an external authority could step in to act—by force if necessary—in order to rectify the wrong done. A just war had to be properly declared by a legitimate authority, had to have a just cause, and had to be fought justly and in accordance with its object of rectifying wrongs done.

Yet for all its theoretical nicety, the ideology of the just war sustained Roman imperial expansion for centuries, as it later did for the Spanish in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A point not lost on later critics of the Spanish Empire was that Augustine himself ruthlessly criticized Numa Pompilius for the fact that Roman wars became far more frequent after Numa’s establishment of religious and legal codes determining just wars.

Centuries of Christian thought and practice found the Roman language of the just war—filtered in part through Augustine—highly adaptable for ostensibly Christian purposes. It was a language of proper jurisdiction, as only a legitimate authority had the right to declare a just war. The language of sovereignty was in some sense thus inseparable from just war arguments. And, especially as Christian thought turned to Augustine and even earlier Christian writers, such as Eusebius (ca. 275-339), the language of the just war provided another account of how God worked in the world and used empires such as Rome both to establish justice and to pave the way for the successful evangelization of the world under the auspices of the Roman Empire. Augustine wrote that God granted dominion to Rome ”when He willed and to the extent that He willed,” and that Roman wars were generally just wars, thus establishing another language of donation that became immensely useful to later advocates of European empires.

The most vocal apologist for the conquests of the Americas as just wars was the Spanish royal historian Juan Gines de Sepulveda (ca. 1490-1573). Sepulveda was a classicist and highly respected translator and interpreter of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.). Sepulveda has become known today almost exclusively for his claim, drawn from an application of the first book of Aristotle’s Politics, that the American Indians were ”natural slaves” and fit to be ruled by ”natural masters” like the Europeans. However, his famed dispute with the Dominican priest Bartolome de las Casas over the humanity and rights of the Indians was primarily an argument about just wars rather than the status of the Indians as human beings or natural slaves— after all, Sepuelveda’s book that led to the debate was titled Democrates Alter, or On the Case for a Just War Against the Indians.

Critics of Sepuelveda, particularly theologians and jurists at the University of Salamanca in Spain, such as Francisco de Vitoria (ca. 1483-1546) and Domingo de Soto (1494-1560), successfully blocked the publication of Sepuelveda’s book while publishing material of their own that sought to define the perimeters of just and unjust wars that they considered more in keeping with the commentaries of the medieval Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and Thomas’s own use of Aristotle. This so-called School of Salamanca became a formidable critic of the Spanish conquests of the Americas, and of the use of coercive force for the purposes of evangelization—both of which Sepulveda vigorously defended.

The primary difficulty with the just war argument, whether in the hands of Sepuelveda or Vitoria, was that it simply did not describe the realities of the Spanish conquest nor exhaust the many reasons why the Spanish claimed legitimate title to the Americas—and especially why the Spanish and Portuguese empires continued to receive the support of the Catholic Church quite in spite of their ruthlessness and systematic exploitation of indigenous peoples and expropriation of what one Spanish critic called their ”lands, liberty, and property in exchange for their faith in Christ.” Cortes most certainly imitated the Roman practices of declaring just wars, but the massive Spanish colonial enterprise that nearly covered two continents was self-evidently not about saving innocent Aztecs from human sacrifice or cannibalism. Jose de Acosta (ca. 1540-1600), himself a missionary in Peru and critic of the Spanish conquests who was deeply familiar with Vitoria’s thought, was not alone in thinking the language of just wars ill-adapted to the realities of the Indies and something of an ideological distraction from the violent effects of the wars of conquest.

The support of the Catholic Church for the colonization projects of the Spanish and Portuguese empires rested in part on the long-established history of interpretation of the privileged role of Christian governance to establish conditions for successful Christianization. The rights and responsibilities of Christian rulers dominated medieval jurisprudence, just war theory, and political theology in a manner that sought to privilege institutional and political stability, and both strengthen and check the excesses of temporal Christian rulers. And most importantly, those rulers were necessary partners in establishing the conditions for successful evangelization of unbelievers.

The paradox of the preservation of order and the mediation of excess in the name of good governance was the very building block of Augustinian political theology inherited by the early modern church, and the colonial context of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries provided yet another stage on which to work out that tension. Only then does it become apparent that the same church that brought the Inquisition to Mexico and Peru and violently suppressed what it deemed idolatry by other measures was also the church that worked to stave off the excesses of colonial rapacity and protect indigenous communities with new laws, and which was able to exercise its influence even in places where colonial projects could not reach.

By the early seventeenth century, the church had largely repudiated what it considered the excesses of conquest, but worked diligently to sustain colonial political order. It also reserved, at least in theory, its right to endorse violence in cases where states or communities actively prohibited or impeded the free preaching of the gospel. This was the conclusion of the Spanish theologian Francisco Suarez (1548-1617), and it was institutionalized by 1622 in the founding documents of the new Vatican-sponsored Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith that was established to oversee the new global presence of Catholic missionaries on six continents.


The questions that shaped the relationship of the Catholic Church to the early modern colonial enterprises were not only political and institutional, but also deeply embedded in the church’s own cultural and intellectual history. The questions of how to conceive of non-Christian religions and their place in the ”sacred history” of the world from a providential perspective was by no means new to early modern missionaries, as the intellectual topography had been established at least in contour by many of the Church Fathers and Augustine in particular. Hence the process of evangelizing the newly discovered New World sent many missionaries back to Augustine’s texts, along with those of Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), the Venerable Bede (673-735), and other exemplary accounts of the conversion of Europe to Christianity in late antiquity. Further, the intellectual and cultural transformations experienced by Europe during the Renaissance—particularly the revival of classical learning—provided the impetus to include Herodotus and Thucydides as well as Livy, Plutarch, Pliny, and Tacitus to the sources within which missionaries sought out exempla for how to think about the new cultures that they encountered from Mexico to Macao.

The tendency to classify indigenous cultures in the Americas or Asia according to models derived from ancient Roman historians was evident in most of the missionary encounters. Hence, ”barbarians” were often categorized according to their level of civilization— specifically measured by their customs and practices, the construction of cities, the level of literacy, and the institution or lack thereof of laws and governance recognizable to Europeans. Catholic thinkers did not always consider Europe the most advanced civilization, and sometimes wrote of China and Japan as more culturally sophisticated and advanced, but as lacking the one thing (Christianity) that would perfect them. Nomadic or hunter-gatherer civilizations, like many found in the Americas, were considered the lowest form of civilization. Missionaries amassed a tremendous amount of ethnographic material about other religions from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, although it most often remained simultaneously deeply invested in classical models and interpreted through Christian theological lenses.

As the consolidation of colonial control was most often the means through which the church sought to ”civilize” indigenous peoples, cultural conflicts continually erupted in most missionary contexts. In some areas colonial administrators forcibly resettled populations, forced indigenous people to submit to religious indoctrinations and attend mass, and used force to ”extirpate idolatry” by destroying indigenous religious sites and prohibiting participation in indigenous religious practices. Although not all of the missions were amenable to colonial control, most of the religious encounters in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries tended toward religious paternalism and the affirmation of colonial institutions as the order necessary to both civilize and evangelize indigenous populations. By the nineteenth century, new theories of scientific racism replaced earlier classicizing models of humanity and civilization, creating a perhaps more insidious version of the ”white man’s burden” to civilize and Christianize under the auspices of empire.

In areas subject to Spanish or Portuguese colonial control, attempts were nevertheless made by mestizo missionaries such as Blas Valera in Peru or others in Mexico to work outside of the structures of colonial cultural chauvinism and with more sympathetic approaches to indigenous religions. In areas not subject to Spanish or Portuguese colonial control, a different kind of encounter with non-Christian religions developed. Italians such as Alessandro Valignano (15391606) and Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) sought to enter Japan and China as ”wise men from the West,” having worked to gain significant fluency in Asian languages and intellectual traditions. In many of those encounters, Catholics were invested in a kind of utopian impulse to rediscover the nature of primitive Christian communities and the missions themselves became experiments in pre-Constantinian Christianity.


As the Catholic Church worked out its own internal conflicts and troubled history on the stage of the New World, the church was also forced to deal with its declining power in Europe. The Reformation and subsequent wars of religion that only subsided in the mid-seventeenth century permanently altered Catholic self-perception as the institution that acted as both legitimator and moral conscience of the European colonial regimes. The church after the mid-seventeenth century no longer possessed the power to coerce or control the remains of the Roman Empire, and certainly not the newly emerging European states that did not depend on the church for their own legitimation.

This second stage of European colonial expansion also witnessed the decline of the Iberian powers and the rapid ascendance of France and England as the architects of the next two centuries of colonial expansion. Catholic relations with Protestant England were clearly strained and clearly competitive on the colonial stage, and certainly papal bulls and moral injunctions held no force in England or the Netherlands.

Hence the shape of colonial relations during the second phase of European expansion did not and could not have invoked the complex history of the Roman past that so animated Catholic thought in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries. The collapse of European Christendom precipitated by the Reformation and wars of religion left the Catholic Church working less to establish its own political power than to exert its moral influence in both supporting and regulating what were now the apparently permanent realities of a Spanish-American colonial presence, and to regulate its missions in areas not directly subject to the old and now quite antiquated terms of the patronato real. After the initial uncertainties and conflicts over the discovery and conquest of the New World subsided in the early seventeenth century, the Catholic Church sought primarily to consolidate its relationship with the colonial enterprises, and worked to augment and expand its institutions, newly founded universities for colonial elites, monasteries and convents, and social services such as poverty relief and hospital work.

The Expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain. In the wake of increasing anticlericalism in Europe, the Jesuits were expelled from Portuguese dominions in 1759, from those under French jurisdiction in 1761, and finally from Spanish territories in 1767. This late eighteenth-century engraving by Charles Maucourt depicts their expulsion from Spain.

The Expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain. In the wake of increasing anticlericalism in Europe, the Jesuits were expelled from Portuguese dominions in 1759, from those under French jurisdiction in 1761, and finally from Spanish territories in 1767. This late eighteenth-century engraving by Charles Maucourt depicts their expulsion from Spain.

The changed conditions that began in the seventeenth century that altered the Catholic Church’s relationship to various colonial projects may be exemplified in particular by the fate of the Jesuits’ missions to Paraguay and the so-called Chinese rites controversy. The questions of civilization, language, history, and the urge to rediscover a primitive Christianity all found their way into what became the most famous of the Jesuit missionary enterprises. The new model of mission that was begun in the Peruvian altiplano and most fully implemented in the Rio de la Plata region of modern Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia was immensely successful, and imitated in Canada, California, and the Philippines.

The missions among the Tupi-Guarani Indians in Paraguay were originally established in the early seventeenth century under the leadership of Antonio Ruiz de Montoya (1585-1652), a Peruvian mestizo and native of Lima. Although the model of a reduccion—a village or compound set aside for indigenous people and to which Spaniards were denied access—was adapted from colonial practice in Peru, Ruiz de Montoya adopted what missionaries called the ”apostolic model” of traveling in pairs, refusing the protection of soldiers, and placing oneself at the mercy of another’s hospitality. Spaniards and especially soldiers were denied access to the missions.

The missions were built on improvised classical models, with streets aligned on grids, ordered housing, and a central plaza meant to imitate the Greek agora (marketplace). These ”Indian republics” were highly successful in agriculture and livestock husbandry and grew to be potent economic forces in parts of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia. However, the missions were also initially established as refuges for Indians from the slave trade, and Ruiz de Montoya traveled to Madrid to successfully lobby for the rights of the Indians to bear arms to defend themselves from Portuguese slave traders and Spanish accomplices.

Although the missions continued until late into the eighteenth century, their economic power and established tensions with the Spanish colonial authorities in the administrative provinces of Brazil, Peru, and the Rio de la Plata resulted in accelerating the deterioration of church-state relations in Europe. Under various popes’ attempts to improve relationships with European states in the wake of increasing anticlericalism, the Jesuits were expelled from all Portuguese dominions in 1759, from those under French jurisdiction in 1761, and finally from all Spanish territories in 1767. The reducciones in Brazilian territories were closed by Portuguese force of arms, and in the Rio de la Plata by Spanish soldiers. The Jesuits were disbanded as a religious order and not reestablished until 1814.

Although no European power established a colonial presence in China, conflicts over Christian activity consistently raised questions that directly related to how the church thought of its global missions in colonial terms. Catholic presence in China was established in the late sixteenth century primarily through the work of the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci. However, important to Ricci’s permission to reside permanently in China was the question of whether or not Chinese converts to Christianity would be subjects of the European monarchs or the pope. Ricci’s denial undoubtedly contravened many theological opinions in Europe, and further developments led to strained relationships between Chinese Catholics and the Vatican.

As the Catholic Church could not resort to pressuring colonial administrators into controlling missionary activities in China, the tensions erupted on predominantly theological grounds. Ricci’s tactic of aligning Christian thought with the teachings of the ancient Chinese philosophers Confucius (ca. 551-479 b.c.e.) and Mencius (Mengzi, ca. 371-289 b.c.e.) had proven highly controversial, especially when he held that the practice of Confucian rites of honoring ancestors was not opposed to Christian teaching, and when Ricci chose to use Chinese names for God that were drawn from Confucian resources. The old questions of idolatry and syncretism quickly dominated the controversy, and tensions between the religious orders heightened the stakes. The Chinese rites controversy was settled by papal decree in 1715 when Clement XI (1649-1721) ruled that Chinese Catholics must use the Latin word deus to refer to the Christian God, and that the rites of ancestor veneration were forbidden to Chinese Catholics. In 1721 the Chinese Emperor Kangxi (r. 1661-1722) expelled all Catholic missionaries in retaliation and disgust.

The marked tendency of the Catholic Church toward the defense of colonial institutions as the arbiters of order in the New World while simultaneously seeking to restrain their excesses was highly visible both in Catholic attitudes toward the slave trade and eventually the wars of independence that in the early nineteenth century ended colonial control over the Americas. Popes continued to issue bulls condemning the enslavement of Africans from the sixteenth century through the nineteenth, although the tools of ecclesiastical discipline were rarely invoked on the slaves’ behalf. Although formally condemned, Catholic ambivalence toward the slave trade remained intact, and Catholic colonists and even missionaries continued to hold African slaves in some areas well into the nineteenth century.

Many Catholic priests and members of religious orders were engaged in the nineteenth-century wars of independence that ended the colonial projects that began in the sixteenth century, as others were involved in ending the slave trade. But the Roman Catholic Church, especially after the anticlericalism of the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century, again tended toward the reinforcement of colonial regimes as the necessary order under which it sought to act alternatingly as legitimator and as public conscience. The Catholic Church thus entered the nineteenth century seeking to sustain a semblance of its old Augustinian political theology, but increasingly lacking the political and institutional power that earlier allowed the church to sustain—in spite of its internal and external tensions—a position as both institutional advocate and moral critic of the European colonial enterprises.

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