Church and State in the Spanish Empire

by Michael Jones

These events in the fourth century were only the beginnings of a long history of Church-State relations. They have also received very bad press in post-Enlightenment times, the new orthodoxy being that the state should be indifferent in matters concerning religion and that anything else is a theocratic Dark Age worthy of the Ayatollahs.

It is quite a distortion of the truth. The Christian state from Theodosius onwards was one that believed in the Christian religion, not just in terms of the individuals that made up the state, but corporately; it was a confessional state that declared itself to be Catholic even though half the population may well have been pagan or members of sects. It was not a theocracy because the Church and State were distinct entities with different immediate ends (unlike the Islamic Caliphate). It was a case of unity not identity. Because the Catholic state was a believing state, it undertook to assist the Church. As there was an overlapping of the subjects of these two institutions which also agreed on the ultimate questions of life, working together seemed natural. Just as the head of a non-ecclesiatical society like the family was held to have obligations concerning its religious well-being, the state felt the same responsibility for its subjects.

Emperors like Constantine and Theodosius were strongly encouraged by leaders of the Church to intervene heavily and forcefully also in support of doctrinal orthodoxy.

For the early Church, the Sermon on the Mount and every aspect of dogma were one and the same thing.

It has occurred to people in more recent times (but not to fourth-century Catholics) that the actions of Constantine and Theodosius were those of pagan-minded, worldly men of power, and forced real Catholicism away from its pure beginnings. Speaking of the early Church under persecution, G. K. Chesterton, in his work The Everlasting Man, was nearer to the truth:

“It was important solely because it was intolerable; and in that sense it is true to say that it was intolerable because it was intolerant. It was resented, because, in its own still and almost secret way, it had declared war. It had risen out of the ground to wreck the heaven and earth of heathenism. It did not try to destroy all that creation of gold and marble; but it contemplated a world without it....

Those who charged the Christians with burning down Rome with firebrands were slanderers; but they were at least far nearer to the nature of Christianity than those among the moderns who tell us that the Christians were a sort of ethical society, being martyred in languid fashion for telling men they had a duty to their neighbours, and only mildly disliked because they were meek and mild.”

The early Church was militant and dogmatic, and Theodosius in the uncomplicated fashion typical of Spain, of which he was a native, saw no reason not to unite the whole empire in this new enlarged family. It is a mentality which can be seen in the empire which grew out of the Spanish kingdom of Castile from the late fifteenth cen­tury onwards. In fact, the universal monarchy of Castile, which was global in its reality and aspirations, never employed the title empire, or used imperial eagles as emblems, or claimed to be the successor to ancient Rome. Nevertheless it was the first time a civilization could claim to be global, or that the Catholic Church could actually fulfil its aspiration to universality in the geographic sense.

When the Columbus expedition sent by Isabel of Castile discovered the Americas, it immediately raised questions about how to deal with the new reality. Pope Alexander VI in his 1493 Bull Inter Caetera granted to the monarchs of Castile all new lands lying west of a pole to pole line established west of the Azores. But he also charged these monarchs: “...that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself....We [the Papacy]command you [the Catholic Monarchs and their heirs of the Crown of Castile] instruct the aforesaid inhabitants and residents and dwellers therein in the Catholic faith, and train them in good morals.”

This Bull, including the responsibility for the religious well-being of their new subjects demanded by the Pope, was interpreted in the widest and most literal sense by the Spanish, who were nothing if not consistent. The reform of the Church conducted during the Counter Reformation after the Council of Trent was already in full swing in Castile well before Protestantism. Under the inspiration of the Bishop of Toledo, Franciso Ximenes, and Queen Isabel, monasteries were encouraged to observe their rule and the moral and intellectual standards of the Spanish clergy improved. The result in the early sixteenth century would be that while northern-European Christianity was tearing itself apart in degeneracy and civil war, a new kind of clergy with a zeal not seen since the crusades would enthusiastically set about reordering the life of entire nations across four continents.

The Iberian conquests established the first global civilization, which was the beginning of our modern age. It is usually asserted that modernity means secularism and liberalism, but for more than a century, globalism and modernity were par excellence Catholic, Baroque and Hispanic. The division of the world’s newly discovered regions in 1494 between Castile and Portugal (both culturally Hispanic, and between 1580 and 1640 politically united by personal dynastic union) under papal arbitration may have been detested by some European states, but these simply weren’t in the running. The first surviving non-Hispanic settlement or colony outside Europe had to wait until the seventeenth century.

The conquest of America by the conquistadores was an epic and sometimes ugly business. These were private expeditions given approval by the monarch, in particular Charles I, who needed the money for his European ventures. The forays then diminished and in 1573 the Ordinances Concerning Discoveries forbade any further unapproved expeditions of conquistadores, Spanish rule then continuing on the American continent until 1830. However, politically correct history has represented the Baroque civilization of the Americas as a 300-year massacre.

This fairy tale ignores what has been termed “the second conquest of America” by friars and bureaucrats. Arriving with the conquistadores, they immediately set about putting into practice the aims of Church and State and were united in what would become a 300-year social experiment, a giant mission which they were able comparatively undisturbed to develop. This real conquest created the Baroque civilization that is the cultural base for all the peoples of Iberian America today, a vast space comprising over 650 million people (and another 100 million in the Philippines).

What kind of society did the priests and administrators of the Crown create? The Laws of Burgos in 1512 show the Crown already determined to prevent abuses in dealings with Amerindians. There were several versions of the Laws of the Indies, the most famous of which was that of the 1680 Laws of the Kingdoms of the Indies (from the Crown’s point of view the Americas were not colonies, but Christianized versions of preceding states and peoples).

The Amerindians, who until the end of Spanish rule in the Americas constituted more than 50 percent of the population (today less than ten percent), lived in towns that were self-governing and economically corporate entities on lands that were inalienably theirs. Amerindians and Castilian settlers were geographically divided by the Crown into two sets of areas called “The Two Republics,” a division insisted upon by the clergy to protect the Indian populations. Amerindians could reside in the towns set aside for Europeans (resulting in a numerous mestizo population), but Europeans, apart from the clergy, could not move to Indian areas. It was thought that if these peoples were insulated from the influences that colonists might bring from an already decadent Europe, the Church might be able to radically transform them. The same policy existed in the Philippines, where Spanish settlement was discouraged. The Castilian Crown supported and applied these demands of the Church.

The result was an overwhelming success that has not been repeated since. The great missionary work of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example, did not result in the establishment of a single Catholic country because the colonial empires where this work was done simply no longer had the confessional attitude of Castile, and such activity was directed towards individuals, not societies as a whole. Gabon today, for example, may have a statistical majority of baptized Catholics, but it is not culturally a Catholic country.

The Church also insisted on educating Amerindians in their own languages, leading to their standardization and preservation. Quechua, for example, is more widespread today than it was under the Incas because it was promoted by the Church as means of communication. In the sixteenth century almost the entire Amerindian population under Castilian rule was transferred to reducciones, or model towns, designed to create a new sacred urban geography, a new human landscape that would unashamedly and successfully integrate a whole continent into the Christian civilization in its globalized, Baroque and Hispanic form. This new living cultural reality is still with us today.

If the Castilian world was a mission, it was also a crusade and it would be hard to find a more successful and modern example of Catholic geopolitics. The Columbus expedition sent off by Queen Isabel in 1492 “accidently” found America, but why did Castile send it in the first place? Europe had been contained by the Islamic world for almost a thousand years and the Iberian kingdoms had been fighting to free themselves from it for almost 800 years. The Castilian expeditions to the west and the simultaneous Portuguese expansion east were deliberately designed to surround and contain Islam on a global basis. They succeeded in spectacular fashion. From around the year 1500, Islam, which had been expanding continuously, was checked globally at every possible point of expansion. After expelling Islam from Granada, opposing it in West Africa, in Ethiopia, the Indian Ocean and South East Asia and sensationally in the Philippines which were already ruled by Muslims, the Castilians and the Portuguese put a stop to Islamic encroachment for 300 years.

The modern world was born in the struggle between a Catholic, Baroque and Hispanic civilization on one hand, and Islam and the emerging bourgeois powers of northern Europe on the other. An important subject for consideration is the Thirty Years War and the kind of society that began to triumph after 1648. Still with us today, it is a world dominated by the self-interest of states which are the expression of what historian Christopher Dawson has called a bourgeois type concerned with material well-being and determined to relativize everything else. Nobody really doubts that the days of its dominance are now numbered. More to the point: what does the current rapid return of contemporary society and politics worldwide to the situation preceding 1648 mean for us?