Civilization, Colonization, and the Missionary Spirit
European Encounters in the New World
A sense of cultural superiority informed and sustained the efforts of European colonizers and missionaries in the New World for centuries. The best among these daring Europeans sincerely and primarily desired to share the riches of Christian civilization with the primitive peoples they encountered in order to elevate, educate, and ennoble them—for the glory of God and the good of souls. The worst, indulging the dictates of fallen human nature, used their cultural superiority to overawe and subjugate the natives, forcing them to serve worldly desires for wealth, power, and glory.
Yet in all cases—best, worst, and everything in between—European traditions, both on the natural and supernatural levels, were imposed upon (and later adopted and adapted by) the indigenous societies of the Americas, eventually creating a common Western cultural heritage. By outlining the cultural dynamics which governed the efforts of European colonizers and missionaries in the New World, my brief article hopes to provide essential context for the more focused studies of specific missionary endeavors contained in this thematic volume. Finally, my essay also contrasts the historical traditions of missionary work in the New World with the novel modern emphasis on cultural pluralism and religious liberty.
Vision of Missionary Work
A striking vision of the traditional notions which long informed European missionary work is preserved in an elaborate and highly symbolic woodcut introducing the 1669 edition of the Latin Vulgate Bible printed in Lyon, France. In the image, the Bible itself rests open atop the Ark of the Covenant and is surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists. The Holy Ghost, represented by a lightsome dove, shines heavenly wisdom onto the open page, indicating that the sacred text is divinely inspired. An allegorical figure representing the Church (a woman fittingly named Ecclesia) wears the papal tiara while supporting the Cross of Christ, holding a chalice and host (representing the Eucharistic sacrifice), a book (containing authoritative teaching), and the two keys given by Christ to Peter (signifying the power to bind and loose). Most pertinent to the current study, out of the Church’s bosom shines the light of Christ upon a darkened globe. The light represents the Christian Faith, and the darkness signifies the religious ignorance still enveloping the world beyond the traditional boundaries of the ancient Roman empire. The implication is clear: in God’s plan, the light of Faith must spread outward from Rome, the heart of Christian Europe.
Hundreds of years later in 1892, Pope Leo XIII adopted similar imagery when praising the greatest of all European colonizers: Christopher Columbus. In the encyclical Quarto Abeunte Saeculo, the pope notes that Columbus braved the “shadowy sea” (mare tenebrosum, i.e., the Atlantic Ocean) and heroically helped to elevate hundreds of thousands of natives “cloaked in miserable darkness” from their “state of blindness.” Even as late as 1899, the British poet Rudyard Kipling famously invoked the “White Man’s Burden,” a responsibility incumbent upon the heirs of European civilization to bring the remaining primitive people of the world, “fluttered folk and wild,” out of night and “slowly toward the light.” All of this, of course, echoes the beautiful prologue to St. John’s Gospel which speaks of Christ (the Word) and His action in the world: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men, and the light shines in the darkness.”
Historically, the light of Christian culture was not spread by missionaries alone; those directly tasked with providing religious education to the ignorant pagans of the New World generally followed in the footsteps of European explorers. These explorers or colonizers first established some modicum of civilized order, a foundation upon which the missionaries then built. For example, a group of 500 Spanish soldiers under the command of Hernán Cortés was able, in the course of just two years, to conquer the vast Aztec Empire which boasted millions of inhabitants. The stunning defeat of the numerically superior, cannibalistic, devil-worshipping, half-nude Aztecs was possible (in large part) due to superior European naval and military technology, but also due to the help and support of other native tribes who resented Aztec savagery. Once the Spanish conquistadors wrested political control from the Aztecs, they rapidly established a thoroughly European civilization among the primitive inhabitants of the Mexican peninsula. One of Cortés’s companions, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, recalled and lauded this monumental achievement. Writing in 1568, less than 40 years following the conquest of the Aztecs, Díaz proudly enumerated the cultural victories of the Spanish conquerors:
“Consider the number of cities of New Spain, which from their being so many I will not detail; our ten bishoprics, not including the archbishopric of the noble city of Mexico; the three courts of royal audience, together with the succession of governors, archbishops, and bishops; our holy cathedrals and monasteries, Dominican, Franciscan, Mercenarian, and Augustinian; our hospitals with the extensive remissions and pardons attached to them; and the Santa Casa of our Lady of Guadalupe with the holy miracles there performed every day. And let us give thanks to God, and to His Blessed Mother Our Lady, for giving us the grace and support to conquer these countries, where so much Christianity is now established. Let it be also remembered that in Mexico there is a university wherein are studied and learned grammar, theology, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, and the other sciences. There is also a printing press for books both in Latin and the vernacular, and in this college they graduate as licentiates and doctors; to which I might add many other instances to enhance the value of these countries, such as the mines of silver, and other discoveries, whereby prosperity and grandeur redound to the mother country. ”
Díaz, in his discussion of the many benefits brought to the New World by the Spanish, listed institutions of secular authority alongside religious foundations, educational achievements, spiritual benefits, temporal wealth, and industry—for they are all complementary parts of the same cultural heritage imported by Europeans to the Americas.
This process of European inculturation, initiated most poignantly by the Spanish, eventually spread throughout the entire Western Hemisphere, binding the New World together with Europe to form the Christian West. The Portuguese, for their part, developed elaborate maps and charts, planted stone crosses at important locations on the coast, and set up trading posts all along the eastern coast of South America, linking these markets to their booming trade in West Africa (primarily in gold and slaves). Interestingly, when initial disputes arose between the Spanish and Portuguese over claims to the land, Pope Alexander VI formally resolved their competing suits in 1494 by simply dividing the territories of the New World between these two European powers. This treaty implied that European states had a right, supported by the Church, to bring these lands and their pagan inhabitants into the orbit of Catholic culture.
Shortly after the Spanish and Portuguese claimed much of central and south America, the French imposed their authority in the north when royally commissioned Jacques Cartier erected the first French cross in modern-day Canada in 1534. The French would subsequently dominate the fur trade along the St. Lawrence River down to the Great Lakes, and then expand further inland, claiming the lands as their own “in the name of Jesus Christ” and bringing the Catholic Faith to the natives they encountered. Liturgical celebrations and ornate processions were often performed in the presence of the local Indians, who were encouraged to spectate and even participate.
Protestant England came late to the colonizing rush with initial settlements along the Eastern Seaboard—for example, Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620. English settlers built fences, wrote down laws, composed contracts, erected stone buildings and fortifications, and planted gardens, thus indicating to any nearby natives that they cultivated a superior social order. As royal support for the English colonies increased over time, settlers pushed farther south and farther west, driving the Indians from their homelands. According to John Locke and other English intellectuals, Europeans had a right to civilize these lands, citing the scriptural mandate, “Increase and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” This process of civilizing conquest would continue long after North America’s independence from Great Britain, exemplified most famously by President Andrew Jackson’s relocation of thousands of Native Americans around the year 1830.
Europeans, then, seemingly had both a right and a responsibility to establish Christian culture in the New World, conveying its many benefits to the ignorant and primitive natives. However, many evils also accompanied the work of colonization. European diseases such as smallpox devastated native populations, killing millions. Rape, enslavement, theft, and warfare were common. Perhaps worst of all, these sinful abuses perpetrated by Christians scandalized the natives, making their path to conversion much more troubled and difficult. Thus Europeans inflicted (both knowingly and unintentionally) many evils upon the inhabitants of the New World. Yet, greater evils predated the Europeans’ arrival—cannibalism, human sacrifice, polygamy, idolatry, and devil-worship are simply the most egregious—all of which the Europeans eventually rooted out. In the final account, the benefits, particularly those of a spiritual and intellectual nature, conferred by European colonizers and missionaries upon the native pagan societies of the Americas arguably outweigh any evils simultaneously introduced.
Yet the many benefits conferred by Europeans upon the indigenous societies of America do not excuse these sinful failings, and a vivid memory of abuse still remains. Modern popes such as John Paul II acknowledged that outrages had been committed by European Catholics against the natives of the New World. Most recently, Pope Francis publicly stated during his July 2015 visit to Latin America:
Shift in Approach
“I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America. I also want us to remember the thousands and thousands of priests who strongly opposed the logic of the sword with the power of the Cross. There was sin, and it was plentiful. But we never apologized, so I now ask for forgiveness. But where there was sin, and there was plenty of sin, there was also an abundant grace increased by the men who defended indigenous peoples.”
The Pope speaks with pastoral care and solicitude, but when focusing on the sins committed by Europeans against the indigenous peoples, one risks downplaying or even overlooking the many blessings, both temporal and spiritual, conferred by the conquest of the New World. Ultimately, the salvation of very many souls flowed and continues to flow from this “lamentable” conquest!
A shift in perspective has unquestionably affected the modern Church’s approach to missionary work and pagan cultures. In its official Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions, the Second Vatican Council proclaims:
“The Catholic Church rejects nothing of those things which are true and holy in these [false] religions. It regards with respect those ways of acting and living and those precepts and teachings which, though often at variance with what the Church hold and expounds, frequently reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens everyone…The Church therefore calls upon all its sons and daughters with prudence and charity, through dialogues and cooperation with the followers of other religions, bearing witness to the Christian Faith and way of life, to recognize, preserve, and promote those spiritual and moral good things as well as the socio-cultural values which are to be found among them.”
Christians, then, according to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, should promote the “good” aspects of pagan cultures, even though those cultures are “often at variance” with Church teachings. The notions of religious liberty and cultural pluralism supported by this conciliar text eventually lead, according to Archbishop Lefebvre, to “the disappearance in the Church of the missionary spirit for the conversion of souls.”
In order for any society to be worthy of the title “Roman Catholic,” it must embrace the traditional Christian culture of European civilization. This, at least, was the centuries-old assumption of Catholic missionaries to the New World. For is there any other way to be truly Roman, and thus truly Catholic? Yet the modern Church tends to downplay the preeminence of Rome in God’s providential plan so as to embrace and foster cultural diversity. And thus Eternal Rome—the great city on a hilltop, the heart of Christian civilization, once openly proclaimed to be the sole Mistress of Truth and the light unto the nations—now seems to be a candle hidden under a bushel.