The Spanish state and the church in the New World

The reports on the church in the New World and the analysis of Bourbon ministers provide us with an unremittingly hostile critique of the physicality and emotionalism of the colonial religious experience, of the morality of conventual life, and of the excessive numbers and weakpreparation of diocesan priests. While one can find these elements in official attitudes much earlier, what makes the Bourbon period distinctive is that in the 1750s royal support shifted sufficiently to permit officials to influence policy towards religion and the church. To paraphrase the pithy comment of one historian, reforming ministers were given leave to make the Indies a laboratory for liberal social reform.1 As part of this effort, officials attempted to replace Baroque religious ceremonies with a more sedate set of religious performances and substitute a more rational and private religious foundation for what reformers considered pious nonsense in individual beliefs. In the interest of efficiency, the reformers also sought to reduce the number of clergy, end their independence from the direct control of the state, and change their role from that of collaborators in royal administration to that of salaried spiritual advisors.

The irony of the period is not that the Spanish reformers accomplished so much, but that they accomplished so little that was permanent. The only result oftheir attempts to suppress Baroque practices was to create a climate of hostility and a gulf between the culture of the educated elites and the mass of the population that would help bring about major difficulties in the nineteenth century. With regard to the institutional life of the church, in only two areas did crown policy have profound consequences: in the economic relationship between the church and the laity, and in the role of the regular orders in the life of the church. Bourbon policy also deeply affected the status of diocesan priests and, although the institutional changes were minimal, alienated this very important support of the crown.

The most important structural change resulting from Bourbon policy was its impact on the economic position of the church. Because of the prevailing piety, pious bequests and donations to support charitable activities and religious services had accumulated between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, allowing church institutions to amass substantial endowments. Unlike the situation in Spain, however, the mass of these funds had not been used to purchase land but consisted rather of liens on urban and rural property (called censos perpetuos because they had no fixed term for repayment) and cash that was loaned at interest (through a mechanism called depĆ³sitos irregulares). When the income from this liquid capital was combined with the regular revenues

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