Colonial Christendom In Latin America

Now we come to our own version of Christian culture. For our purposes here we may consider it still another version of Christendom. It is the "Christendom of the Indies" of which Toribio de Mogrovejo spoke in his letters around the start of the Third Council of Lima in 1582-83. And our version of Christendom, unlike that of the Byzantine empire and that of the Roman em pire, has been a colonial one . We have been on the periphery, while the previous versions of Christendom have been in the center.


It is im portant for us to realize that our version of Christendom is the only colonial or dependent version. To discover in what sense it is "colonial" is to discover-theologically, philosophically, and historically-who we are as Latin American Christians. To cease being "colonial" is to liberate ourselves and become part of the larger world-without imposing on the rest of the world the oppressive bonds of a single culture. In my opinion this has become possible only since Vatican II. We are now in aposition to getbeyond the limits of Mediterranean culture and to truly evangelize the world of Africa and Asia.

Almost against its will, Christianity is being stripped of its cultural baggage. Leaving "Christendom" behind, it is beginning to get back its freedom. To some people this process of secularization seems to spell decline and disaster . But in all likelihood the Old Testament prophets would explain it as a punishment for sin and a process of

liberation-which is how they described Israel's exile in Babylon. The secularist persecution of the Church in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries may have reduced the Church to dire poverty. But that very poverty will now free the Church to truly preach the Gospel message. Once again the hand of the unbeliever has been

God's instrument for liberating his Church so that it might carry out its true mission. As we shall note along the way, the process of expropriation has not been confined to property and possessions. It has also affected pastoral attitudes and the theological and exegetical structures of the Church.

Let us begin back in 1492 when Columbus arrived here just about the same time that the Catholic rulers of Spain were recapturing their country from the Moslems. Columbus set foot on the most primitive part of America, landing in the Caribbean region. It was the most primitive part of America in the sel;lse that the Indians there were planters living in a paleolithic setting. They had no great urban civilization, and the initial impact of European conquest would be decisive.

When the lookout shouted "Land ho!" Columbus already had a name picked out for this land-even before he set foot on it. He called it San Salvador. Our destiny was decided for us from the very beginning. Columbus did not come on land and ask the inhabitants: "Who are you? What is the name of this place ?" He gave it a name. In the biblical understanding of this process, to give someone or something a name is to gain dominion over what is named. So our destiny was taken in hand with the first voyage of discovery.

Columbus also placed the natives under the charge of his own people, commending them to his regal patrons. The encomienda system began right then and there, although it would take time for it to be organized and legislated.

One might well say that Amerindia, the mother of Latin America, has been oppressed since the very start of Europe's arrival on the scene. The American Indian, the Other, was subjugated right at the beginning. It is a very important point and has very concrete manifestations. We must remember that it was Spanish men who carne to America, and that they carne alone. It was the Indian women of America who served as their concubines, giving birth to the mestizo, who is the true Latin American. Yet little or nothing has been written about the Indian mother of America. She is one of the oppressed mothers of history, and she has been such for a very long time. It was she who had to endure the potency of the oppressive conqueror from Europe. Nietzsche spoke about the "will to power," but he had nothing to say about the other side ofthe coin. Over against the reality of the "will to power" stands the reality of the "oppressed will." W e can see the latter reality very well because we can look at past, present, and future from the vantage point of the poor and the oppressed.

Spain's experience with Christianity was wholly an experience with Christendom. Great reformer that he was, Archbishop Jiménez de Cisneros (1436-1517) also possessed palaces and armies. The king had to deal with the Archbishop in order to enact his own plans. Thanks to Rome's weakness, on the other hand, the king had the right to nominate bishops and his nominations usually were accepted. Thus the king of Spain chose all our bishops during he colonial period. Moreover, the Latin American Church was governed by the Council of the Indies from 1524 on. This Council had charge of everything in America, and it passed laws on a wide variety of matters. I t decided whether some enterprise would be initiated, whether a war would be undertaken, whether a diocese would be founded, whether missionaries would be sent, and so forth.

In many instances the head or director of the Council of the Indies was a bishop, but laymen attually did the wotk of administration. That was Christendom: a culture of which Christianity was a "part." And thus the equivocal nature of i the whole arrangement, for the Church was one element in a cultural whole. It had to serve other ends, rendering obedience to the State and serving it in different ways. Bishops would report on the activities of viceroys, and viceroys would report on the activities of bishops. The bishop had economic power because he collected tithes. This income was then taken over by the king, but he shared it amply. The bishop also had political influence because he had great authority in the eyes of the people.On the other side of the coin, however, the viceroy exercised spiritual faculties. He could decide where a cathedral would be located, and he sometimes had the right to jail ecclesiastics who had violated laws. Disputes and conflicts broke out repeatedly between the two sides. The king operated on a policy of divide and conquer.

In any case a new culture carne into being. The important point I want to bring out here is that Christianity is a Church which transcends every culture. Christendom, on the other hand, was a culture which subsumed Christianity as one of its elements. Insofar as Christianity did not conform to its cultural requirements, however, it was attacked by the totality that was Christendom. Thus the Jesuits were expelled from America in 1767, because they were the only religious order which would not allow the king to have charge of the sending of missionaries. In the eyes of the king, the Jesuits were a fifth column, because they challenged: the power of his administrative organs. In addition, the Jesuit missions here were really States within the State, and regal absolutism could not tolerate that. When the Church chose to act autonomously, it suffered expulsion and persecution. When it.did not choose to act that way, it became one more element in a cultural totallty and thereby abdicated the Christian function of prophetic criticism.

Latin American Christendom had different periods too. The first period, from 1492 to 1808, was one of great expansion in the life of this colonial Chrisr,endom. The appearance of independence movements in 1808 heralded the start of a period of crisis for this culture, and the crisis continued right down to 1962. AU of us have felt the impact of this crisis to some extent in our day-to-day lives. In fact I would say that our spiritual and theological crisis stems from the fact that we have had to live through two different ecclesial experiences at the same time. A third period began for us, and for the Church around the world, in 1962. It is the period through which we are now living, and I will discuss it in some detail in the next chapter.

If we want to understand what is happening today, we must understand what happened in the nineteenth century. But we must also understand what happened before that. In an earlier book of mine (Hipótesispara una historia de la Iglesia en América latina) I noted certain trends in the number of religious in Chile over a period of time. In 1700 there were eight religious per 10,000 people; in 1800 there were ten religious per 10,000 people; in 1960-and the figures are now more exact-there was one religious per 10,000 inhabitants. That suggests what has happened to the Church in the course of time, and we must look at the situation with open eyes if we want to adopt the right pastoral approach. The considerable presence of the Church in an earlier day has diminished considerably, and we must make pastoral decisions on the basis of that fact.

Near Nazareth there is a small town called Cana. One afternoon, during my two years in Israel as a laborer, I met an old Orthodox priest in Cana. The bearded old man of seventy talked to me about his family. He had eight children, now grown, and many grandchildren. I asked him how he happened to become a priest, and he told me. When he was forty years old, he already had eight childreh and was working his land. The priest of Cana died, and the Christians of the town got together to choose a new p'riest. They chose him. He then spent six months in Jerusalem where he went back to studying the liturgy which hc had learned in childhood. Once he had refreshed his memory on the details, he carne back as a priest to the people of his town. This married man is part of the oldest tradition of the Church. The practice is not something new; it has been going on since the beginning. There is nothing new about suggesting that married men be ordained priests, as a look at history will indicate. It is our oldest tradition, still carried on by the B yzantine Orthodox and the Catholic Melchites.

My point is that there was a large number of priestly vocations in Latin Christendom and the Spanish Church. Hence it was possible to impose stipulations which would cut down the number of candidates and which in effect turned priests into monks. Even with these stipulations, the number of priests was large. But our situation is very different today. Both theology and history offer us valid grounds for re-examining the whole question and going back to the older tradition of the Church. We no longer live in the age of Christendom. Our situation today is quite different.

This suggests that our solutions might also differ very much, from those of Europe. In France, for example, there are 45,000 priests. In all of Latin America there are only 30,000 priests. But Latin America is twenty times larger than France. So we must deal with our real situation in history as it is, not as others deal with their different situation. The number of priests and consecrated religious in Latin America is now infinitesimal. The whole question must be reconsidered from top to bottom.

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