The Seventeenth Century In Hispanoamerica

A period of stabilization now began. It is the start of the colonial period as we tend to envision it today. The boundaries between the native Indians and the immigrant Spaniards began to harden. Missionaries stopped speaking to the Indians in their native Indian tongues as royal decrees forced the Indians to learn Spanish. Those who had been converted to Christianity in the sixteenth century remained Christian. Those who hadnot yet been converted to Christianity tended now to retreat to the isolated hill country and forest. They would revert to paganism such as we still encounter it today.

The seventeenth century is a distinctive period, marked by conflicting factions. Arguments arose between diocesan bishops and religious clergy, between the Jesuits and the Dominicans. The Jesuits had a policy of their own, one which I would say was somewhat separatist. It can be seen clearly in the establishment of the University of Lima. The Dominicans had set up a university in their monastery. Bishop Loaisa wanted to convert it into a great diocesan university in which all the religious orders would be involved, but the Jesuits refused to participate in the scheme. Eventually the university was set up as Loaisa had wanted-outside the Dominican monastery-but the Jesuits would not get involved in it. The Jesuits organized their extraordinary projects in many different areas, but they always stood apart from everyone else to some extent.

The bitter conflicts of this period help to explain why the Jesuits were eventually expelled. They took a strong stand for their own independence vis-a-vis the crown, a stand which we today would regard as positive. It was the only religious order that was not under the control of the crown. Thanks to papal concessions, it was the king who set up missionary groups, provided for their training in Seville, and then sent them to America. In a sense they were envoys of the king. The Franciscans and Dominicans were under the authority of the Council of the Indies. The Jesuits never accepted this arrangement. They took their orders frorn their General in Rome. In the pervading atmosphere of exaggerated Spanish nationalism, the Jesuits represented an element of universalism and unwanted contact with Rome. The Spanish king could not accept this, although the attitude of the Jesuits was a laudable one in my opinion.

In America the Jesuits did not support the policies of the bishops. There was continuing conflict betweeen the bishops and the Jesuits, and among the various religious orders themselves. The reason for this is that in this period we see the start of a process which I shall call "secularization," although I do not mean it in the sense that we use the term today. Here I am referring to the fact that the Christian missions, originally set up by religious missionaries, began to be turned over to the secular (or diocesan) clergy. These settlements had been established by the hard work of missionary religious. Now many of these settleinents were Christian and prosperous, bringing in wealth to the Church. The bishops felt that these settlements should now be turned over to the secular clergy , that the proper role of the missionary religious was to keep pushing back the frontiers of paganism, to be the "advance men" of the Christian religion. This position was not accepted, and ft gave rise to many arguments and disputes.

We must remember that there was no shortage ofclergy at that time. At one point Toribio de Mogrovejo noted that he had more priests than he knew what to do with. So there was more than enough clergy to go around, and even the remotest aleas were visited by priests. This was the situation in the closing years of the sixteenth century and the early days of the seventeenth century. In Lima, for example, there were two language cathedras: one for Quechua and one for Aymara. To be ordained to the priesthood, a candidate had to know one of the two languages in addition to his theology. The Aymara cathedra was a very important one. In those days priests evangelized the people in their own language. Today many people in Peru still speak only their native language, but they are no longer evangelized in their native tongue.

Whether we like it or not, our history can be explained in part on the basis of events in Spain. (I do not say this as a Hispanophile.) The fact is that the sixteenth century was a golden age for Spain, when it boasted a lofty culture and held first place in Europe. All this carne tumbling down in the seventeenth century, and we too felt the impact of the collapse.


From 1700 to 1808 we find ourselves in the era of the Bourbons. America lost much of its importance and the Church fossilized even more. It was a sad era, in the sense hat nothing radicall y new appeared on the scene. The only positive note might be the fact that missionaries continued to forge ahead in the north-first the Jesuits, thenl the Franciscans after the former had been expelled.

The expulsion oftheJesuits took place in 1767 in Brazil, 1769 elsewhere. To say that it was an event of critical importance would probably be an understatement. More than 2200 Jesuits left America, and they had been the elite in the universities and communities. It was they who had been studying physics and chemistry and trying to formulate a modern philosophy and theology .The places left vacant by their expulsion were filled by Franciscans and Dominicans, but for the most part they could not fill the shoes of their predecessors. I t was the first tremor of collapse in the system known as Christendom.

It is my belief that much that happened later, in the catastrophic nineteenth century for example, can be traced back to this blow. If the Jesuits had remained on the scene, things could very easily have taken a very different course. In Mendoza, for example, the Jesuits had operated a fine academy. Its closing left no educational institution of importance in Mendoza. Only after the movement for independence would we see the start of a National College sponsored by the State.

The missionary enterprise was continued throughout the eighteenth century. In the north of Mexico, for example, the Jesuits reached California as early as 1607. But not until the extraordinary Fray Junípero Serra (1713-1784) began his work was there missionary activity of the same calibre as "the early days." The Franciscans arrived in 1768 to replace the Jesuits. Working with amazing diligence, they established their mission outposts and reducciones. Starting at San Diego, founded by Fray Junípero in 1769, they reached San Francisco in 1776. The Dominicans as wel1 founded reductions throughout Upper California.

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