The Social Struggle And The Martyr Bishops

Here I should like to mention a figure who stadds out in my mind. The Christian, the saint, is a martyr. There is nothing better one can do than give one's life for the poor. Bishop Antonio de Valdivieso of Nicaragua, was undoubtedly a martyr in the colonial era. He was the Bishop of Central America, a contemporary of Bartolomé de Las Casas and several other great bishops. As the documents from that period will tell you, the Indians of that region were being exploited terribly. Valdivieso took his life in his hands by seeking to take the Indians out of the encomiendas, as the New Laws of 1542 permitted, and place them at the disposal of the king himself as free people. The governor of Nicaragua at that time, a man named Rodrigo de Contreras, eventually had the bishop assassinated for his insistent defense of the Indians. Valdivieso, who is scarcely remembered now at all, died a martyr's death in defense of the native population.

Between 1540 and 1560 there were more than twenty bishops who .dedicated their lives to the defense of the Indians. Pablo de Torres, the bishop of Panamá, was expelled from his diocese for that reason. Juan del Valle, bishop of Popayán, strove mightily to defend the Indians in his region. When his efforts seemed to be of no avail, he went to appeal to the audiencia of Santa Fe de Bogotá. When that effort failed, he headed back to Europe to appeal to the Council of the Indies. And when that venture brought no results, he packed up his documents on mules and headed for the Council of Trent. He died somewhere in France on the way to the Council.

His story is a bit like the course of Church history here in Latin America. He tried to make contact directly with Rome, but he never succeeded. Rome never spoke directly with Latin America; she spoke to it through the Spanish king and the Council of the Indies. Rome had no immédiate presence here. When our wars for independence carne, the new leaders pleaded directly with Rome to accept our political independence. But Rome was deeply involved with the Austrian empire and France. She could not accept Latin American independence, and condemned it in 1816. There is actually an encyclical condemning our revolution, our struggle for independence. San Martín was not only regarded as a traitor by Spain; he was also condemned by the Pope.


With the rise of the movement for independence, the colonial Christendom that had existed since the arrival of the Europeans entered a period of crisis. Our independence was almost a gift, something we had not really earned. That is why we remained somewhat under the thumb of the ruling powers of the day.

We talk about the struggle for independence that took place between 1808 and 1825. It was not really a people's revolt, however. It was a revolt carried out by a Creole oligarchy who struggled to free themselves from Spain and then promptly fell under the sway of another empire. Today we talk about developed countries and underdeveloped countries. But the first and primary antithesis is really between traditional societies and developed societies. Traditional societies are those which are still independent because they have not yet felt the impact of a developed society. Such would be the Eskimos, the Pygmies, and the American Indians before the arrival of the Europeans. It is only when a traditional society is confronted with an advanced society that its people take cognizance of the gap that exists between the two. Only then do they begin to feel that they need something which they do not have. It is in this context that the notion of an underdeveloped society enters the picture.

Thus "underdeveloped" implies some sort of relationship with a "developed" society. It implies a situation where the "underdeveloped" party takes cognizance of the gap between it and the "developed" party. In that sense we can say that Latin America-not Amerindia-came into being as an "underdeveloped" society. When the conquistadores arrived, they realized that they were no longer in Spain, but they tried to re-create Spain here. Present-day Mexico was called New Spain, Colombia was called New Granada, and so forth. The label "New" suggested the attempt to recreate something here. Paradoxically enough, it also indicated that they were not building something new at all but rather something "old." They were trying to repeat and restore what they had left behind in Spain. And the society they had left behind was a much more developed one, so an awareness of underdevelopment marked our colonial society from the very beginning. Our society was an underdeveloped, dependent one because the whole structure of our economic, political, ecclesial, and culturallife was dependent on that of the great urban centers of Spain.

Spain dominated our colonial version of Christendom. It took our gold and silver to finance its operations against German Lutherans. And this gold and silver was obtained from the blood of our native Indians. Tainted with the injustice in effect here, the Catholic rulers and their administrators pleaded for money to carry out the great Catholic crusade against "the Lutheran heretics." Latin America lived within the totality of Spanish culture-aware of its underdeveloped situation and of its powerlessness. I ts people were "oppressed."

This was the basic situation of our colonial Christendom, and it pervaded every level of life. Our philosophical and theological books carne from Europe. and our theologians and philosophers felt honored to have their works published in Europe through Spain's influence.

The struggle for independence signified the revolt of the Creole oligarchy here against Spanish dominance. This group suffered most directly from the influence of Spain and wanted to free itself from that influence. It possessed very little real power in a system where Latin Amerita was governed by a bureaucracy under the control of Spain-i.e., by officials of the audiencias and the cabildos ("town councils"), by viceroys and governors and bishops. It was this Creole class which rose up against Spain. Our "independence" movement in the nineteenth century was nothing more than a revolt by the Creole oligarchy. We must not forget that this Creole oligarch y also exercised domination-over the Indians and over the "little people" who were not part of its class. Thus most of the mestizo population possessed no power at all, and in the independence movement they served only as cannon fodder .

The Creole oligarchy broke with Spain because it was looking for a more advantageous pact, and it was the English who offered such a pact. Spain had taken gold and silver from Latin America and had offered wine and oil in return-even though these could be produced here. England, by contrast, offered manufactured products in return for our raw materials-under the basic system spelled out by Adam Smith. This new arrangement was agreed upon by our Creole oligarchy. Our "independence" was merely a switch from Spanish domination to domination by the new world power: industrial England. And our Creole oligarchy would take over the task of dominating people here.

This is the situation that prevailed in the nineteenth century. It continued into the twentieth century, although the name of the great foreign empire changed. Today it is the poor people of Latin America that hold our attention, for it is they who are now awakening to their situation. The process under way now is quite different from the one embodied in the revolutionary movements of the early nineteenth century, for it offers promise of effecting the liberation of the whole Latin American people from the dominance of foreign em pires. We may be movirg towards coexistence without dependence, towards a trulyworld culture in which each nation or people can contribute what is peculiarly its own.

What was the attitude of the Church towards the break effected in the early years of the nineteenth century? The bishops, for example, were realists to some extent. They tended to oppose the rupture with Spain and to opt for a return to the old situation of Spanish control. The clergy underneath them, however, were Creole for the most part-some even belonged to the oligarchy-and they threw themselves into the independence movement. Some took up arms, some organized armies (Hidalgo, Morelos), some melted down church bells for cannons (Fray Luis Beltrán). Slowly but surely the way was paved for complete independence from Spain in a process that had severál stages.

After the first stirrings of revolt, Spain reacted and regained much of its control. By 1814 the Río de la Plata region was the only area that still remained independent from Spain. If Martín Güemes had not defended the northern boundary of Argentina against the Spanish armies, the destiny of Latin America might have turned out quite differently. Then a second thrust for independence began, with Bolívar operating in the north and San Martín in the south. Ultimately they came together at Guayaquil. In Mexico, the conservatives declared their independence from Spain because the liberals had gained control over the bureaucratic machinery of government. What is clear is that this whole transition took place within a basic framework of Catholic conservatism. There was no change in culture or in the pattern of existence, no real cultural or religious or theological break.


During this next period we see a continuation of tht structures that were already in existence. The new States were organized around some capital city or around the audiencias that had existed before. Central America began to split up into factions because there had always been a great deal of antagonism among the capital cities in that region. The

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