Augustinians, Jesuits and Mercedarians played a fundamental part in the expansion of Christianity and in the maintenance of religious and cultural life. As late as the middle of the eighteenth century, regular orders controlled approximately one-third of the parishes in the New World - mostly in rural communities - dominated formal educational institutions, and were important allies of the monarchy in the expansion of the empire through their work in mission territories.
Yet while they were intimately connected to the Habsburg system, the regular orders were not seen as agents of the state in the popular mind. Local communities did not perceive religious priests as outsiders - as they did often view bishops and diocesan clergy - primarily because the regulars encouraged the Baroque popular religiosity that provided an underpinning to local identity. Thus, the orders themselves remained popular, even when local communities complained about the conduct of individual friars. The Jesuits, moreover, were held in special esteem among Creole elites because they trained many of the Creole diocesan priests, priests who became the elites' most ardent supporters in any controversy.
In the minds of the king's ministers the regular orders had a fundamental flaw: their superiors were beyond the control of the Spanish monarch. While the Habsburgs had been disposed to live with this situation, the Bourbons were not. The institutional independence of the regular orders was at odds with Bourbon absolutist policies, their support of Baroque religiosity was intellectually offensive to Enlightened elites, and their control of education and their paternalistic relationship with indigenous populations were viewed as a major obstacle to programmes of modernization. To add passion to this intellectual analysis, there was also the well-publicized issue of the decline in morality and religious observance ofthe orders, a decline that, in the ministers' view, threatened the good order of society.
The aspect of the crown's assault on the regulars most studied by historians was the decision to expel the Jesuits in 1767. But while that expulsion shocked local populations and was very unpopular, its consequence for religious practice was more psychological than physical. Franciscans and Dominicans took over the Jesuit mission territories without major disruption and a number of different groups came forward to replace them in educational and cultural structures. Far more serious consequences ensued from an earlier decree of 1749 that ordered the secularization of all parishes controlled by religious orders.
This decree resulted from a hasty investigation organized by the king's first ministers in 1748 concerning charges that the religious priests administering
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