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The Apostolic Zeal of the Kings of Spain (I)

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Undoing slanders against the colonization of America

The return of Christopher Columbus and his audience before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

From the dawn of the Conquest, Spain and Portugal generously emulated and seconded the Holy See’s apostolic drive in America. Isabel and Columbus, kings and conquerors, captains and soldiers, rulers and subjects, all understood they were essentially providential instruments to spread the Kingdom of Christ – the temporal expression of which is Christian civilization – among the Native peoples.

Even though the Indians, in the early days of the occupation and organization of the New World, were often abused, this cannot overshadow another resplendent and unquestionable truth: with effective help from the clergy, the kings curbed, punished, and finally eradicated such abuses. The Spanish monarchs thus become protectors of the natives, and together with the missionaries and local rulers, guarantors of the survival of native cultures in the new American Christendom.

Isabella I of Castile

I – The Amazing Apostolic Kings

The earnest apostolic commitment of the Kings of Spain to their subjects in America went uninterrupted for three centuries, from the Discovery to the troubled days of the French Revolution, which caused Spain to lose continental-sized possessions in the New World.

Catholic Kings, Apostolic Kings – Isabel the Catholic manifested her evangelizing intention throughout her life and even in death, as the extraordinary testament she left to her husband Fernando and daughter Joana attests:

Our main intention, as the Apostolic See granted us the discovered and undiscovered islands and mainlands of the Ocean, wasto tryand bring those peoplesto our holy Catholic Faith by sending to these islands and mainland, prelates, religious and clergy, and other learned and fearful people of God to instruct their inhabitants and dwellers in the Catholic Faith; to teach them to adopt good customs and do so with due diligence as the letters of the said concession more broadly prescribe. Therefore, I very affectionately beseech my King and Lord, and charge and command the said princess my daughter and the said prince her husband, to do and fulfill this, setting it as their chief goal, exercising diligence, and not allowing the Indians, inhabitants, and dwellers of the so-called Indies and mainland to be offended in their persons or goods. On the contrary, let them make sure that the Indians are treated well and fairly; and if they have received any offense, to remedy and compensate for it as urged and commanded in this concession” (quoted by Constantino Bayle, SJ, España en Indias, p. 398, ap. Terradas S., CPCR, p. 155).

Her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon, was also not lacking in apostolic zeal. For example, by a royal decree of January 23, 1513, he ordered that “at the age of thirteen, all the sons of chieftains be sent to the Franciscan friars, who will teach them doctrine, and how to read and write.” Thirty years later, around 1550, “so many natives could read that it became necessary to install a printing press in Mexico” (Sierra, Así se hizo America, p. 209).

Conversion of the Indians: the “Main Royal Objective and Desire”

In his Provision of Granada (November 17, 1527), Emperor Charles V issued a set of instructions for new discoveries: “It was and is our main goal and desire to have the said Indians acquire knowledge of the true God Our Lord and His Holy Faith through the preaching and example of scholars and good religious doing good works and dispensing good treatment, without subjecting the Indians and their goods to any force, pressure, damage or harm” (Bravo Lira, p. 70)

The famous Laws of the Indies, a monumental legislative compendium which a century and a half later added up to 6,218 laws distributed in 218 titles, were written at the time of Charles V. They were almost entirely devoted to guaranteeing the protection of the indigenous people and their goods. The doctrinal motivation of this code clearly is to evangelize, as can be seen in this characteristic article: “Let those who are entrusted with new discoveries be approved in catholicity, good conscience, zeal for the honor of God and our service, love of peace and desire for the conversion of the Indians” (Book IV, title I, law 2, apud Terradas S., CPCR, p. 163).

“We desire nothing more”

Philip IIKing Philip II was imbued with this spirit of evangelization to an eminent degree. In a letter of May 10, 1554, addressed to Pedro de Valdivia, conqueror and pioneer of Chile, he says: “One of the things that His Majesty [Charles V, father of Philip II] and I have most at heart and desire is for the natives of this land to be well treated and instructed and to convert to our holy Catholic Faith. I, therefore, entrust and command you, having understood the royal will, to be earnest in treating these natives properly, providing for their instruction and conversion, and not allowing them to be offended at all. You cannot render His Majesty and me a more pleasing service” (Collections and unpublished documents relating to the discovery of the ancient possessions of America and the Philippines, Madrid, 1864, T. XIII, p. 446, apud Terradas S., CPCR, p. 157).

In the Ordinances for the Council of the Indies, dictated in El Pardo on September 24, 1571, Philip II states, “According to our obligation and burden as lords of the Indies and States of the Ocean, we desire nothing more than the widespread dissemination of the evangelical law and the conversion of the Indians to our holy Catholic Faith” (apud Bravo Lira, p. 7).

Supporting the Indians “without omission, concealment, or tolerance”

In the Royal Decree of May 17, 1582, he reiterates: “The Indians are miserable persons with such a weak nature that they are easily abused and oppressed, and our will is that they should not suffer vexation and have proper remedy and protection in as many ways as possible. For this end, we have issued many decrees instructing that they be well treated, supported and favored. That should be done without omission, concealment, or tolerance, as commanded to our royal ministers. We ask and entrust the archbishops and bishops, once having seen and considered the stipulations on how to act in these cases, to use the remedies their intelligence and prudence offer, and dispose of their affairs, for the greater and better fulfillment of their will … with all due care and appropriate vigilance to prevent the Indians from suffering oppression and disarray and to have them taught doctrine and treated with the care, charity, and love becoming our holy Faith. Let them be treated with gentleness and temperance, as we have so often commanded. Let no one cover up those who fail to comply with this universal obligation, let alone ministers and persons who, having to remedy any damage, fail to do so for the sake of profit. … And since this is the subject in which we feel most obliged and well served, we have repeatedly entreated our subjects to comply and let us know about the fruits and good results of their zeal” (Sierra, Así se Hizo America, p. 224).

The apostolate occupies a “preeminent place” over any other interest

Philip III was no less aware of this apostolic responsibility: “Being in charge of spreading the evangelical law in those domains … wishing to fulfill such a just and precious obligation to the best of my ability … I command my Viceroys, Audiences, Governors, Archbishops, Bishops, and Prelates of Religious Orders … to take particular care of maintaining and increasing the missions in their territories with the greatest zeal in the understanding that in my royal attention this point holds a preeminent place above all temporal issues and interests in those vast domains. I confide in your zeal … whereby the news of our holy Faith may extend and take root in the most extensive and remote provinces” (Letter to the ecclesiastical and temporal governors of the Indies, June 1609, apud Terradas S., CPCR, p. 158).

“More obligated to evangelize than any other prince”

Philip IVThe last Habsburg of Spain, Philip IV, declared in the First Compilation of Indian Laws of 1680: “God our Lord, in His infinite mercy and goodness, has deigned to give us, without our deserving, great suzerainty over this world. …. We are more obligated than any other prince in the world to seek His service and the glory of His Holy Name and to employ all the strength and power He has given us to work to make Him known and worshiped as the true God throughout the world. … Fortunately, we have been able to bring countless peoples and nations that inhabit the West Indies, islands, and mainlands of the ocean to the fold of the Holy Roman Catholic Church” (Apud Guarda, OSB, p. 102).

The glory of God assures the glory of the King

In the early eighteenth century, the ruling dynasty changed but the Catholic momentum remains the same. On December 28, 1715, the first Bourbon of Spain, Philip V, expounded the motives of his Royal Order titled “Favoring the Missions of Holy Church”:

“The King: My ardent desire to spread the evangelical law in the vast Kingdoms of the Indies and my just fear that the conversion of those souls is delayed for lack of laborers dictate that I carefully provide the means and measures to achieve it for the greatest glory of God, which is the assurance of my own” [there follow concrete provisions] (apud Terradas S., CPCR, p. 158 ).

Main Object of the Royal Council: Glorifying God, Promoting and Preserving the Faith

Charles IVIn the days of Charles III, enlightened or illuminist rationalism – atheistic at heart – begins to devastate Europe. The King of Spain, despite the revolutionary influences to which he was subject (and which his successor Charles IV dramatically emphasized), did not weaken the apostolic commitment of the Crown to America. In the Instruction for the New Junta of State (1787), for example, he commands that “the chief object in all its deliberations should be the honor and glory of God, the preservation and propagation of our holy Faith” (Royal Decree of July 8, 1787, apud Bravo Lira, p. 71).

Hundreds of decrees and other documents emanating from royal authority during the three centuries of Spanish rule in America, similar to those cited here, attest to the constant and amazing apostolic design of the Catholic Kings. They also reveal the wise policy implemented to ensure proper protection for the Indians. Alongside the mass of papal pronouncements on the same subject – in addition to those of Spanish, Portuguese and American ecclesiastical hierarchs – these royal documents constitute an impressive testimony of the Iberian animus evangelizandi and a conclusive denial of all the ‘black legend’ versions about the Church that have emerged to this day.

Excerpts from the book, The Fifth Centenary Facing the Twenty-First Century – Authentic Christendom or Tribal-Communist Revolution, pp. 77-82)

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