Spain and the Roman Catholic Church


Gustavo Pazo


“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. Matthew 28:19-20 RSVCE

No state has ever taken the instruction to spread Christianity around the world, and served the Catholic Church, as devoutly as the Spanish. The greatest Briton of all time, Sir Winston Churchill, referred to 16thcentury Spain as “the mightiest empire that had been seen since Roman times.” However, along with the comparison in terms of power, it also had the most influential role to play since the Romans in the spread of Christianity, and in the strengthening and growth of the Catholic Church. If Rome served as the solid foundational feet for the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church; Spain acted as the far-reaching hands with which its influence expanded throughout the world, from the Americas to the Far East.

Spain as we know it today has existed since 1492, when the united (through marriage) kingdoms of Castile and Aragon completed the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from Islamic rule, with the surrender of the Emirate of Granada. The unity of the kingdom ever since, was guaranteed by loyalty to the Crown; the common business of Empire; and a shared identity as faithful servants of the Church. An identity which both the monarchy and church saw fit to promulgate, as evidenced by the fact that its first rulers were bestowed by the Pope in 1494 the title of “Catholic Monarchs of Spain”, and are still to this day remembered by it.

Internally the Spanish Crown, concerned with their salvation, gave the Church, and later through the Inquisition, free reign to crush infidels and heretics alike in whichever way they saw fit; including with the use of torture. Conversion or expulsion from Spain was the best possible deal a non-Catholic could have wished for when considering others faced execution if found guilty of heresy. Externally, not only was the Church an integral part of their colonisation policy, it directed its foreign policy in Europe. As the Lutheran Reform began to threaten the power and influence of the Church, Spanish priests and theologians led the offensive of the Counter-Reformation at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), providing clarity in the formulation of an eloquent defence in favour of the Catholic Church and many of its practices and beliefs. In the words of historian Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo the council was “as Spanish as it was ecumenical.” Men like Diego Laynez, Alfonso Salmerón, and Melchor Cano strongly rejected the Protestant notions of predestination and justification by faith alone, and instead argued in favour of free will, ratification of the sacraments, the existence of purgatory, the hierarchy of the Church, and “Sacred Tradition” as an equal source of revelation to Sacred Scripture, among other points of dogma.

Throughout the 16th century, and until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Spanish armies loyal to their devout monarchs, joined the struggles in defence (and on behalf) of the Church against Protestantism, and were made to spill their blood throughout the Continent. From Flanders to France and the German states, during the Thirty and the Eighty Year’s Wars, thousands of Spanish men including the famous and feared tercios, took to the battlefields to enforce the teachings of Rome. Their sacrifices saw the return of France as a Roman Catholic state in 1589. Still, some sacrifices were never repaid; the previous year the Spanish Armada had endured the loss of some 15,000 men at sea in an attempt to restore Catholic rule on the English throne, and with the signing of peace in 1648, Holland became independent from Habsburg rule and became another majorly protestant sovereign state.

In what perhaps is its greatest contribution to the history of the West, and the world, Spanish ships led by Christopher Columbus expanded the seas and land of the known world when they reached the Americas in 1492 and opened the door for the cross-Atlantic contact of civilizations. When Spain was then granted papal authority in 1493 to take possession of the newfound lands, this was done on the basis that theirs would be an evangelising mission, seeking to convert the natives who inhabited those lands into followers of Christ and the Church. Over a relatively small number of years, Spanish conquistadors brought the local populations of the West Indies, including the locally powerful Aztec and Incan Empires, under the rule of the Spanish Crown and the teachings of the Church. Wherever the armies went, priests and friars followed, to carry out the mission that had been given to them. In 1521 Ferdinand Magellan, who was sailing across the Pacific, claimed a group of islands southeast of China for the Spanish Empire and proceeded to literally plant a cross on one of them. In 1543, two of the islands were named after the Prince of Spain, and after he had ascended to the throne as Phillip II, the name was extended to the rest of the archipelago becoming the Philippine islands, modern day Philippines. The legacy of the Spanish there can be seen today because Filipinos not only retained many Spanish words in their dialog; they also conserved the religion given to them during their colonial period, making them the second largest Christian state in Asia, and the largest Catholic in the region.

Spanish priests were not only vital in expanding the Catholic Church by preaching to new converts in the colonies, they were also responsible for the formation of many prominent Catholic orders and institutions. For instance, Domingo Félix de Guzmán formed the Order of Preachers, known as the Dominican Order; an order from which prominent Catholics have come from and whose members include Thomas Aquinas, author of the Summa Theologiae and the Summa contra gentiles; Francisco de Vitoria, forerunner of modern international law for his formulation of the rights of Amerindians; and Bartolomé de las Casas, himself a staunch critic of Spanish colonisation policy. A legacy which includes the introduction and propagation of the Rosary; and the honour of having produced five different Popes. Ignatius of Loyola on the other hand, founded the Society of Jesus. Known as the Jesuits, and with an emphasis on missionary work, members such as Francisco Xavier travelled as far as Japan to deliver the message of the Church and were leading figures in the expansion of the Christianity in Asia. The fruit of their work and that of Spain can be seen today reflected in the fact that the current Pope is the first one to be a Jesuit, the first from the Americas (Argentina), and the first from the Southern hemisphere. More recently, in 1928 Josemaría Escrivá founded Opus Dei as an organization designed to be predominantly composed of lay Catholics. Its mission is to share with others, through the example of its members, that a life of Christian holiness does not require direct service to the Church as a nun or priest. Today it is an expanding institution with members located all around the world.

Today the Catholic Church has just under 1.3 billion followers globally. About 48.6% of them live in the Americas, and 483 million of them in Latin America, which was predominantly ruled by Spain. Three of the five countries with the largest Christian populations today are located in the Americas (U.S, Brazil, Mexico), and two of the five were directly administered by the Spanish before gaining their independence (Mexico and Philippines), both overwhelmingly Catholic.

Scholars continue struggling to reach a consensus on the reasons for the decline and collapse of the Spanish Empire, which reached its zenith on the 16th century, but began its decline somewhere along the 17th, before reaching rock bottom in 1898 with a crisis which saw the loss of the Cuban, Puerto Rican and Philippine possessions. Both major Spanish accounts of their own history, however, agree that the Church had a role to play in it. Liberal accounts of the decline largely argue that the blinding devotion to the Catholic faith, and the dark wing of the Spanish Inquisition shut the nation out from the light which broke throughout the rest of Europe and consequentially left the nation behind; blissfully submerged in its outdated ways while the rest of the world moved in the other direction towards Enlightenment. On the opposite side, conservatives tend to emphasise the growing levels of corruption brought about by its own success, and the loss of morality, of faith, and of the shared sense amongst Spaniards that theirs was a holy mission, towards a common destiny, and for a greater cause, as reasons for the collapse.

Nevertheless, the essence of the Spanish nation, for as long as it has been one, was never best affirmed than in the romantically immortal words of Menéndez y Pelayo: “Spain, evangeliser of half of the globe; hammer of heretics, light of Trent, sword of Rome, cradle of Saint Ignatius; that is our greatness and our unity; we know no other.”

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