The Catholic Church during the Age of Discovery inaugurated a major effort to spread Christianity in the New World and to convert the Native Americans and other indigenous people. The missionary effort was a major part of, and a partial justification for the colonial efforts of European powers such as Spain, France and Portugal. Christian Missions to the indigenous peoples ran hand-in-hand with the colonial efforts of Catholic nations. In the Americas and other colonies in Asia and Africa, most missions were run by religious orders such as the Augustinians, Franciscans, Jesuits and Dominicans.

Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican friar on the island of Hispaniola, was the first member of the clergy to publicly denounce all forms of enslavement and oppression of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.[1] Theologians such as Francisco de Vitoria and Bartolomé de las Casas drew up theological and philosophical bases for the defense of the human rights of the colonized native populations, thus creating the basis of international law, regulating the relationships between nations.

In the early years most mission work was undertaken by the religious orders. Over time it was intended that a normal church structure would be established in the mission areas. The process began with the formation of special jurisdictions, known as apostolic prefectures and apostolic vicariates. These developing churches eventually graduated to regular diocesan status with the appointment of a local bishop. After decolonization, this process increased in pace as church structures altered to reflect new political-administrative realities.

Much Catholic missionary work has undergone a profound change since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and has become explicitly conscious of the dangers of cultural imperialism or economic exploitation. Contemporary Christian missionaries try to observe the principles of inculturation in their missionary work.

Age of Discovery

The European discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus did not occur until 1492. However, two papal bulls announced several decades before that event to help ward off increasing Muslim invasions into Europe affected the New World. When Islam presented a serious military threat to Italy and Central Europe during mid 15th Century, Pope Nicholas V tried to unite Christendom against them but failed. He then granted Portugal the right to subdue and even enslave Muslims, pagans and other unbelievers in the papal bull Dum Diversas (1452).[2] While this bull preceded the Atlantic slave trade by several decades, slavery and the slave trade were part of African societies and states which supplied the Arab world with slaves long before the arrival of the Europeans.[3] The following year saw the Fall of Constantinople to Muslim invaders which left the pope as the uncontested patriarch of all Christendom.[2] Several decades later, European explorers and missionaries spread Catholicism to the Americas, Asia, Africa and Oceania. Pope Alexander VI had awarded colonial rights over most of the newly discovered lands to Spain and Portugal.[4] Under the patronato system, however, state authorities, not the Vatican, controlled all clerical appointments in the new colonies.[5] Thus, the 1455 Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex granted the Portuguese all lands behind Cape Bojador and allows to reduce pagans and other enemies of Christ to perpetual slavery[6].

Later, the 1481 Papal Bull Aeterni regis granted all lands south of the Canary Islands to Portugal, while in May 1493 the Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI decreed in the Bull Inter caetera that all lands west of a meridian only 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands should belong to Spain while new lands discovered east of that line would belong to Portugal. These arrangements were later precised with the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas.

After the discovery of the New World a few of the clergy began to criticize Spain and the Church's treatment of indigenous peoples. In December 1511, Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican friar, openly rebuked the Spanish rulers of Hispaniola for their "cruelty and tyranny" in dealing with the American natives.[7] King Ferdinand enacted the Laws of Burgos and Valladolid in response. However enforcement was lax, and some historians blame the Church for not doing enough to liberate the Indians; others point to the Church as the only voice raised on behalf of indigenous peoples.[8] The issue resulted in a crisis of conscience in 16th-century Spain.[7][9] The reaction of Catholic writers such as Bartolomé de Las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria led to debate on the nature of human rights[7] and the birth of modern international law.[10][11]

Later, Franciscan missionaries arrived in what is now Mexico. They worked hard to convert the Indians and to provide for their well-being by establishing schools and hospitals. They taught the Indians better farming methods, and easier ways of weaving and making pottery. Because some people questioned whether the Indians were truly men who deserved baptism, Pope Paul III in the papal bull Veritas Ipsa or Sublimis Deus (1537) confirmed that the Indians were deserving men.[12][13] Afterward, the conversion effort gained momentum.[14]

The School of Salamanca

The School of Salamanca, which gathered theologians such as Francisco de Vitoria (1480-1546) or Francisco Suárez (1548-1617), argued in favor of the existence of natural law, which thus gave some rights to indigenous people. However, while the School of Salamanca limited Charles V's imperial powers over colonized people, they also legitimized the conquest, defining the conditions of "Just War". For example, these theologians admitted the existence of the right for indigenous people to reject religious conversion, which was a novelty for Western philosophical thought. However, Suárez also conceived many particular cases — a casuistry — in which conquest was legitimized. Hence, war was justified if the indigenous people refused free transit and commerce to the Europeans; if they forced converts to return to idolatry; if there come to be a sufficient number of Christians in the newly discovered land that they wish to receive from the Pope a Christian government; if the indigenous people lacked just laws, magistrates, agricultural techniques, etc. In any case, title taken according to this principle must be exercised with Christian charity, warned Suárez, and for the advantage of the Indians. Henceforth, the School of Salamanca legitimized the conquest while at the same time limiting the absolute power of the sovereign, which was celebrated in others parts of Europe under the notion of the divine right of kings.

Assimilation and mestizaje

The conquest was immediately accompanied by evangelization, and new, local forms of Catholicism appeared. The Virgin of Guadalupe is one of Mexico's oldest religious image, and is said to have appeared to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in 1531. News of the 1534 apparition on Tepayac Hill spread quickly through Mexico; and in the seven years that followed, 1532 through 1538, the Indian people accepted the Spaniards and 8 million people were converted to the Catholic faith. Thereafter, the Aztecs no longer practiced human sacrifice or native forms of worship. In 2001 the Italian Movement of Love Saint Juan Diego was created, and launched evangelization projects in 32 states. A year later, Juan Diego was canonized by Pope John Paul II.

Guadalupe is often considered a mixture of the cultures which blend to form Mexico, both racially[15] and religiously[16] Guadalupe is sometimes called the "first mestiza"[17] or "the first Mexican". [18] Mary O'Connor writes that Guadalupe "bring[s] together people of distinct cultural heritages, while at the same time affirming their distinctness."[19]

One theory is that the Virgin of Guadalupe was presented to the Aztecs as a sort of "Christianized" Tonantzin, necessary for the clergymen to convert the indigenous people to their faith. As Jacques Lafaye wrote in Quetzalcoatl and Guadalupe, " the Christians built their first churches with the rubble and the columns of the ancient pagan temples, so they often borrowed pagan customs for their own cult purposes.[20]

Such Virgins appeared in most of the other evangelized countries, mixing Catholicism with the local customs. The Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana was built in Bolivia, near the Isla del Sol where the Sun God was believed to be born, in the 16th century, to commemorate the apparition of the Virgin of Copacabana; in Cuba the Virgin named Caridad del Cobre was allegedly seen in the beginning of the 16th century, a case consigned in the Archivo General de Indias; in Brazil Our Lady of Aparecida was declared in 1929 official Patron Saint of the country by Pope Pius XI; Our Lady of Luján in Argentina; La Negrita in Costa Rica...


The first attempt by Jesuits to reach China was made in 1552 by St. Francis Xavier, Spanish priest and missionary and founding member of the Society. Xavier, however, died the same year on the Chinese island of Shangchuan, without having reached the mainland. Three decades later, in 1582, led by several figures including the prominent Italian Matteo Ricci, Jesuits once again initiated mission work in China, ultimately introducing Western science, mathematics, astronomy, and visual arts to the imperial court, and carrying on significant inter-cultural and philosophical dialogue with Chinese scholars, particularly representatives of Confucianism. At the time of their peak influence, members of the Jesuit delegation were considered some of the emperor's most valued and trusted advisors, holding numerous prestigious posts in the imperial government. Many Chinese, including notable former Confucian scholars, adopted Christianity and became priests and members of the Society of Jesus.

Between the 18th and mid-19th century, nearly all Western missionaries in China were forced to conduct their teaching and other activities covertly.

Elsewhere, Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier introduced Christianity to Japan. By the end of the 16th century tens of thousands of Japanese followed Roman Catholicism. Church growth came to a halt in 1597 under the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu who, in an effort to isolate the country from foreign influences, launched a severe persecution of Christians.[21] Japanese were forbidden to leave the country and Europeans were forbidden to enter. Despite this, a minority Christian population survived into the 19th century.[21][22]

In South America, the Jesuits protected native peoples from enslavement by establishing semi-independent settlements called reductions. Pope Gregory XVI, challenging Spanish and Portuguese sovereignty, appointed his own candidates as bishops in the colonies, condemned slavery and the slave trade in 1839 (papal bull In Supremo Apostolatus), and approved the ordination of native clergy in spite of government racism.[23]

Many buildings erected by the Jesuits still stand, such as the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Macau and the Santisima Trinidad de Paraná in Paraguay, an example of a Jesuit Reduction.

Later missions

Spanish missions

In the Americas, the Catholic Church expanded its missions in cooperation with the Spanish government and military. Junípero Serra, the Franciscan priest in charge of this effort, founded a series of missions which quickly became important economic, political, and religious institutions.[24] These missions brought grain, cattle, and a new way of living to the Indian tribes of California. Overland routes were established from New Mexico that resulted in the colonization of San Francisco in 1776 and Los Angeles in 1781. However, by bringing Western civilization to the area, these missions and the Spanish government have been held responsible for wiping out nearly a third of the native population, primarily through disease.[25]

French missions

The french colonial effort began later than that of the Spanish or Portuguese.


Decolonization in the Americas began with the wave of revolutions, inspired by the American revolution and the French Revolution in the closing decades of the 18th century.

20th century

But the Catholic faith also implanted itself in the middle classes, in particular through the lay movements created following the 1891 Rerum Novarum encyclical enacted by Pope Leo XIII, and which insisted on the social role of the Roman Catholic Church [26]. New devotions appeared throughout the 20th century, such as Fidencio Constantino Sintora (known as the Niño Fidencio) (1898-1938) in Mexico, the Santa Muerte in Mexico (who has been attacked by the Catholic Church as being a pagan figure) or Difunta Correa in Argentina. The latter's pilgrimage site was visited by 700 000 persons in 2005 [26].

Liberation theology

In the 1970s, the Jesuits would become a main proponent of the liberation theology which openly supported anti-imperialist movements. It was officially condemned in 1984 and in 1986 by then Cardinal Ratzinger (current Pope) as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under charges of Marxist tendencies, while Leonardo Boff was suspended.

Accusations of ethnocide

After a journey among the Bari in South America, the ethnologist Robert Jaulin called for a convention on ethnocide in the Americas at the Congress of Americanists, and, in February 1970, the French Society of Americanists convened for that purpose [27]. Jaulin criticized in particular the role of Christian missionaries towards non-Western cultures.

Proselytism has continued however throughout the 20th century, with Latin America accounting for the largest Catholic population in the world. But since the 1960s-70s, Protestant evangelism and new religious movements have begun to strongly compete with Catholicism in South America, while various approaches to evangelism have been developed . In response, the Pope John Paul II made frequent travels to this continent, visiting among other countries Chile during Pinochet's rule. He also supported Catholic Charismatic Renewal movements against rival Charismatic movements, and groups such as the Neocatechumenal Way (which has close to 20,000 communities in Latin America and 600,000 members alone), Focolari, Comunione e Liberazione or the Opus Dei, which are main vectors of Roman Catholicism in the region [26][28]. In the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (subtitled On the permanent validity of the Church's missionary mandate), John Paul II stressed "the urgency of missionary activity"[29] and in which he wished "to invite the Church to renew her missionary commitment."[30]


  1. Hanke, Lewis. (1946) Free Speech in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America. The Hispanic American Historical Review, 26,2:135-149. Page 142.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Thomas, Hugh, The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870 (1999), Simon and Schuster, isbn=9780684835655, p. 65-6.
  3. Ferro, Mark, Colonization: A Global History (1997), Routledge, isbn=9780415140072 p. 221.
  4. Koschorke,Klaus, A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450–1990 (2007), Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co, isbn=9780802828897, p. 13, 283.
  5. Dussel, Enrique, A History of the Church in Latin America (1981), Wm. B. Eerdmans, isbn=0802821316, p. 39, 59.
  6. Daus, Ronald (1983). Die Erfindung des Kolonialismus. Wuppertal/Germany: Peter Hammer Verlag. p. 33. ISBN 3-87294-202-6. (German)
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Koschorke, Klaus, A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450–1990 (2007), Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co, isbn=9780802828897, p. 287.
  8. Dussel, Enrique, A History of the Church in Latin America (1981), Wm. B. Eerdmans, isbn=0802821316, p. 45, 52, 53 quote: "The missionary Church opposed this state of affairs from the beginning, and nearly everything positive that was done for the benefit of the indigenous peoples resulted from the call and clamor of the missionaries. The fact remained, however, that widespread injustice was extremely difficult to uproot ... Even more important than Bartolome de Las Casas was the Bishop of Nicaragua, Antonio de Valdeviso, who ultimately suffered martyrdom for his defense of the Indian."
  9. Johansen, p. 109, 110, quote: "In the Americas, the Catholic priest Bartolome de las Casas avidly encouraged enquiries into the Spanish conquest's many cruelties. Las Casas chronicled Spanish brutality against the Native peoples in excruciating detail."
  10. Woods, Thomas, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (2005), Regnery Publishing, Inc, isbn=0-89526-038-7 p. 137.
  11. Chadwick, Owen, A History of Christianity , Barnes & Noble, (1995), isbn=0760773327 p. 327.
  12. Johansen, Bruce, The Native Peoples of North America, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 2006, p. 110, quote: "In the Papal bull Sublimis deus (1537), Pope Paul III declared that Indians were to be regarded as fully human, and that their souls were as immortal as those of Europeans. This edict also outlawed slavery of Indians in any form..."
  13. Koschorke, A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (2007), p. 290
  14. Samora et al., A History of the Mexican-American People (1993), p. 20
  15. Beckwith, Barbara. "A View From the North." St. Anthony Messenger Magazine Online. December 1999. [1], accessed 3 December 2006
  16. Elizondo, Virgil. "Our Lady of Guadalupe. A Guide for the New Millennium." St. Anthony Messenger Magazine Online. December 1999. [2], accessed 3 December 2006
  17. Lopez, Lydia. "'Undocumented Virgin.' Guadalupe Narrative Crosses Borders for New Understanding." Episcopal News Service. December 10, 2004.
  18. King, Judy. "La Virgen de Guadalupe -- Mother of All Mexico." [3], accessed 29 November 2006
  19. O'Connor, Mary. "The Virgin of Guadalupe and the Economics of Symbolic Behavior." in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion Vol. 28, Issue 2. p. 105-119. 1989
  20. Lafaye, Jacques. Quetzalcoatl and Guadalupe. The Formation of Mexican National Consciousness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1976
  21. 21.0 21.1 Koschorke, A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (2007), pp. 31–2
  22. McManners, Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (1990), p. 318
  23. Duffy, Saints and Sinners (1997), p. 221
  24. Norman, The Roman Catholic Church an Illustrated History (2007), pp. 111–2
  25. King, Mission to Paradise (1975), p. 169
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Jean-Pierre Bastian, "Des foules si ferventes" in L'Histoire n°322, July-August 2007, pp.86-89 (French)
  27. Yale-Edinburgh Group on the History of the Missionary Movement and Non-Western Christianity (English)
  28. François Normand, La troublante ascension de l’Opus Dei, Le Monde diplomatique, September 1995 (French)
  29. Introduction of Redemptoris Missio, 1.
  30. Introduction of Redemptoris Missio, 2.

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