A Bloody Tale of How Mexico Went Catholic

February 22, 2016

How to explain the powerful and in many respects unique religiosity encountered by Pope Francis on his trip to Mexico last week? Its roots are deep in history.

The conquistador Hernán Cortés explored and conquered Mexico in the early 16th century, but even before his death the Spanish state and the Catholic Church had taken dominion over the lands the conquistadors discovered, giving the Mexicans no choice but to embrace the faith. As the indigenous peoples converted, however, their churches took on a distinctive character.

After the fall of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs’ capital, they assumed the role of a defeated people. More thoroughly than the tribes that had not previously formed part of their empire, they were immediately enslaved. Their first task was to clear the rubble of their destroyed capital and then, using the stones from their temples and pyramids, to build the churches and palaces of their new masters.

The architects were Spanish, but the craftsmen were Indian and their skills and tastes added to the ornateness of the stone carvings covering the new edifices. From the early sixteenth century, in fact, a new mestizo style—Mexican Colonial—was born, combining the baroque and the Aztec, creating magnificent buildings that seemed to capture the deep melancholy of the conquered race.

In “urban” areas, the Indians resigned themselves to their fate, recognizing their defeat as the defeat of their gods and therefore gradually transferring their loyalty to the god of the Spaniards. Catholic missionaries in turn accepted a blending of Christianity with the religious traditions of the Indians.

The concept of building churches on or near the sites of temples enabled the Indians to continue their pilgrimages. And by no small chance, it was close to the sanctuary of the goddess Tonantzin on the Hill of Tepeyac outside Mexico City that the “dark” Virgin of Guadalupe first appeared to a humble Indian, Juan Diego, on December 12, 1531.

Religious syncretism thus took place easily: not only did the profusion of Catholic saints match the myriad pre-Hispanic gods, but both religions included much pomp and ceremony and sustained precepts of punishment and reward which made even the Inquisition understandable.

As the conquistadors struck out from Mexico City to “tame” the indigenous people,  they spread death, not only through destruction and massacres but also through European diseases that took the lives of perhaps two-thirds of Mexico’s Indians during the sixteenth century alone.

Missionaries followed—first Franciscans and later Dominicans, Augustines and Jesuits—and in their effort to repair the damage caused by the conquistadors, they left a trail of churches, convents and schools in their path. Through the campaigning of one priest, Bartolomé de Las Casas, the Council of the Indies freed all Indians from slavery in 1542.

The Indians were still regarded as minors who required spiritual education, but the new practice of placing them under the guardianship, or encomiendas, of landowners was also banned by Spain, which preferred that they depend directly on the Crown than on new fiefdoms. Some Indians successfully retreated into mountains, jungles and deserts— to lands that the conquistadors had little interest in exploiting. But most could only withdraw into their souls: already, pride and tradition sought to live on behind a mask of subservience and formality.

Four centuries later, as Mexico underwent a series of revolutions and saw the rise of new caudillos, or dictators, many of the poor turned their anger against the Church identified with the rich and with their continued serfdom. And some of the strongmen who emerged launched relentless attacks on the clergy.

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