The Christianization of Mexico in the 16th Century

Nov 2016
The history of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico began with the Spanish conquest of Mexico under Hernan Cortes in the years 1510-21. The conquest had two aims: the political and the religious subjugation of the Mexican population. The Spaniards were repulsed by the native practice of human sacrifice, but could only completely abolish it with the conquest of the Aztec Empire. The conversion of the Indians to Christianity began with the regents of the city-state of Tlaxcala, who had quickly allied with Cortes in view of the Spanish military superiority, but was only tackled in its entirety after the conquest of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan in 1521.

The self-justification for the military conquest of Mexico was the goal of Christianizing the Indian population. This was made possible by the permission granted in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI to the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella (the so-called 'Patronato Real') to evangelize the Spanish overseas colonies and to appoint and deploy local clerical officials for this purpose. Of course, the actual motive was the economic profits that were sought through the economic exploitation of the conquered territories.

At the request of Cortes, representatives of the Franciscan, Dominican and Augustinian orders were sent to Mexico. The first to arrive were Franciscan monks, the so-called 'Twelve Apostles of Mexico', in 1524, followed by the Dominicans in 1526 and the Augustinians in 1533. The Franciscans concentrated on the most densely populated cities and built the first churches, often in close proximity to local temples. Priests were regularly sent to the rural population to perform baptisms and Christian marriages.

To speed up the process, priests of the local religion were deposed and their temples converted into churches. Members of the Indian elite were preferably converted to serve as role models for ordinary people. The attempt to train Indian priests failed, because the candidates were able to internalize the Catholic theory well, but had no sense for a priestly way of life at all. For this reason in 1551 a prohibition was issued for the ordination of Indian priests.

The first intra-Spanish conflicts arose in the course of the 16th century because of the brutal treatment of locals by many conquistadors who saw in the Indians only inferior workers ("encomendados"), who had to work for their Spanish masters ("encomenderos") under often slave-like conditions within the framework of a new agricultural system ("encomienda") imposed on them. The system was introduced in Latin America in 1503, when participants in a conquest campaign were given fiduciary land holdings ("reducciones") including indigenous inhabitants as workers as a reward. Formally, the Indians were not slaves because they had to be paid. Queen Isabella of Spain even granted the Indians the right to appeal to a court of appeal ("Real Audienca"). In practice, however, the system could hardly be distinguished from slavery because there was an obligation to work and most Encomenderos unscrupulously accepted the death of workers through physical exhaustion.

In the Spanish homeland, the fierce debates about right and wrong of such practices sparked. A committed opponent of enslavement was the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas, while his main opponent, the theologian Juan Gines de Sepulveda, was convinced of the superiority of the Spanish 'race' and justified the ill-treatment of the Indians with it.

Although the majority of clerics favored a just treatment of the Indians, the 'cultural memory' of the Indians and Mestizos and their Mexican descendants was marked by the remembering of physical oppression and moral humiliation by conquistadors and theorists such as Sepulveda, as reflected in the anticlerical laws of the Mexican constitution of 1917.

The obligation to work was abolished in the Encomienda system in Mexico at the end of the 1530s and tribute payments by the Indians to their masters were made compulsory as a substitute. Reason: On the one hand so many Indians died because of the brutal working conditions in the fields and mines that the survival of their ethnic group seemed endangered to the detriment of the economic system. On the other hand, the Taino revolt in the Caribbean and the pro-Indian writings of Bartolomé de Las Casas raised moral concerns with Emperor Charles V and Pope Paul III. (Bull "Sublimus Dei"), which led to a condemnation of slavery in Mexico and other colonies and to the concession of the fundamental rights of freedom and property to the Indians for the benefit of the people of Mexico.

From the 1550s, the Encomienda system in Mexico fell under pressure from its opponents and was replaced by the import of African slaves and by the new Ripartimiento system, which obliged every adult Indian to work 45 days a year for the Spanish masters, once again under inhumane conditions, i.e. bad treatment, far too long working hours and unreliable pay.

Another inner-Spanish dissent occurred when the first bishop of Mexico, Don Juan de Zumarraga, in 1536 accused and beheaded a high-ranking native in Texcoco in an inquisition proceeding, which earned him a rebuke from the Spanish crown. In their eyes the Indians were morally not fully accountable because of their still insufficient Christianization and therefore not obliged to satisfy the claims raised by the Inquisition completely. When it was officially introduced in Mexico in 1571, the provisions of the Inquisition therefore did not apply to the Indians, who subsequently had the legal status of children.


Forum Staff
Oct 2011
Italy, Lago Maggiore
The linkage between the Spanish power and the Roman Catholic Church [in Italy we tend to say simply "Catholic Church"] has been pivotal for the growth of the Spanish Empire. In a few words the Spaniards presented themselves as the greatest and final defenders of the Catholic orthodoxy against the Reform.

But before of that historical period, the Spaniards were enough politically sensitive to accept the Papal "imprinting" for their expansion in what would have been later called "New World". Why? Simply because if the Pope accepts you exterminates entire population in the name of the Cross [they didn't properly "carry" the Cross] you are on the "right side" [from a Christian perspective].

But ... the Papacy said something different ...

An English translation of the mentioned bull [Suplimis Dei]: Sublimus Dei On the Enslavement and Evangelization of Indians


Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare by these Our letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, to which the same credit shall be given as to the originals, that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.
Interesting, but what if the local population kept on refusing to convert to Christianity? The Pope was far ... And the locals were a concerning mass of not Christians ...