In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Church in Colonial Latin America

  • Introduction
  • Imperial Overviews
  • Overviews
  • Early Church
  • Anthologies
  • Economic Function of the Church
  • Art
  • Architecture
  • Women and the Church
  • Saints
  • Biography
  • Inquisition
  • Extirpation
  • Africans and the Church
  • Enlightenment to Independence

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Latin American Studies The Church in Colonial Latin America
John F. Schwaller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 March 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0180


The Catholic Church was undoubtedly the single most important institution in colonial Latin America. Everyone who lived in the region was nominally a member of the Church. The Church controlled all aspects of life from birth, through marriage, until death. The Church became the single largest landowner within the colony, developing commercial agriculture to support many of its activities. Religious orders within the Church created vertically integrated commercial activities such as sheep production and weaving, grape production and brandy. The missionaries of the Church had the principal responsibility of converting the millions of natives of the New World to the faith, which was a daunting task because of significant linguistic and cultural differences. Through the local bishop and the powers of the Inquisition, the Church also monitored the homogeneity of the philosophical underpinnings of the society, assuring conformity of thought. In short, the colonial Church touched nearly every aspect of life. At the same time, the Church was not a monolithic institution. On the most basic level the clergy fall into two large camps: the secular or diocesan clergy and the regular clergy. The former include the common parish priests who served under the supervision of the local bishop or archbishop, as well as high-ranking clerics such as those who served in the cathedrals. The latter include members of religious orders, both male and female. In this way the regular clergy can also be seen as highly fragmented since each religious order had its own internal governance and hierarchy reaching ultimately to the Pope. The Franciscans and Dominicans, while similar in many ways, had very different approaches to evangelization. The Society of Jesus, the Jesuit order, was a relative newcomer, being founded in the 1540s, and having very little in common with the older orders. At the same time, the diocesan clergy and the bishops who governed the dioceses fell administratively under the supervision of the King of Spain, thanks to a series of papal grants and privileges. This control over the Church in the New World was known as the Royal Patronage. The Church also evolved significantly over the 300 years of colonial rule. From humble beginnings with the early missionaries, the Church became wealthy and powerful. Jurisdictions shifted as local bishops came to regulate idolatry and heresy among the native population while the Inquisition focused more on larger political and social issues. In the end, the Spanish Crown recognized that the Church was a very powerful institution and sought to control many of its activities.

Imperial Overviews

The Spanish Crown took an active role in the development of the Church in the New World. Spanish claims to the Americas were based on the Christianizing mission. The Spanish kings came to exercise the Royal Patronage over the Church: that is, the right to appoint major officials to administer the Church, including bishops and archbishops, members of cathedral chapters, and even local beneficed curates. Shiels 1961 traces the development of the patronage, while Padden 1956 and Schwaller 1986 focus on the development of the definitive royal response to the patronage. Boxer 1978 and Schwartz 2008 both study the imperial manifestations of the importance of the Church in the overseas activities of the two Iberian powers: Spain and Portugal. Rivera 1992 focuses on the loudest voice of dissent in the period: Fr. Bartolome de las Casas, who argued that if the Crown based its claims on the Christianization of the natives, then the Crown needed to be equally concerned over the treatment of the natives.

  • Boxer, Charles. The Church Militant in Iberian Expansion. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

    This book is a short overview of the relationship of the Catholic Church to the imperial powers of Spain and Portugal. The book focuses on the role of the Church in Iberian overseas expansion in the Americas, Asia, and Africa.

  • Padden, Robert C. “The Ordenanza del Patronazgo of 1574: An Interpretive Essay.” The Americas 12.3 (1956): 333–354.

    DOI: 10.2307/979082

    The Ordenanza del Patronazgo established the Crown’s role over the day-to-day life of the Church in colonial Latin America. This essay looks at the pressures which led to its promulgation.

  • Rivera, Luis N. A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest of the Americas. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992.

    Rivera focuses on the life and struggles of Fr. Bartolome de las Casas in the context of Spanish imperial policy in the New World. This study is deeply rooted in theology and shows how las Casas drew upon Aristotelian thought.

  • Schwaller, John F. “The Ordenanza del Patronazgo in New Spain, 1574–1600.” The Americas 42.3 (1986): 253–274.

    DOI: 10.2307/1006927

    The implementation of the Ordenanza created a new set of procedures for the selection of parish priests, as outlined in this essay.

  • Schwartz, Stuart. All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

    Schwartz challenges the idea that the Iberian kingdoms were religiously intolerant. By looking at the lives of ordinary people and common everyday discourse, he paints a picture of religious tolerance even in the face of the Inquisition.

  • Shiels, W. Eugene. King and Church: The Rise and Fall of the Patronato Real. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1961.

    This work analyzes the development of Spanish control over the Church in the Americas. Looking at a series of papal decrees, Shiels explains the slow acquisition of authority over appointments and legislation within the American Church by the Spanish monarchs. The book also has translations of these decrees.

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