Essayons Catholicism In Mexico

The history of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico dates from the period of the Spanish conquest (1519–21) and has continued as an institution in Mexico into the twenty-first century. Catholicism is one of the two major legacies from the Spanish colonial era, the other being Spanish as the nation's language. The Catholic Church was a privileged institution until the mid nineteenth century. It was the sole permissible Church in the colonial era and into the early Mexican Republic, following independence in 1821. At some point in the twentieth century, Eastern Catholic jurisdictions were established in Mexico,[citation needed] but Roman Catholicism remains the largest religious group.

In the mid-nineteenth century the liberal La Reforma brought major changes in church-state relations. The Mexican state challenged the Catholic Church's role in education in Mexico, property ownership, birth, marriage, and death records, in anticlerical laws. Many of these were incorporated into the Constitution of 1857, restricting the Church's corporate ownership of property and other limitations. President Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911) pursued a policy of conciliation with the Catholic Church, keeping the liberal anticlerical articles of the constitution in force, but in practice allowing greater freedom of action for the Catholic Church.[1] With Díaz's ouster in 1911 and the decade-long conflict of the Mexican Revolution, the victorious Constitutionalist faction led by Venustiano Carranza wrote the new Constitution of 1917 that strengthened the anticlerical measures in the liberal Constitution of 1857.

With the presidency of Northern, anticlerical, revolutionary general Plutarco Elías Calles (1924–28), the State's enforcement of the anticlerical articles of Constitution of 1917 provoked a major crisis in Mexico with violence in a number of regions of Mexico. The Cristero Rebellion (1926–29) was resolved, with the aid of diplomacy of the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, ending the violence, but the anticlerical articles of the constitution remained. President Manuel Avila Camacho (1940–1946) came to office declaring "I am a [Catholic] believer," (soy creyente) and Church-State relations improved though without constitutional changes.

A major change came in 1992, with the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988–1994). In a sweeping program of reform to "modernize Mexico" that he outlined in his 1988 inaugural address, his government pushed through revisions in the Mexican Constitution, explicitly including a new legal framework that restored the Catholic Church's juridical personality.[2][3][4][5][6] The majority of Mexicans in the twenty-first century identify themselves as being Catholic, but the growth of other religious groups such as Protestant evangelicals, Mormons, as well secularism is consistent with trends elsewhere in Latin America. The 1992 federal Act on Religious Associations and Public Worship (Ley de Asociaciones Religiosas y Culto Público), known in English as the Religious Associations Act or (RAA), has affected all religious groups in Mexico.[7]

Colonial era (1521–1821)[edit]

See also: Franciscan missions to the Maya, Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda, Yaqui people § Conquistadors and Missionaries, and Spanish missions in Mexico

Early period: The Spiritual Conquest 1519–1572[edit]

During the conquest, the Spaniards pursued a dual policy of military conquest, bringing indigenous peoples and territory under Spanish control, and spiritual conquest, that is, conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity. When Spaniards embarked on the exploration and conquest of Mexico, a Catholic priest accompanied Hernán Cortés’s expedition. Spaniards were appalled at the ritual practice of human sacrifice and initially attempted to suppress it, but until the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire was accomplished, it was not stamped out. The rulers of Cortés’s allies from the city-state of Tlaxcala converted to Christianity almost immediately and there is a depiction of Cortés, Malinche, and the lords of Tlaxcala showing this event. But it was not until the fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1521 was a full-scale conversion of the indigenous populations undertaken.

Power of the Spanish Crown in Ecclesiastical Matters[edit]

The justification of Spanish (and Portuguese) overseas conquests was to convert the existing populations to Christianity. The pope granted the Spanish monarch (and the crown of Portugal) broad concessions termed the Patronato Real or Royal Patronage, giving the monarch the power to appoint candidates for high ecclesiastical posts, collection of tithes and support of the clergy, but did not cede power in matters of doctrine or dogma.[8] This essentially made the Spanish monarch the highest power of Church and State in its overseas territories.

The First Evangelists to the Indigenous[edit]

In the early conquest era of Mexico, the formal institutions of Church and State had not been established. But to initiate the spiritual conquest even though the episcopal hierarchy (the diocesan clergy) had not yet been established, Cortés requested that the mendicant orders of Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians be sent to New Spain, to convert the indigenous. The Twelve Apostles of Mexico as they are known were the first Franciscans who arrived in 1524, followed by the Dominican order in 1526, and the Augustinian order in 1533.[9]

Mendicants did not usually function as parish priests, administering the sacraments, but mendicants in early Mexico were given special dispensation to fulfill this function. The Franciscans, the first-arriving mendicants staked out the densest and most central communities as their bases for conversion. These bases (called doctrina) saw the establishment of resident friars and the building of churches, often on the same sacred ground as pagan temples.

Given the small number of mendicants and the vast number of indigenous to convert, outlying populations of indigenous communities did not have resident priests but priests visited at intervals to perform the sacraments (mainly baptism, confession, and matrimony). In prehispanic Central Mexico there had been a long tradition of conquered city-states adding the gods of their conquerors to their existing pantheon so that conversion to Christianity seemed to be similar.

In general, Indians did not resist conversion to Christianity. Priests of the indigenous were displaced and the temples transformed into Christian churches. Mendicants targeted Indian elites as key converts, who would set the precedent for the commoners in their communities to convert. Also targets were youngsters who had not yet grown up with pagan beliefs. In Tlaxcala, some young converts were murdered and later touted as martyrs to the faith.

In Texcoco, however, one its lords, Don Carlos, was accused and convicted of sedition by the apostolic inquisition (which gives inquisitorial powers to a bishop) headed by Juan de Zumárraga in 1536 and was executed. His execution prompted the crown to reprimand Zumárraga and when the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established in Mexico in 1571, Indians were exempted from its jurisdiction. There was a concern that Indians were insufficiently indoctrinated in Catholic orthodox beliefs to be held to the same standards as Spaniards and other members of the República de Españoles. In the eyes of the Church and in Spanish law, Indians were legal minors.

The arrival of the Franciscan Twelve Apostles of Mexico initiated what came to be called The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico.[10] Many of the names and accomplishments earliest Franciscans’ names have come down to the modern era, including Toribio de Benavente Motolinia, Bernardino de Sahagún, Andrés de Olmos, Alonso de Molina, and Gerónimo de Mendieta. The first bishop of Mexico was Franciscan Juan de Zumárraga. Early Dominicans in Mexico include Bartolomé de Las Casas, who famously was an encomendero and black slave dealer in the early Caribbean before he became a Dominican friar; Diego Durán, and Alonso de Montúfar, who became the second bishop of Mexico. It was not until Pedro Moya de Contreras became archbishop of Mexico in 1572 that a diocesan cleric rather than a mendicant served as Mexico’s highest prelate.

The friars sought ways to make their task of converting millions of Indians less daunting. By using existing indigenous settlements in Central Mexico where indigenous rulers were kept in place in the post-conquest period, the mendicant orders created doctrinas, major Indian towns designated as important for the initial evangelization, while smaller settlements, visitas, were visited at intervals to teach, and preach, and administer the sacraments.

Friars built churches on the sites of temples, transforming the ancient sacred space into a place for Catholic worship. Some of these have been recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites under the general listing of Monasteries on the slopes of Popocatépetl. Churches were built in the major Indian towns, and by the late sixteenth century, local neighborhoods; barrios (Spanish) or tlaxilacalli (Nahuatl) built chapels.

The Abandoned Experiment to Train Indian Priests[edit]

The crown and the Franciscans had hopes for the training of indigenous men to become ordained Catholic priests, and with the sponsorship of Bishop Juan de Zumárraga and Don Antonio de Mendoza, the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco was established in 1536, in an indigenous section of Mexico City. Several prominent Franciscans, including Bernardino de Sahagún taught at the school, but the Franciscans concluded that although their elite Indian students were capable of high learning, their failure to maintain life habits expected of a friar resulted in the ending of their religious education toward ordination.[11]

In 1555 the Third Mexican Provincial Council banned Indians from ordination to the priesthood. The failure to create a Christian priesthood of indigenous men has been deemed a major failure of the Catholic Church in Mexico.[11] With the banning of ordination for indigenous men, the priest was always a Spaniard (and in later years one who passed as one). The highest religious official in Indian towns was the fiscal, who was a nobleman who aided the priest in the affairs of the church.[12]

The Colegio continued for a number of decades more, with some its most able students becoming participants in Sahagún’s project to compile information about the prehispanic Aztecs in order that Christian evangelization would be more effective. The twelve-volume magnum opus, The General History of the Things of New Spain, completed in the 1570s is one of the high achievements of the early colonial period, published in English as the Florentine Codex.

Mendicant-produced Texts for Evangelization[edit]

The Franciscans were especially prolific in creating materials so that they could evangelize in the indigenous language, which in Central Mexico was Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and other groups. Fray Andrés de Olmos completed a manual designed to teach the friars Nahuatl.[13] Fray Alonso de Molina compiled a bilingual dictionary in Nahuatl (Mexicana) and Spanish (Castellano) to aid the friars in teaching and preaching.[14] He also created a bilingual confessional manual, so that friars could hear confessions in Nahuatl.[15]

Bernardino de Sahagún wrote a book of psalms in Nahuatl for friars to use in their preaching; it was the only one of his many works that was published in his lifetime. When friars began to evangelize elsewhere in New Spain where there were other indigenous groups, they created similar materials in languages as diverse as Zapotec, Maya, and Chinantec. Increasingly the crown became hostile to the production of materials in indigenous languages, so that Sahagún’s multivolume General History was not a model for such works elsewhere in Mexico.

One of the major challenges for friars in creating such materials was to find words and phrasing that evoked the sacred without confusing the indigenous about Christianity and their old beliefs. For that reason, a whole series of words from Spanish and a few from Latin were incorporated as loanwords into Nahuatl to denote God (Dios) rather than god (teotl) and others to denote new concepts, such as a last will and testament (testamento), soul (ánima). Some Christian dichotomous concepts, such as good and evil, were not easy to convey to Nahuas, since their belief system sought a middle ground without extremes.[16]

Fray Alonso de Molina’s 1569 confessional manual had a model testament in Spanish and Nahuatl. Whether or not it was the direct model for Nahua scribes or notaries in indigenous towns, the making of testaments that were simultaneously a religious document as well as a one designed to pass property to selected heirs became standard in Nahua towns during the second half of the sixteenth century and carried on as a documentary type until Mexican independence in 1821. Early testaments in Nahuatl have been invaluable for the information they provide about Nahua men and women’s property holding, but the religious formulas at the beginning of wills were largely that and did not represent individual statements of belief. However, testators did order property to be sold for Masses for their souls or gave money directly to the local friar, which may well have been encouraged by the recipients but can also be the testators’ gesture of piety.[17][18]


The friars founded 120 hospitals in the first hundred years of the colonial era, some serving only Spaniards but others exclusively for the indigenous. These hospitals for Indians were especially important since epidemics sickened and killed countless Indians after the conquest.[19][20][21]Hernán Cortés endowed the Hospital of the Immaculate Conception, more commonly known as the Hospital de Jesús, in Mexico City, which was run by religious. Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, founded hospitals in Michoacan. The crown established the Royal Indian Hospital of Mexico City (Hospital Real de Indios or Hospital Real de Naturales) in Mexico city in 1553, which functioned until 1822 when Mexico gained its independence.[22]

Although the Royal Indian Hospital was a crown institution and not an ecclesiastical one, the nursing staff of the hospital during the eighteenth century was the brothers of the religious order of San Hipólito. The order was founded in Mexico by Bernardino de Alvarez (1514–1584), and it established a number of hospitals. The religious order was to be removed from its role at the Royal Indian Hospital by a royal decree (cédula), after an investigation into allegations of irregularities, and the brothers were to return to their convent.[23]

Hospitals were not just places to treat the sick and dying, but were spiritual institutions as well. At the Royal Indian Hospital, the ordinances governing called for four chaplains, appointed by the crown and not the church, to minister to the sick and dying. All four had to be proficient in either Nahuatl or Otomi, with two to serve in each language.[24] Although many secular clerics without a benefice held multiple posts in order to make a living, the chaplains at the Royal Indian Hospital were forbidden to serve elsewhere.[24]


Organizations that were more in the hands of the indigenous were confraternities (cofradías) founded in the Nahua area starting in the late sixteenth century and were established elsewhere in indigenous communities. Confraternities functioned as burial societies for their members, celebrated their patron saint, and other religious activities, nominally under the supervision of a priest, but like their European counterparts there was considerable power in the hands of the lay leadership. Confraternities usually had religious banners, many of their officials wore special ritual attire, and confraternities participated in larger religious festivities as an identifiable group.[25] For Indians and Blacks, these religious organizations promoted both their spiritual life and their sense of community, since their membership was exclusively of those groups and excluded Spaniards. - a contradictory statement: "Limpieza (pure Spanish blood)status also gradually necessary for certain religious orders, confraternities, convents, and guilds, among other establishments.reference: [26][27][28]

In one Nahua sodality in Tula, women not only participated but held publicly religious office. When the confraternity was given official recognition in 1631, they are noted in the confraternaty's records in Nahuatl, "four mothers of people in holy matters [who are] to take good care of the holy cofradía so it will be much respected, and they are to urge those who have not yet joined the cofradía to enter, and they are to take care of the brothers [and sisters] who are sick, and the orphans; they are to see to what is needed for their souls and what pertains to their earthly bodies."[29]

In the Maya area, confraternities had considerable economic power since they held land in the name of their patron saint and the crops went to the support of the saint’s cult.. The cah’s (indigenous community) retention of considerable land via the confraternities was a way the Maya communities avoided colonial officials, the clergy, or even indigenous rulers (gobernadores) from diverting of community revenues in their cajas de comunidad (literally community-owned chests that had locks and keys). "[I]n Yucatan the cofradía in its modified form was the community."[30]

Spanish Habsburg Era (1550–1700)[edit]

Establishment of the Episcopal Hierarchy and the Assertion of Crown Control[edit]

The Catholic Church is organized by territorial districts or dioceses, each with a bishop. The main church of a diocese is the bishop's see, a cathedral. The diocese of Mexico was established in Mexico City in 1530. Initially, Mexico was not an episcopal jurisdiction in its own right; until 1547 it was under the authority of the Archbishop of Seville (Spain).

The first bishop of Mexico was Franciscan friar Don Juan de Zumárraga. The church that became the first cathedral was begun in 1524 on the main square Zócalo and consecrated in 1532. In general, a member of a mendicant order was not appointed to a high position in the episcopal hierarchy, so Zumárraga and his successor Dominican Alonso de Montúfar (r. 1551–1572) as bishops of Mexico, should be seen as atypical figures. In 1572 Pedro Moya de Contreras became the first bishop of Mexico who was a secular cleric.[31]

Bishops as Interim Viceroys[edit]

The crown established the viceroyalty of New Spain, appointing high-born Spaniards loyal to the crown as the top civil official. On occasion in all three centuries of Spanish rule, the crown appointed archbishops or bishops as viceroy of New Spain, usually on an interim basis, until a new viceroy was sent from Spain. Pedro Moya de Contreras was the first secular cleric to be appointed archbishop of Mexico and he was also the first cleric to serve as viceroy, September 25, 1584 – October 17, 1585.

The seventeenth century saw the largest number of clerics as viceroys. The Dominican García Guerra served from June 19, 1611 – February 22, 1612. Blessed Don Juan de Palafox y Mendoza also served briefly as viceroy, June 10, 1642 – November 23, 1642. Marcos de Torres y Rueda, bishop of Yucatán, served from May 15, 1648 – April 22, 1649. Diego Osorio de Escobar y Llamas, bishop of Puebla, served from June 29, 1664 – October 15, 1664. Archbishop of Mexico, Payo Enríquez de Rivera Manrique, O.S.A., served an unusually long term as viceroy, from December 13, 1673 to November 7, 1680. Another unusual cleric-viceroy was Juan Ortega y Montañés, archbishop of Mexico served twice as interim viceroy, February 27, 1696 to December 18, 1696 and again from November 4, 1701 to November 27, 1702.

Once the Spanish Bourbon monarchy was established, just three clerics served as viceroy. Archbishop of Mexico Juan Antonio de Vizarrón y Eguiarreta, served six years as viceroy, March 17, 1734 to August 17, 1740. The last two cleric-viceroys followed the more usual pattern of being interim. Alonso Núñez de Haro y Peralta, archbishop of Mexico, served from May 8, 1787 – August 16, 1787 and Francisco Javier de Lizana y Beaumont, archbishop of Mexico, served from July 19, 18-9 – May 8, 1810.

Structure of the Episcopal Hierarchy[edit]

The ecclesiastical structure was ruled by a bishop, who had considerable power encompassing legislative, executive, and judicial matters. A bishop ruled over a geographical district, a diocese, subdivided into parishes, each with a parish priest. The seat of the diocese was its cathedral, which had its own administration, the cabildo eclesiástico whose senior official was the dean of the cathedral.

New Spain became the seat of an archbishopric in 1530, with the archbishop overseeing multiple dioceses. The diocese of Michoacan (now Morelía) became an archdiocese in the sixteenth century as well. The creation of further dioceses in Mexico is marked by the construction of cathedrals in the main cities: the cathedral in Antequera (now Oaxaca City) (1535), the Guadalajara Cathedral (1541), the Puebla Cathedral 1557, the Zacatecas Cathedral (1568), the Mérida Cathedral (1598), and the Saltillo Cathedral (1762).

Ecclesiastical Privileges[edit]

The ordained clergy (but not nuns) had ecclesiastical privileges (fueros), which meant that they were exempt from civil courts, no matter what the offense, but were tried in canonical courts. This separation of jurisdictions for different groups meant that the Church had considerable independent power. In the late eighteenth century, one of the Bourbon Reforms was the removal of this fuero, making the clergy subject to civil courts.[32]

Secular or Diocesan Clergy's Income[edit]

Members of the upper levels of the hierarchy, parish priests, and priests who functioned in religious institutions such as hospitals, received a salaried income, a benefice. However, not all ordained priests had a secure income from such benefices and had to find a way to make a living. Since secular priests did not take a vow of poverty, they often pursued economic functions like any other member of Hispanic society. An example of a secular cleric piecing together an income from multiple post is Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, one of New Spain's most distinguished intellectuals, who had no benefice.

Reduction of Mendicants' Role[edit]

In the sixteenth century, the establishment of the episcopal hierarchy was part of a larger Crown policy that in the early period increasingly aimed at diminishing the role of the mendicant orders as parish priests in central areas of the colony and strengthening the role of the diocesan (secular) clergy. The Ordenanza del Patronazgo was the key act of the crown asserting control over the clergy, both mendicant and secular. It was promulgated by the crown in 1574, codifying this policy, which simultaneously strengthened the crown’s role, since it had the power of royal patronage over the diocesan clergy, the Patronato Real, but not the mendicant orders.[33]

The Ordenanza guaranteed parish priests an income and a permanent position.[34] Priests competed for desirable parishes through a system of competitive examinations called oposiones, with the aim of having the most qualified candidates receiving benefices. With these competitions, the winners became holders of benefices (beneficiados) and priests who did not come out on top were curates who served on an interim basis by appointment by the bishop and those who failed entirely, who did not even hold a temporary assignment.[35] The importance of the Ordenanza is in the ascendancy of the diocesan clergy over the mendicants, but also indicates the growth in the Spanish population in New Spain and the necessity not only to minister to it, but also to provide ecclesiastical posts for the best American-born Spaniards (creoles).

Pious Endowments[edit]

One type of institution that produced income for priests without a parish or other benefice was to say Masses for the souls of men and women who had set up chantries (capellanías). Wealthy members of society would set aside funds, often by a lien on real property, to ensure Masses would be said for their souls in perpetuity. Families with an ordained priest as a member often designated him as the capellán, thus ensuring the economic well-being of one of its own. Although the endowment was for a religious purpose, the Church itself did not control the funds. It was a way that pious elite families could direct their wealth.[36]


The crown had significant power in the economic realm regarding the Church, since it was granted the use of tithes (a ten percent tax of agriculture) and the responsibility of collecting them. In general the crown gave these revenues for the support of the Church, and where revenues fell short, the crown supplemented them from the royal treasury.[37]

Society of Jesus in Mexico, 1572–1767[edit]

At the same time that the episcopal hierarchy was established, the Society of Jesus or Jesuits, a new religious order founded on new principles, came to Mexico in 1572. The Jesuits distinguished themselves in several ways. They had high standards for acceptance to the order and many years of training. They were adept at attracting the patronage of elite families whose sons they educated in rigorous newly founded Jesuit colegios ("colleges"), including Colegio de San Pedro y San Pablo, Colegio de San Ildefonso, and the Colegio de San Francisco Javier, Tepozotlan. Those same elite families hoped that a son with a vocation to the priesthood would be accepted as a Jesuit. Jesuits were also zealous in evangelization of the indigenous, particularly on the northern frontiers.

Jesuit Haciendas[edit]

To support their colegios and members of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits acquired landed estates that were run with the best-practices for generating income in that era. A number of these haciendas were donated by wealthy elites. The donation of an hacienda to the Jesuits was the spark igniting a conflict between seventeenth-century bishop of Puebla Don Juan de Palafox to the Jesuit colegio in that city. Since the Jesuits resisted paying the tithe on their estates, this donation effectively took revenue out of the church hierarchy's pockets by removing it from the tithe rolls.[38]

Many of Jesuit haciendas were huge, with Palafox asserting that just two colleges owned 300,000 head of sheep, whose wool was transformed locally in Puebla to cloth; six sugar plantations worth a million pesos and generating an income of 100,000 pesos.[39] The immense Jesuit hacienda of Santa Lucía produced pulque, the fermented juice of the agave cactus whose main consumers were the lower classes and Indians in Spanish cities. Although most haciendas had a free work force of permanent or seasonal laborers, the Jesuit haciendas in Mexico had a significant number of black slaves.[40]

The Jesuits operated their properties as an integrated unit with the larger Jesuit order, thus revenues from haciendas funded colegios. Jesuits did significantly expand missions to the indigenous in the frontier area and a number were martyred, but the crown supported those missions.[39] Mendicant orders that had real estate were less economically integrated, so that some individual houses were wealthy while others struggled economically. The Franciscans, who were founded as an order embracing poverty, did not accumulate real estate, unlike the Augustinians and Dominicans in Mexico.

Jesuit Resistance to the Tithe[edit]

The Jesuits engaged in conflict with the episcopal hierarchy over the question of payment of tithes, the ten percent tax on agriculture levied on landed estates for support of the Church hierarchy, from bishops and cathedral chapters to parish priests. Since the Jesuits were the largest religious order holding real estate, surpassing the Dominicans and Augustinians who had accumulated significant property, this was no small matter.[41] They argued that they were exempt, due to special pontifical privileges.[42] In the mid-seventeenth century, bishop of Puebla, Don Juan de Palafox took on the Jesuits over this matter and was so soundly defeated that he was recalled to Spain, where he became the bishop of the minor diocese of Osma. The mendicant orders were envious of the Jesuits’ economic power and influence and the fact that fewer good candidates for their orders chose them as opposed to the Jesuits.

Expulsion of the Jesuits 1767[edit]

See also: Suppression of the Jesuits

In 1767, the Spanish crown ordered the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain and its overseas territories. Their properties passed into the hands of elites who had the wherewithal to buy them. The mendicants did not protest their expulsion. The Jesuits had established missions in Baja California prior to their expulsion. These were taken over by the Franciscans, who then went on to establish 21 missions in Alta California.[43]


Establishments for Elite Creole Women[edit]

In the first generation of Spaniards in New Spain, women emigrated to join existing kin, generally marrying. With few marital partners of equal calidad for Spanish men, there was pressure for Spanish women to marry rather than take the veil as a nun. However, as more Spanish families were created and there were larger number of daughters, the social economy could accommodate the creation of nunneries for women. The first convent in New Spain was founded in 1540 in Mexico City by the Conceptionist Order.[44] Mexico City had the largest number of nunneries with 22. Puebla, New Spain's second largest city, had 11, with its first in 1568; Guadalajara had 6, starting in 1578; Antequera (Oaxaca), had 5, starting in 1576. In all, there were 56 convents for creole women in New Spain, with the greatest number in the largest cities. However, even a few relatively small provincial cities had convents, including Pátzcuaro (1744), San Miguel el Grande (1754), Aguascalientes (1705-07), Mérida (Yucatán) 1596, and San Cristóbal (Chiapas) 1595. The last nunnery before independence in 1821 was in Mexico City in 1811, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.[45] Over the colonial period, there were 56 nunneries established in New Spain, the largest number being the Conceptionists with 15, followed by Franciscans at 14, Dominicans with 9, and Carmelites with 7. Sor Juana’s Jeronymite order had only 3 houses.[46][47] The largest concentration of convents was in the capital, Mexico City, with 11 built between 1540 and 1630, and, by 1780 another 10 for a total of 21.[48]

These institutions were designed for the daughters of elites, with individual living quarters not only for the nuns, but also their servants. Depending on the particular religious order, the discipline was more or less strict. The Carmelites were strictly observant, which prompted Doña Juana Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana to withdraw from their community and join the Jeronymite nunnery in Mexico City, becoming Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, known in her lifetime as the "Tenth Muse".

Nuns were enclosed in their convents, but some orders regularly permitted visits from the nuns’ family members (and in Sor Juana’s case, the viceroy and his wife the virreina), as well as her friend, the priest and savant Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora. Nuns were required to provide a significant dowry to the nunnery on their entrance. As "brides of Christ", nuns often entered the nunnery with an elaborate ceremony that was an occasion for the family to display not only its piety but also its wealth.

Nunneries accumulated wealth due to the dowries donated for the care of nuns when they entered. Many nunneries also acquired urban real estate, whose rents were a steady source of income to that particular house.

For Indian Noblewomen[edit]

In the eighteenth century, the Poor Clares was established a convent for noble Indian women. The debate leading up to the creation of the convent of Corpus Christi in 1724 was another round of debate about the capacity of Indians, male or female, for religious life. The early sixteenth century had seen the demise of the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, which had been founded to train Indian men for ordination.

Holy Office of the Inquisition[edit]

Main article: Mexican Inquisition

At the same time that the episcopal hierarchy in Mexico first had a secular cleric as archbishop, the tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established in 1569 to maintain orthodoxy and Christian morality. In 1570, Indians were removed from the Inquisition’s jurisdiction.


Non-Catholics were banned from emigrating to Spain’s overseas territories, with potential migrants needing to receive a license to travel that stated they were of pure Catholic heritage. However, a number of crypto-Jews, that is, Jews who supposedly converted to Christianity (conversos) but continued practicing Judaism did emigrate. Many were merchants of Portuguese background, who could more easily move within the Spanish realms during the period 1580–1640 when Spain and Portugal had the same monarch.

The Portuguese empire included territories in West Africa and was the source of African slaves sold in Spanish territories. Quite a number of Portuguese merchants in Mexico were involved in the transatlantic slave trade. When Portugal successfully revolted against Spanish rule in 1640, the Inquisition in Mexico began to closely scrutinize the merchant community in which many Portuguese merchants were crypto-Jews. In 1649, crypto-Jews both living and dead were "relaxed to the secular arm" of crown justice for punishment. The Inquisition had no power to execute the convicted, so civil justice carried out capital punishment in a grand public ceremony affirming the power of Christianity and the State.

The Gran Auto de Fe of 1649 saw Crypto-Jews burned alive, while the effigies or statues along with the bones of others were burned. Although the trial and punishment of those already dead might seem bizarre to those in the modern era, the disinterment of the remains of crypto-Jews from Christian sacred ground and then burning their remains protected living and dead Christians from the pollution of those who rejected Christ. A spectacular case of sedition was prosecuted a decade later in 1659, the case of Irishman William Lamport, also known as Don Guillén de Lampart y Guzmán, who was executed in an auto de fe.

Other jurisdictional transgressions[edit]

In general though the Inquisition imposed penalties that were far less stringent than capital punishment. They prosecuted cases of bigamy, blasphemy, Lutheranism (Protestantism), witchcraft, and in the eighteenth century, sedition against the crown was added to the Inquisition’s jurisdiction. Historians have in recent decades utilized Inquisition records to find information on a broad range of those in the Hispanic sector and discern social and cultural patterns and colonial ideas of deviance.

Indigenous beliefs[edit]

Indigenous men and women were excluded from the jurisdiction of the Inquisition when it was established, but there were on-going concerns about indigenous beliefs and practice. In 1629, Hernando Riz de Alarcón wrote the Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions that today live among the Indians native to this New Spain. 1629.[49] Little is known about Ruiz de Alarcón himself,[50] but his work is an important contribution to early Mexico for understanding Nahua religion, beliefs, and medicine. He collected information about Nahuas in what is now modern Guerrero. He came to the attention of the Inquisition for conducting autos-de-fe and punishing Indians without authorirty. The Holy Office exonerated him due to his ignorance and then appointed him to a position to inform the Holy Office of pagan practices, resulting in the Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions.[51]

Devotions to Holy Men and Women[edit]

Virgin of Guadalupe and other Devotions to Mary[edit]

Main article: Our Lady of Guadalupe

In 1531, a Nahua, Juan Diego, is said to have experienced a vision of a young girl on the site of a destroyed temple to a mother goddess.[52] The cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe was promoted by Dominican archbishop of Mexico, Alonso de Montúfar, while Franciscans such as Bernardino de Sahagún were deeply suspicious because of the possibility of confusion and idolatry.

The vision became embodied in a physical object, the cloak or tilma on which the image of the Virgin appeared. This ultimately became known as the Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe grew in importance in the seventeenth century, becoming especially associated with American-born Spaniards. In the era of independence, she was an important symbol of liberation for the insurgents.

Although the Virgin of Guadalupe is the most important Marian devotion in Mexico, she is by no means the only one. In Tlaxcala, the Virgin of Ocotlan is important; in Jalisco Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos and the Basilica of Our Lady of Zapopan are important pilgrimage sites; in Oaxaca, the Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude is important. In the colonial period and particularly during the struggle for independence in the early nineteenth century, the Virgin of Los Remedios was the symbolic leader of the royalists defending Spanish rule in New Spain.

Devotions to Christ and Pilgrimage Sites[edit]

In colonial New Spain, there were several devotions to Christ with images of Christ focusing worship. A number of them were images are of a Black Christ. The Cristos Negros of Central America and Mexico included the Cristo Negro de Esquipulas; the Cristo Negro of Otatitlan, Veracruz; the Cristo Negro of San Pablo Anciano, Acatitlán de Osorio, Puebla; the Lord of Chalma, in Chalma, Malinalco. In Totolapan, Morelos, the Christ crucified image that appeared in 1543 has been the subject of a full-scale scholarly monograph.[53]

Mexican Saints[edit]

New Spain had residents who lived holy lives and were recognized in their own communities. Late sixteenth-century Franciscan Felipe de Jesús, who was born in Mexico, became its first saint, a martyr in Japan; he was beatified in 1627, a step in the process of sainthood, but canonized a saint in 1862, during a period of conflict between Church and the liberal State in Mexico. One of the martyrs of the Japanese state’s crackdown on Christians, San Felipe was crucified.[54]

Sebastian de Aparicio, another sixteenth-century holy person, was a lay Franciscan, an immigrant from Spain, who became a Franciscan late in life. He built a reputation for holiness in Puebla, colonial Mexico’s second largest city and was beatified (named Blessed) in 1789.[55] Puebla was also the home of another immigrant, Catarina de San Juan, one who did not come to New Spain of her own volition, but as an Asian (China) slave.[56]

Known as the "China Poblana" (Asian woman of Puebla), Catarina lived an exemplary life and was regarded in her lifetime as a holy woman, but the campaign for her recognition by the Vatican stalled in the seventeenth century, despite clerics’ writing her spiritual autobiography. Her status as an outsider and non-white might have affected her cause for designation as holy.[56] Madre María de Ágreda (1602–1665), named Venerable in 1675, was a Spanish nun, who while cloistered in Spain, is said to have experienced bilocation between 1620 and 1623 and is believed to have helped evangelize the Jumano Indians of west Texas and New Mexico.

In the twentieth century, the Vatican beatified in 1988 eighteenth-century Franciscan Junípero Serra (1713–84) and canonized him in 2015. He founded most of the Franciscan Missions of California. Seventeenth-century bishop of Puebla and Osma (Spain), Don Juan de Palafox y Mendoza was beatified in 2011 by Benedict XVI. The Niños Mártires de Tlaxcala (child martyrs of Tlaxcala), who died during the initial "spiritual conquest" of the 1520s, were the first lay Catholics from the Americas beatified, done in 1990 by John Paul II.[57]

Juan Diego, the Nahua who is credited with the vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe was beatified in 1990 and canonized in 2002 by John Paul II in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.[58]

The Church has also canonized a number of twentieth-century Saints of the Cristero War; Father Miguel Pro was beatified in 1988 by John Paul II.[59]

Spanish Bourbon Era 1700–1821[edit]

With the death of Charles II of Spain in 1700 without heir, the crown of Spain was contested by European powers in the War of the Spanish Succession. The candidate from French House of Bourbon royal line became Philip V of Spain, coming to power in 1714. Initially in terms of ecclesiastical matters there were no major changes, but the Bourbon monarchs in both France and Spain began making major changes existing political, ecclesiastical, and economic arrangements, collectively known as the Bourbon Reforms. In Church – State Bourbon policy shifted toward an increase in State power and a decrease in ecclesiastical.[60]

The Patronato Real ceding the crown power in the ecclesiastical sphere continued in force, but the centralizing tendencies of the Bourbon state meant that policies were implemented that directly affected clerics. Most prominent of these was the attack on the special privileges of the clergy, the fuero eclesiástico, which exempted churchmen from prosecution in civil courts.[32]

Bourbon policy also began to systematically exclude American-born Spaniards from high ecclesiastical and civil office while privileging peninsular Spaniards. The Bourbon crown diminished the power and influence of parish priests, secularized missions founded by the mendicant orders (meaning that the secular of diocesan clergy rather than the orders were in charge). An even more sweeping change was the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain and Spain’s overseas territories in 1767. The crown expanded the jurisdiction of the Inquisition to include sedition against the crown.

The crown also expanded its reach into ecclesiastical matters by bringing in new laws that empowered families to veto the marriage choices of their offspring. This disproportionately affected elite families, giving them the ability to prevent marriages to those they deemed social or racial unequals. Previously, the regulation of marriage was in the hands of the Church, which consistently supported a couple’s decision to marry even when the family objected. With generations of racial mixing in Mexico in a process termed mestizaje, elite families had anxiety about interlopers who were of inferior racial status.

Changes in the Church as an Economic Institution[edit]

In the economic sphere, the Church had acquired a significant amount of property, particularly in Central Mexico and the Jesuits ran efficient and profitable haciendas, such as that of Santa Lucía. More important, however, was the Church’s taking the role of the major lender for mortgages. Until the nineteenth century in Mexico, there were no banks in the modern sense, so that those needing credit to finance real estate acquisitions turned to the Church as a banker.

Pope Alexander VI, who granted the Spanish crown extensive powers.
The Church of Santiago Tlatelolco, Mexico City.
Friar Bernardino de Sahagún
Archbishop Juan Antonio de Vizarrón, Viceroy of New Spain, served an unusually long term as interim viceroy 1734–1740.
The plaque says "In front of this place was the quemadero (burning place) of the Inquisition. 1596–1771". The Inquisition tried those accused, but did not itself have the power to execute the convicted. They were turned over ("relaxed") to secular authorities for capital punishment.

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.

President Plutarco Elías Calles, in the 1920s and 1930s, was especially ruthless in his persecution of the Church. The traditional anticlericalism of the Mexican Liberal Party had been reinforced by the Church’s support for previous dictatorships. Still more crucial, the post-revolutionary regime viewed the Church as a permanent obstacle to consolidation of its power and modernization of the country.

The 1917 Constitution had nationalized churches, established that only Mexican nationals could be priests, banned religious processions and forbade clergy from appearing in public in cassocks, from voting or discussing politics, from owning property and from involvement in education. But it was only under Calles that these articles were strictly enforced.

When the government required additionally that all native-born priests be licensed in 1926, the Catholic hierarchy ordered a boycott of churches by the clergy. In the western states of Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Colima and Zacatecas, fanaticized peasants led by conservative priests then launched a guerrilla war to the cry of "Viva Cristo Rey!"—“Long live Christ the King!”—which gained them the name Cristeros. And in the name of Christ, they carried out murder, arson and sabotage.

The government promptly responded in kind, unleashing a fierce wave of persecution throughout the provinces. Cristeros were massacred and priests hanged, while in other regions masses were held in secret.

In the southeastern state of Tabasco, Governor Tomás Garrido Canabal organized bands of “red shirts” to attack priests and destroy churches. In Mexico City, it became fashionable to loot churches of their Colonial art. Even after 1929, when the dispute was formally settled and churches reopened, religious fanaticism and confrontations persisted. In 1932, the archbishop of Morelia was deported amid official warnings that renewed agitation would lead “churches to be turned into schools and workshops for the benefit of the proletariat.”

In 1935, there were still bloody clashes in Mexico City between Catholics and “red shirts.” In the late 1930s, a new ultraconservative religious movement called Sinarquismo emerged among the peasants of the Bajío region. But the traditional power of the Catholic hierarchy had been broken. The removal of the Church from politics consolidated the revolutionary leadership and centralized bureaucracy that had come to power a decade earlier.

Excerpted from Distant Neighborsby Alan Riding. Copyright © 1984, 1989, 2000 by Alan Riding. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf/Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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