The Colonial Church
A traveler in colonial Mexico approaching the outskirts of a town first saw in the distance a bell tower rising over all other structures. Before long he would hear the tolling of bells resounding over town and countryside. In the streets priests, friars, and nuns mingled prominently in the crowds. If the physical presence of the church was everywhere, in other ways, too, it was the most pervasive of colonial institutions, and none left its imprint more deeply on the culture.
Because of its expulsion of the Muslims in Spain and its discovery of the New World, the Spanish crown was granted extraordinary privileges by the papacy. In effect, through the royal patronage (patronato real) Spanish kings were heads of the Roman Catholic Church in their domains. While this conferred great power and prestige, it also imposed many responsibilities. And, significantly, it meant that the church became an arm of the state.
Church organization consisted of two distinct branches—the secular clergy and the regular clergy. The secular group was composed of priests who served under their bishops. The regulars were missionaries under the separate authority of the superiors of their various orders—the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and others. The Spanish conquest undoubtedly was fueled by a desire for status and wealth, but it was also legally justified by its Christian mission—the saving of souls. And the Spanish conquerors were devout in their religious observances, confessing their sins and praying frequently, especially in times of danger. Cortés demonstrated his pious fervor in his adamant insistence, even in threatening circumstances, that Indians cast down their idols, forbear human sacrifices, and abandon their old gods. His zeal more than once jeopardized the safety of the Spaniards, and he had to be restrained by his own priests.