Reformist Currents in the Spanish-American Councils of the Eighteenth Century

By Alcaide, Elisa Luque | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Reformist Currents in the Spanish-American Councils of the Eighteenth Century


Alcaide, Elisa Luque, The Catholic Historical Review


In the late eighteenth century the Catholic Church in Spanish America found itself torn between two ideological viewpoints: whether to maintain traditional forms of worship and discipline, or to accept the innovations favored by an Enlightened Crown that wished to reform observance and clerical discipline. Using a royal document known as Tomo Regio, dated July 21, 1769, Charles III addressed the metropolitans of the New World and ordered them to celebrate provincial councils to promote the changes that he, his reformist ministers, and ecclesiastical authorities in Spain deemed necessary to rejuvenate the Church. In response, five conciliar assemblies took place in Mexico (City) (1771), Manila (1771), Lima (1772), Charcas (1774-1778), and Santa Fé de Bogota (1774), all of them metropolitan capitals of Hispanic America and the Philippines.1

1. Historiographic Interpretations

The historiography of church reforms in America and the Philippines in the eighteenth century has followed two trends. The first regards the reformist center in the Iberian peninsula: the crown would be the protagonist of the conciliar movement. Manuel Giménez Fernández, for whom the eighteenth-century American provincial councils were instruments for subjecting the Church in the New World to the regalist policy of Madrid, initiated this first trend with his characteristic incisiveness.2 Jesuit historiography has followed this interpretation.3 Albert de la Hera, in a more recent interpretation, sees these Caroline provincials councils as "pilot experiments" to implant, in the Hispanic monarchy, an autonomous national church in the center of the Roman Catholic Church.4 David A. Brading situates these reforms in the peninsula, but sees them from another perspective: the reforms were carried out by peninsular sectors of the clergy in America,5 confronted with the Creole clergy; this way, the reforms constituted an alienating process.

A second historiographical trend situates the reformist center in America. Grounded in a cultural analysis, Pablo González Casanova and Bernabé Navarro (1948), Vicente Rodríguez Casado and Mario Góngora (1969), underlined the existence of an American Catholic Enlightenment.6 With regards to Church-State relations, Bernard Bobb, Asuncion Lavrin, and Nancy Farriss, in America, also emphasized the protagonism of the Americans.7 Luis Sierra and Jesús García Añoveros also rejected the vision of the American Church as a passive victim of the State in the Indies.8

In this second group we include Pablo Macera and René Millar Corbacho, who on studying the Council of Lima,9 and Alejandro Soria-Vasco the Council of Charcas,10 highlighted the open debate that took place in both assemblies. Teresa Y. Maya Sotomayor (1997), on analyzing the eighteenth-century Mexican Council,11 also views the prelates of New Spain as protagonists of the reform project.12

In summary, the eighteenth-century American ecclesiastical reforms have been interpreted, from the peninsular point of view, as instruments of the Bourbon state policy and as an alienating force, carried out by the peninsular clergy, against the aspirations of the Creoles. From the American perspective, the reforms have been seen as a process of ecclesiastical change which produced a division between a popular baroque religiosity and an austere and rationalizing piety of the elite and the upper clergy.

2. The Caroline Project for the American Church

All the authors agree that these provincial councils formed part of the enlightened reform program for Spanish America. This project considered the American territories as suppliers of resources for the Spanish monarchy to recover its position as a first-class world power. From an economic and political viewpoint, the American "kingdoms"-a political status they were granted since the sixteenth century-were treated as colonies. To put this project into practice required the collaboration of the Church in Spanish America and its identification with the interests of the State. …

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