Should Catholics only Apologize for Colonialism?
Updated: Jun 22, 2022
By Luke Lancaster
After Christopher Columbus’s revolutionary journey to the Americas, Catholic Spain colonized large swaths of Native American land in the 1500’s AD. This occurred in very un-Christian ways sadly, and many today are rightly disgusted by it. It is a major wart in the history of the Christian peoples. Catholics should just apologize for only treating the Natives with aggression, right? Not so. It would only be half of the story if it stopped there. For a minority of priests boldly spoke out against the evils perpetrated against the Natives. Not only that, but some Catholics treated the Natives pretty well. For example, the French Catholics in Canada were as a whole nothing like the Spanish. They formed good relationships with the Natives. So, history is more of a mixed bag, rather than just 100% evil or 100% good. Catholics should certainly apologize for the Spanish abuses, but should also remember those who boldly condemned it, and the other Catholic nations who did not abuse the Natives.
The first cleric to consider against the evils of Spanish colonialism is Fr. Francisco di Vitoria (1486-1546 AD). He was a Dominican Master of Theology and professor at the influential University of Salamanca (Spain). He defended the rights of the Natives and argued against those who supported the colonists. One of the multiple arguments he refuted was that “sinners, or at least those who are in a state of mortal sin, cannot exercise dominion over anything” (On the American Indians, 1.2). For the colonists, the Native Americans practiced cannibalism and human sacrifice, so they did not possess true authority over their lands. This implied that they deserved to be overtaken and enslaved. Fr. Vitoria refuted them with multiple arguments in the scholastic structure, one of which said that “[I]t is a fact that bad priests consecrate the eucharist, and bad bishops consecrate priests” (On the American Indians, 1.2 ad 6). His point was that, since bad priests and bishops do not lose their authority, then neither should the Natives. This was bold.
The second cleric to consider against the evils of Spanish colonialism is Fr. Bartolome de Las Casas (1484-1566 AD). He was a Dominican priest who physically lived with the Natives in the Americas. He did not keep up the status quo, but rather condemned the evils which the Spaniards committed. Later in his life he engaged in debates about the ethical nature of what Spain was doing. He boldly defended the Natives and wanted to end their enslavement. Fr. Las Casas even wrote about their mistreatment to get the royal crown of Spain to intervene. His writings which I have read include his “Apologetic History” and “30 Very Juridical Propositions.” In the latter document, Fr. Las Casas compared the Spaniards to devils and hungry wolves (proposition 28) and said that the conquests were tyrannical and unjust (proposition 30).
The third cleric to consider against the evils of Spanish colonialism is Archbishop Juan de Zumarraga (1468-1548 AD). He was the Franciscan archbishop of Mexico and condemned the abuses done against the Natives. He excommunicated the political authorities, Matienzo and Delgadillo, who harmed the Natives in Mexico. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists some of his accomplishments: “[T]he school for Indian girls; [t]he famous Colegio Tlaltelolco; the introduction of the first printing press into the New World; the foundation of various hospitals, especially those of Mexico and Vera Cruz; the impetus he gave to industries, agriculture, and manufactures, for which he brought trained mechanics and labourers [sic] from Spain; and the printing of many books.” Archbishop Zumarraga was called “Protector of the Indians.”
French Catholics covered a massive amount of North American land between 1610-1760 AD, yet they had peaceful relationships with the Natives. They set up French trading posts, military settlements, and Catholic missions without waging wars and enslaving the Natives. If the French engaged in war, it was against other Frenchmen or the English. The Natives liked the French enough that the Natives lived in the French missions and acted as warriors in defense of them. The French were considered to be solid trading partners that even offered solid protection against the dangers of America. Spanish colonialism may be most memorable, but this ignores the goodness of the French.
The Spanish colonizing of places like Mexico should not cloud one's opinion of Catholicism. For there were priests who fearlessly fought for the protection of the Natives. As with every evil that occurs with the Church, God brings reforming saints to renew. The evils within Spanish colonialism sadly included a large amount of cooperation by clerics, but it was not 100%. There was still light in this period of darkness. Not only that, but French Catholics in modern-day Canada and parts of the USA were not producing the evils that the Spanish perpetrated. The French missions indicate that Catholics also lived in harmony with the Natives. So, as seen, Catholic history is more complicated and nuanced. Some Catholics had positive relationships with the Natives and some Catholics had negative ones.