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Colonial Mexico, Church

Patronato Real, papal bulls, Spanish monarchy, Spanish Inquisition, colonial Mexico

A defining characteristic of colonial Mexico was the position and power of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic missionaries entered the country with the Spanish conquerors and immediately began working to convert Native Americans to Christianity. The church became enormously wealthy. In 1859 church holdings were nationalized.

The church played an important role in transferring Spanish culture and civilization to Mexico. Missionaries set up hospitals, monasteries, and schools in urban areas, and they established missions on the frontiers. They helped to expand and solidify Spanish control over the indigenous peoples of colonial Mexico, introducing Spanish culture and language to the Native Americans as they attempted to convert them to Christianity. The missionaries also became important intermediaries in conflicts between Native Americans, colonial settlers, and royal officials.

The Spanish Inquisition, a judicial institution established in Europe during the Middle Ages, was formally established in New Spain in 1571. The Inquisition enforced Catholic doctrine. It identified, tried, and sentenced religious heretics—people who held beliefs or opinions that disagreed with official church doctrine. The Inquisition also banned books that the church considered to be heretical.

The Spanish monarchy controlled the church through the device of the Patronato Real, or royal patronage, which gave the king the ability to select clerics and collect tithes. A tithe was a donation, equivalent to one-tenth of a person’s income, that Catholics were expected to give to the church for its support. Even papal bulls, or decrees, had to be approved by the king before they could be sent to the Americas.

Overall, the Catholic Church affected virtually every aspect of life in colonial Mexico. Social services—including education, hospital care, and assistance for the elderly, the poor, or the mentally disturbed—were offered primarily by the church rather than the colonial government or private operations. The church provided loans for some business ventures and kept records of births, deaths, and marriages. Priests taught in primary and secondary schools, as well as in universities, and they frequently counseled colonial officials on government matters.

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