Colombia Table of Contents
Inquisitor's desk and rack, Cartagena
Courtesy Lloyd W. Mansfield
The Roman Catholic Church served as both agent and opponent of the colonial government. The church desired a system, supported by the state, within which it might proselytize; at the same time, it opposed many of the secular aims of government that appeared to be in conflict with Christian morality. The church acted to restrain secular excesses and despotism, particularly those of the early conquistadors.
From the outset, the clergy became a vital element of colonial life. Missionaries and conquistadors arrived simultaneously in the New World during the late 1400s. From 1520 to 1550, the church began methodical evangelization among the Indians. The Franciscans, Dominicans, Capuchins (members of the Order of Mercy), and later the Jesuits and Augustinians were all important in the country's colonial history. The first two orders arrived in Bogotá with the first judges: the Franciscans established monasteries in Vélez and Cartagena, and the Dominicans established them in Bogotá, Pamplona, and Popayán. In 1534 the church established the dioceses of Santa Marta and Cartagena, and in 1546 it established the diocese of Popayán--the first such dioceses in the New World. The church organized further between 1550 and 1620, creating the diocese of Bogotá in 1562. The Tribunal of the Inquisition, installed in Cartagena in 1611, sought to ensure that African culture did not contaminate Spanish culture in the colonies as a result of the importation of African slaves. The Jesuits, who formally were allowed to enter the colonies in 1604, sought to improve the economic standing of the Indians with whom they worked and established self-sufficient villages for Indians in the eastern plains.
In addition to bringing the Christian religion to the Indians, the church spread the ideas and institutions of Western civilization and had responsibility for establishing and maintaining almost all of the schools of the colonial period. In 1580 a monastery founded the University of General Studies, the first in the territory. The Jesuits established two additional universities in 1622 and 1653.
In its role as the patron of education, the church made an unintended but significant contribution to developing a local spirit of independence among the colonists. Church and state attempted to control the intellectual life of the New World. Throughout the eighteenth century, the church engaged in controversy with the country's leading intellectuals, who were influenced by the political ideas of the Enlightenment in Europe and by the concepts of positivism and empirical scientific investigation. The education system also fostered opposition to Spain's sovereignty over its American empire and provided the groundwork for the intellectuals whose activities the church opposed.
Although the Roman Catholic Church influenced educational and intellectual development in the colonies, the crown ensured its own influence over the colonial church. Several papal bulls in the 1490s and in the first decade of the 1500s strengthened the ability of the Spanish kings to influence church affairs in the New World. In addition, the Holy See granted to the Spanish state the papal rights governing the administration and the personnel of the church and of bishoprics being created in the New World. In addition to common economic interests, this closely bound the church to the state during the colonial period.
Data as of December 1988