Religious Purview of the Catholic Monarchs

To transform Spain into a truly and solely Christian territory and a faithful and militant instrument of God’s Will in the world, the Catholic Monarchs’ religious zeal and political ambitions extended to three religion-related levels of purposive endeavor: the ecclesia, the patria, and the orbis. First, the powerful Spanish Church needed to be brought under royal control by judicious reforms; second, extensive and effective methods of conversion needed to be utilized to fulfill Spain’s historic obligation to make Spain Catholic; and, third, Spain’s messianic vision of Christianizing the world needed to be encouraged and pursued.

From 1475 onward, Isabel dedicated herself to Church reform. At issue was the credibility and moral leadership of the Church. Systemic corruption in the hierarchy resulted from the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Papacy in France (1305 1378), the consequent Great Schism (1378-1417), and the periodic reigns of anti-popes until 1450. Church leaders failed to provide adequate moral guidance in the face of warfare, disease, and religious divisiveness, which prompted many Renaissance humanists to seek desired ethical inspiration from the “better” times of the classical age. At the level of the episcopate and secular clergy, Isabel first enforced ecclesiastical discipline and improved clerical education; she tightened Crown control of the Church and strengthened it at the expense of regional, episcopal, papal, and the nobility’s power.155 For example, she promoted pious priests of humble origins rather than those of noble ancestry.156

In 1480 with the authorization of Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484), Isabel established the Spanish Inquisition, which disciplinary measure against heretics and crypto-Jewish conversos (called marranos) purged Church membership and generated fratricidal conflicts, jealousy, and rivalry within the Jewish population.157 Thirty-six years later, in his 1516 Memorial de remedios, the young cleric, Padre Las Casas, would “implore” the Crown to send the Santa Inquisición to the Indies because “heretics” (morisco and marrano emigrants) had gone there and might be contaminating the new Indigenous converts. Accordingly, the first tribunal was held in 1519 in Puerto Rico. These earlier informal tribunals were replaced in 1569 by a more formal bureaucratic inquisitorial office.158

Isabel also initiated the reform of religious orders at the urging and with the guidance of Hernando de Talavera (1428-1507), her Hieronymite confessor. Although long-standing internal “schisms” were already being addressed in some religious orders—such as the Dominicans, Augustin-ians, Mercedarians, and Franciscans—Isabel’s promotion of the reform of religious orders as a specific royal policy extended to both monks and nuns, to contemplative and apostolic orders, to ordained and lay religious alike.159 She focused on raising the moral and intellectual standards of the orders and “regularizing” their lifestyles, which included the prohibition of concubinage. Some religious resisted reform: for example, certain religious women successfully defended their historic rights to their communal estates and family patrimony (and resented the male agents of reform); some four hundred Andalusian friars fled to Africa with their wives and converted to Islam.160 In 1491, with the authorization of Alexander VI (1431-1503), Isabel focused more on monastic reform, and, later, under the direction of the austere Francisco (later Cardinal) Jiménez de Cisneros, OFM (1436-1517), she reformed and reorganized the Franciscans. As part of her reform efforts, she also promoted humanist learning and new opportunities for preaching and evangelizing.161

In addition to these widespread reform measures, conversion efforts continued as, for example, in defeated Granada where the recently appointed conversa archbishop, Talavera, utilized the same method of evangelization as Las Casas would advocate—that of convincing the intellect through cogent explanation and persuading the will through good example. Because Cisneros did not consider this rational and peaceful method very successful for convincing and attracting the Muslims to Christianity, he convinced the Crown to abandon Talavera’s conversion policy and, beginning in 1499 with militant fervor, used force and bribes in Granada to conduct baptisms en masse and without adequate instruction.162 According to canonical norms shaped by centuries of compulsory conversions of the Moors and Jews, these forced or induced baptisms were considered valid as long as the proper liturgical actions and words were used. Baptism in this manner was simply a perfunctory ritual, which was also later utilized by Cisneros’s Franciscan millenarian-motivated confreres in the Indies, and had little to do with the intention of the baptized or with their understanding of the reality of the sacrament.163 In effect, in these circumstances, baptism constituted a politicized religious action in Spain that symbolized the acceptance of Castilian political hegemony and served to promote the goal of Hispania as solidly Christian.164

As storm clouds of Protestantism gathered on the horizon of Catholicism at the end of the fifteenth century, a powerful messianic atmosphere continued to permeate the Spanish Church.165 A strong sense of mission pervaded the thought world of Hispania: “God favored their cause ...”166 Continuing the tradition about messianic Spanish kings, Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636 CE), the last of the ancient Christian philosophers and the Latin Church Fathers, had supposedly predicted that at the end of time a “hidden” Spanish monarch would defeat the Muslims, conquer Jerusalem, and give the world and its kingdoms back to God. Gripped with a “messianic fervor,” Ferdinand, the court, and Spanish Christians believed that they would indeed capture Jerusalem, convert the remaining Jews, and thereby bring Christianity to the whole world during these last days of humankind.167 Drawing on ancient texts—including the extra-canonical Book of 4-Esdras—and the Church Fathers, Columbus mirrored this official messianic vision of conquering Jerusalem, as well as cherished the dream of finding a shorter westward route to the Indies.168 His desire to recover the santa casa of Jerusalem as part of his “glimmering project of planetary struggle against Islam” found partial realization in the 1492 acquisition of one of the crown jewels of Islam: the great city of Granada.169 His dream to reach Cathay by a westward route was for the purpose of converting the Great Khan, the “King of Kings” and Emperor of China, to Christianity and then securing this ruler’s support in the “planetary struggle” to defeat Islam.170 So intense was Columbus’s desire to convert the known world to Christianity that he elicited a promise from Queen Isabel that she would allocate any wealth garnered from discovered lands to the worldwide crusade against Islam.171

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