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The Church in New Spain (CEC)

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Spain had a special relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. The Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula and Spain’s constant opposition to Muslim expansion earned it independent authority over church matters within its territory. When Spain expanded into the New World, this arrangement followed and the church, in essence, became a branch of government.

The Church in New Spain became wealthy over time. Often the only source of capital in the New World, clergy became bankers and church officials often managed mortgages on the properties of their parishioners. Defaults on loans backed by real estate as well as donations through wills and testaments helped create a vast holding for the church in Mexico. Its wealth and influence also created a phenomenon known as mortmain, literally the “dead hand.” Land and other holdings that became church property rarely passed to new owners. By 1800 the church controlled nearly half of the property and two thirds of the circulating currency in New Spain, which had a stifling effect on economic mobility.

The church had social influences as well. The clergy fell into two categories: secular and regular. The daily business of shepherding parishes under the oversight of bishops fell to the secular clergy. As a result, they worked closest with civil authorities and earned their keep through parishioners’ tithes and offerings.

The regular clergy were members of the various missionary orders independent of typical church governance, and instead answered to their own superiors. They received their financing from the Vatican. Secular clergy had no authority over these friars, and even civil authorities sometimes found it hard to influence these independent-minded priests.

Eventually four major missionary orders worked in New Spain. The first, and largest, was the Franciscans who had authority over the eastern end of the expanding frontera, including Tejas. These men created the missions where Indians learned the Christian doctrine and fused Spanish and indigenous cultures through work and education.

The fathers assigned to a mission had a requirement to pursue its work regardless of location. As a result, missions often moved around and, in doing so, changed their name adding to the historical confusion. On same occasions, missions simply failed and its regular clergy received reassignment to other efforts.

When a mission outlived its purpose, it became secularized and its holdings became property of the church to dispose of as it saw fit.