‘They are no less capable of our Christianity’

Pope Paul III/Wikimedia Commons • bit.ly/2hxHtdo

First Place
Student Essays in Christian Wisdom Competition

The eighth annual Student Essays in Christian Wisdom Competition attracted 19 papers from nine Anglican seminaries and university divinity schools in the United States, Canada, and England.

Rebecca Bridges Watts of Seminary of the Southwest took the top prize with her paper, “‘They are no less capable of our Christianity’: 16th-century Catholic Missions in Indigenous Cultural Contexts,” which TLC was pleased to publish in its Oct. 8 edition.

Second place — Edward Watson, Yale Divinity School: “Seeking Wisdom in the Spaces of Schism: How Hooker and Coleridge’s Accounts of Reason Can Support Christian Unity.”

Third place — Martin Geiger, Virginia Theological Seminary: “History, Theology, and Mediation: Wisdom’s Female Character in Proverbs 1-9.”

We are grateful to the judges of this year’s competition: the Rev. Matthew Burdette, curate for student ministry at Church of the Good Shepherd, Dallas; the Rev. Zachary Guiliano, associate editor of TLC; the Rev. Beth Maynard, rector of Emmanuel Memorial Church, Champaign, Illinois; and the Rev. Katherine Sonderegger, William Meade Chair in Systematic Theology, Virginia Theological Seminary.

By Rebecca Bridges Watts

Across time and place, Christians have responded to their cultural contexts — at times choosing to shape Christian practice to meet the conditions of the local culture, while at other times believing that Christian practice needs to question or fight against the local culture. When Roman Catholicism expanded with Spanish colonialism to the New World in the 16th century, missionary priests — as well as their king and pope — recognized that the local languages and cultures needed to figure centrally in the mission to convert the local people to Christianity. Reflecting on this case from Church history teaches us, as contemporary Christians, to be more aware of how we can shape mission to meet the requirements of specific cultural contexts.

When Spain sent explorers across the Atlantic to claim new lands, people, and resources for their empire, the work of colonialism was done by men sent by the Spanish monarchy. However, for the missionary priests who accompanied them or soon followed, their purposes were different. Writing in 1537, Pope Paul III recognized that the mission of the church was at odds with the mission of the colonizers, especially with regard to the dignity and freedom of the people who lived in these recently colonized places. While those working on behalf of the government and economic interests saw the indigenous people as just another resource, Pope Paul III recognized their humanity, pointing back to the Great Commission’s words on the reach of the Gospel: “He sent preachers out to preach the faith: ‘Go, and teach everyone’ [Matt. 28:19]. All, He said, without exception, since all are capable of learning the faith.” Pope Paul III was especially critical of the colonizers’ impulse to enslave the indigenous people, seeing slavery as Satan’s “novel way to prevent the world of God being preached to people for their salvation.” He characterized those involved in the slave trade as “lackeys, who wanted to satisfy their lust for riches.”1 Pope Paul III argued forcefully against subduing the local people: “outside the faith though they be, [they] are not to be deprived of their liberty or the right to their property. They are to have, to hold, to enjoy both liberty and dominion, freely, lawfully. They must not be enslaved” (“Veritas Ipsa,” p. 291). Noteworthy here is the implication that conversion is not a requirement for their liberty and rights; rather, these belong to them as by virtue of their humanity.

Instead of going along with the dominant cultural perspective that the indigenous people were “brute beasts” who should be “subjected to our control,” Pope Paul III argued that the Church needed to have the opposite response by seeing them as part of “the flock of Christ committed to our care, those who are outside the sheepfold.” Further, Pope Paul III affirmed their humanity, observing: “We are aware through what we have been told that those Indians, as true human beings, have not only the capacity for Christian faith, but the willingness to flock to it” (pp. 290-91). In contrast to the monarchy’s and the slave traders’ oppressive tactics, Pope Paul III advised that rather than forcing the local people to accept Christianity, missionary priests should ensure that “Indians and other people are to be invited into the faith of Christ by the preaching of God’s word and the example of a good life” (p. 291). Again, Pope Paul III’s perspective on missionary work among the local people is grounded in the belief that they are fellow human beings, capable of reasoning whether they want to accept the missionaries’ invitation to believe.

With the pope having laid this foundation, it is unsurprising that Alonso de Molina translated the Lord’s Prayer into Náhuatl (the Aztec language), and that in the second half of the 1500s, academic study of Incan and Aztec Empires was formalized at universities in Peru and Mexico. In 1578, King Phillip II dictated that those who wanted to be priests in “Indian” settlements had to be proficient in the indigenous languages. These developments toward learning the local languages and cultures and doing the business of the Church with this cultural sensitivity leads one to wonder why those in the Church saw this as so central to their mission. As Klaus Koschorke and others note: “The repeated exhortations of Church and Crown on the importance of learning Indian languages thoroughly suggests many missionaries had failed in this regard.”2 Earlier missionaries learned through experience that when missionary efforts do not reflect and respond respectfully to the local culture, they will find a less receptive audience and, thus, fewer converts. Bernardino de Sahagún, an eminent ethnologist of Aztec culture, wrote in 1577 of how the work of ethnologists “will be very useful to learn the degree of perfection of this Mexican people, which has not yet been known.” Like Pope Paul III, Sahagún affirmed the shared humanity of the Aztecs: “It is most certain all these people are our brothers, stemming from the stock of Adam, as do we. They are our neighbors whom we are obliged to love, even as we love ourselves. Whatever it may be that they were in times past, we now see through experience, that they are capable in learning all the liberal arts and sacred theology …. They are no less capable of our Christianity.”3 Sahagún affirmed the Aztecs’ intellectual capacity, which was a very progressive mindset at a time when many white Europeans viewed indigenous people as less intelligent and even less than human. Also noteworthy in Sahagún’s treatise is the relationship he identifies between studying a cultural group and believing that they are the very people Jesus was commanding to be loved as neighbors.

Language, cultural practices, and beliefs are necessarily intertwined. To learn more of the local culture and get to know the people, missionary priests needed to be able to communicate in the indigenous language. In 1583, those gathered for the Council of Lima affirmed: “The fundamental purpose of Christian instruction and catechesis is an understanding of the faith. … Therefore, everybody should be taught in a way they can understand: the Spaniards in Spanish, Indians in their own language.” The council specified that mastery of “prayers or catechesis in Latin” should not be required of the Incans, “because it is sufficient and much better for them to say it in their language, and if some wish, they may also learn in Spanish which many of them have mastered.”4 Implicit in the Council of Lima’s edict is recognition both of what is practical for the cultural context and that the local people were indeed capable of learning another language, Spanish. All of this is consonant with Reform throughout Christianity during the 1500s, with Luther and others in Europe calling for the Bible to published and preached about in the vernacular. While the Roman Catholic Church was, in the main, much slower to change the language of the Mass, it is noteworthy that the Catholic missionaries in the New World were among the first Catholics to argue that people are best reached in their own language.

A well-known example of Catholic cultural adaptation is the veneration of La Virgen de Guadalupe. While opinion varies on the degree to which her veneration is a case of syncretism, most agree that the place of Our Lady in the devotional life of Mexican Catholics (and Mexicans in general) is, at its heart, about enculturation. That Mary would visit Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, “a humble commoner, a poor ordinary person,” in December 1531 as “he was on his way to attend to divine things and to his errands,” communicates that God, through Mary, has a special concern for the common people of Mexico. As Luis Lasso de la Vega’s account over a century later in 1649 emphasizes, Mary expressed God’s special love for Mexico in a warm and nurturing way. It seems significant that this encounter with Mary occurred in 1531, as the mission to Mexico was expanding — and that the emphasis of her words to Juan Diego was how she was a “compassionate mother” to “all you people here in this land,” especially those with “afflictions, miseries, and torments.” We see in this the recognition that colonial life was difficult for people there, and they needed to hear that God was responsive to their troubles in that he was sending them a loving mother to heal them. Finally, at the end of de la Vega’s Guadalupe account, we read of how Mary directed Juan Diego to seek out the bishop to tell him about Mary’s message, including the directive that the church should build her a temple in Mexico. This aspect of the story is crucial, as this is where we see the link between Mary, perhaps a Catholic version of the indigenous goddess Tonantzin Cihuacóatl, with the official Roman Catholic Church as personified by the bishop in Mexico.5 La Virgen continues to link Mexican cultural traditions and Catholic religious practice, both in Mexico and in the United States.

Christians today can learn much from studying the ways in which our forebears in the faith responded to their cultural milieus. For Spanish missionaries in the 16th century, they learned through experience — as well as through studying the life of Jesus — how crucial it was to connect with the local people in their own language and traditions. The key for Christians living in the diverse cultural contexts of this world is to be open to discerning — through prayer, Scripture, reason, tradition, and dialogue — how God calls us to respond to people where they are, as we take the time to learn what makes them distinctive and valuable in God’s sight.

Rebecca Bridges Watts is a middler in the MDiv program at the Seminary of the Southwest. She is a candidate for holy orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida, where she is a member of St. Peter’s, Lake Mary.


1 Pope Paul III, “Veritas Ipsa (Sublimis Deus),” in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990: A Documentary Sourcebook (Eerdmans, 2007), p. 290.

2 Klaus Koschorke, Frieder Ludwig, and Mariano Delgado, “Language and Missionary Work,” in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, p. 302.

3 Bernardino de Sahagún, “Excerpt from General History of the Things of New Spain, Part I” (1577), in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, pp. 306-07.

4 El Tercer Concilio Limense (Third Council of Lima), “The Indians Should Be Taught in Their Own Language,” in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, p. 303.

5 Luis Lasso de la Vega, “Excerpt from Huei tlamahuicoltica,” in A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990, p. 316.


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