Have you ever heard the charge about Catholic imperialism? The popular anti-Catholic myth goes something like this: Catholic missionaries were imperialists who enslaved and impoverished native populations!
But, as with all anti-Catholic myths, this one just isn’t true. Here’s the real story.
The Age of Exploration, which took place between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, created an unprecedented situation for the Church. With the discovery of vast new lands, it was realized that there were untold millions of people who had never been reached with the message of Jesus Christ.
Jesus himself had said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20), giving the Church its missionary mandate.
Missionaries therefore began undertaking the hardships and dangers that international travel posed at the time. They spread all over the globe, accompanying the explorers and bringing the message of Christ to people everywhere.
But there was a problem: the various colonial powers—primarily Spain and Portugal, but also France, England, and the Netherlands—that had discovered the new lands were also busy competing with each other to set up colonies. Each nation was seeking its own advantage and did not want to fall behind the others.
This meant that these powers also competed with and in many cases exploited the native populations of these lands. Worse, some of the exploiters cited their own Christian faith as justification for conquering, despoiling, and enslaving the native inhabitants.
What did the missionaries do? The Catholic ones complained to the pope about what the conquistadors and others were doing, and in 1537, Pope Paul III issued a document known as Pastorale Officium, in which he noted that Charles V, holy Roman emperor, had forbidden his subjects from enslaving or robbing native people in mission lands. He then added to this injunction the ultimate Church penalty of excommunication:
Since we, therefore, are vigilant that these Indians, even if outside the bosom of the Church, are not deprived, nor are they to be deprived, of their freedom or the ownership of their goods, for they are men and, therefore, capable of faith and salvation, and, thus, they are not to be destroyed by enslavement but rather invited to life through preaching and example, and since we, moreover, desire to repress the nefarious undertakings of such impious [men] and to insure that the Indians do not become hardened against embracing the faith of Christ . . . we demand that . . . under your watchful attention you prevent with great severity . . . under pain of excommunication . . . each and every one of whatever rank from presuming in any way to reduce the aforementioned Indians to slavery or in any way to despoil them of their goods.
This was one in a series of documents in which the popes of the period took the side of the natives against those who sought to oppress them, citing both the fact that they were men (i.e., they had human rights) and that they could be turned away from the gospel by mistreatment. This was especially important, because the Church has always forbidden forced conversion. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains, the gospel must be embraced voluntarily (160).
The Church thus recognized the native peoples as human beings who deserved respect and who possessed precious souls in need of salvation from Jesus. They, like the Europeans, were those for whom Christ had died, and they must be treated as such. The Church thus sought to help the native peoples and protect them from exploitation.
Although this had an effect, it unfortunately did not mean that all exploitation stopped. Just as the pope today cannot snap his fingers and get Catholic politicians to enact Church teaching on subjects like abortion into public policy, the popes of this era had limited influence over secular powers.
The result was a period of both light and shadow, with both exploitation and the advance of the gospel. As in every era, the people of this one must be looked at realistically. None was perfectly good, and none was perfectly evil. Like us, they were complex individuals.
Recent popes have acknowledged this, including Pope Francis, who has stated, “I say this to you with regret: many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God. . . . Like Saint John Paul II, I ask that the Church—I repeat what he said—‘kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters.’”
He went on to say, “Together with this request for forgiveness and in order to be just, I also would like us to remember the thousands of priests and bishops who strongly opposed the logic of the sword with the power of the cross.”
This article is adapted from the 20 Answers booklet “Anti-Catholic Myths,” now available for sale at the Catholic Answers shop.