Guest ColumnistFive hundred years of faith

On Columbus Day in 1992, Blessed John Paul II offered Holy Mass in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, during which he gave thanks to God for the sending of the Gospel message and the Sacraments to the Americas, by missionaries from Spain.

It is a mystery of history that the Spanish have had to suffer verbal and written attacks by authors, historians and teachers ever since. No one know the answer. Some speculate that it is a lasting resentment perpetuated by England against Spain; others point to the possibility that Protestant Europe never forgave Spain for not joining in the revolt of Luther and others against the Bishop of Rome; there is also evidence that Freemasonry has contributed to this sad story of bigotry and animosity against Spain and the Spanish.

This negative attitude begins with the historical events centered in the years of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. They married in 1469 and ruled Spain (Aragon and Castile) for some forty years. Under their leadership came to and end seven hundred years of Moslem rule in Granada when the treaty of surrender on January 2, 1492 at the military post of Santa Fe was signed. According to the terms of the treaty, the Moors were left in possession of their property; their religion, laws and customs were to be respected.

In spite of the civilized attitude of the King and Queen, history has been hard on them for their conquest of the Moors. Other rulers have been victorious over invaders and have been glorified by historians.

With regard to the tragic chapter known as the Inquisition, it is only fair to keep in mind, that Spain was not alone in this era of extremism against heretics; it existed in other countries and in those countries it was more intense but did not last as long. This subject is covered by James Michener in his book Iberia. He makes some very interesting points in his defense of the Spanish against the vilification by historians.

On the subject of the “leyenda negra” or the “black legend” that has hurt Spain and the Spanish people for centuries, one would do well to read pages 372-79 in Iberia. Michener, writing of his own experience in this regard, puts it this way:

I became aware not only of manipulation of fact but also phobia against Spain. I did not come to believe the legend by accident: I was taught it by professors. (p. 373)

Even as a sixth-grader he was ambivalent about Spain because the teacher told the class that if the English had not defeated the Spanish Armada, the students would all be Catholic. Such a thought was not too popular at that time.

The Spanish first reached Mexico at Cozumel in 1510; that ended in the enslavement of the Spanish by the natives. Nine years later Cortez arrived and made contact with the Aztecs. Historians attack him and his men without taking into consideration a horrible condition that existed among the Aztecs, namely the sacrificial offering of thousands of people to the sun god Huitzilopochtli.

The Spanish were horrified by what they witnessed and consequently felt a sense of divine mission to stop this slaughter of innocent people on the altars of the pagan god.

The Tlaxcalan tribe was enemy to the Aztec and many of these people were numbered among those who had their hearts cut out to be offered to the sun god. Readily did the Tlaxcalan people join the Spanish against the Aztecs by supplying most of the manpower for the final battle in which the Aztecs were defeated.

As the Spanish moved north into what is now Arizona and New Mexico, led by Coronado in 1540, they encountered the Pueblo Indians at Zuni, Acoma, Laguna and the villages from Taos all along the Rio Grande to Isleta. In this chapter of Spanish exploration, many historians accuse the Spanish of enslaving the Indians and forcing them to convert to Catholicism. There is some truth to this accusation but it does not mean that it was approved by the missionaries or rulers of Spain. It was eventually an abuse that was stopped.

The record shows that leading Spanish thinkers of the sixteenth century defended the rights of the Indian people. Father Francisco Vitoria, a theologian at the University of Salamanca wrote:

“The Indians have a right not to be baptized and not to be forced to convert to Christianity against their will.”

“The King of Spain is obligated to seek the utility and development of the Indian peoples above all else, and thus, he cannot allow them to suffer that Spain might benefit.”

King Ferdinand initiated the Laws of Burgos which were put into effect in 1512. They were regulations for the governing and instructing of the Indians of the New World.

It would be wrong to downplay the tragedy that Native people in the Americas have suffered. At the same time it is wrong to blame it all on the Spanish and to perpetuate the bigotry against them that today is interwoven in a subtle way in the fabric of U.S. American society.

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They are treated as a separate ethnic group isolated from all other European immigrants to the United States, past and present. In housing and job opportunities they are discriminated against. Their Catholic heritage, so rich and so deep, is undermined by protestant fundamentalists in their strategy and technique of inappropriate proselytization.

Many other European countries were involved in the mistreatment of the Indian people and in ways that were far more exploiting and cruel. Scalping, for instance, was a form of execution introduced by the English, as documented by James Fenimore Cooper in this book, The Last of the Mohicans.

Father Richard Antall, writing in “Our Sunday Visitor,” on September 6, 1992 has this to say:

“The National Council of Churches has condemned the commemoration of the 500 years because of its history of shameful abuses. I wonder if this official Protestant reaction is wholly free of old-time religious prejudice against the Catholic evangelization.”

He raises a good question. It could well be that the anti-Spanish mood of these five hundred years is based on and rooted in a deeper prejudice that will always be with us, and that is the prejudice and bigotry against the Catholic Church.

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