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Colonial Mexico and the Catholic Church

Updated on March 30, 2012

In the 21st Century United States, separation of church and state has been taken to a level beyond anything the forefathers could have imagined. In colonial America, the church had great power and influence. This great power and influence was nothing compared to that of the Catholic Church in Colonial Mexico, however. According to the Crown, Spanish people had to be Catholic, resulting in persecution of Protestants, Jews, and Muslims. The church actually became a part of the government and held a special position in society. During the building of the country of Mexico, the church had almost absolute power rivaling that of the Crown, too much power, in fact, and that influence from the past is obvious even today.

In the 1500’s, the Catholic Church was not just a huge part of society – it was practically society itself. It started with the Spanish conquest, and all other beliefs save those of the indigenous peoples (because they were considered to have sub-par intelligence and weren’t worth converting) were extricated and replaced by Christianity. Through the secular clergy, who served under bishops, to the regular clergy, including the Fransiscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians, the saving of souls into Catholicism was the goal of the Crown and the Church. Eventually this common goal and this conquest made the Church not a separate entity, but a major part of the government of the colony. Almost every elite family dedicated a son or daughter to the church, and everything fell under its rule: education, social welfare, public morality, and economy, just to name a few of the aspects of society the Church ruled. Through the tithe and the bequeathing of funds by rich, pious Spaniards, the church became rich and served almost as a form of "bank" to society since there was no set financial institution yet. The church ran almost all charitable institutions also, such as hospitals, schools, and orphanages, thus ruling social welfare. Every aspect of society was ruled by the Church, and this rocketed the Church into having more power than the Crown.

The most obvious example of the power of Catholicism in Mexico during this time period was the Inquisition. Everyone who was not Catholic fell into the hands of the Church and were dominated and eradicated. Not only did the Inquisition take care of religious, moral, and spiritual matters, it also became "an instrument of royal policy" (pg. 171) to check political dissidence, which proves that the government and the church were inseparable. The last group – after the Inquisition had taken care of heretics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and others – to be affected were the Indians themselves, who learned to blend their heritage and culture with that of the Catholic church of colonial times, resulting in the beginnings of what we see today as religion in Mexico.

Overall, the Catholic church had too much power during the colonization of Mexico by Spain. The Crown ruled, but the Church ruled as much or more and could hardly even be considered separate.


Meyer, Michael C., William L. Sherman, Susan M. Deeds, The Course of Mexican History, Eighth Edition. Oxford University Press, 2007.


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