When Columbus discovered America, he took possession of the new lands in the name of the Cross. Under this sign Spain and Portugal continued the conquest and colonization of the new world. The pope then gave the kings of Castile the right of patronage, especially of apostolic legacy, in America, with the obligation to propagate and defend the Catholic religion in the newly discovered continent.
The Laws of the Indies contain numerous provisions on the preaching of the Gospel, canon law and religious organization in these colonies, including Argentina: thus, starting from the 16th century, the Argentine population became part of Catholic Christianity.
To understand this event well, it is worth remembering how, towards the middle of the century. XVI, Spain had become the champion of the Counter-Reformation, and the conqueror of the world; in its political action it assumed the persecution of heresy in Europe and the propagation of Catholicism in the new lands it colonized. The action exercised in America, and in the Rio de la Plata colony, therefore has this double character, clearly established by the Laws of the Indies: on the one hand the inquisitorial vigilance towards suspicious foreigners, and on the other the preaching of the Gospel to the indigenous pagans. These two characteristics also had colonial society, in which the Church had important functions in the juridical, pedagogical and moral life of the state.
According to EDUCATIONVV, the various tribes, which populated the Argentine territory before the discovery, were at different degrees of culture and practiced different religions; but in all of them it is possible to find at least some of the elements that characterize primitive religiosity. Thus the woods, caves, springs, rivers, mountains were sacred; the stars were also worshiped, and meteoric phenomena were also the object of veneration. The representations of animals (tiger, ostrich, frog, condor snake) on funeral urns and in the items of equipment found in tombs or on mummies have been interpreted as totemic symbols; on the other hand, perhaps under the influence of the superior culture of the Incas, there is reverence for the sun, and it seems that some peoples came to the conception of a supreme and invisible divine being. But also the cult of being celestial is quite widespread among many primitive populations, and some elements found in the cults of these populations seem to lead us back to the animistic and pre-animistic stage. This explains the numerous rituals of a magical nature, which can also include the one that lent itself to the spirit of the earth (Pachamama, the mother of crops). There were numerous myths and legends, of which there are numerous traces in the toponymy and folklore of the Argentine countryside.
The preaching of Christianity did not completely disappear the ancient superstitions, and these joined with those brought by the colonizer from the Spanish countryside. In vain the Church set about burning idols, destroying temples, persecuting the autonomous priesthood, considering the Indians as devil worshipers, as always happens in similar cases. Something of the old religions persisted in the new, and the converted Indian adapted to his mentality the dogmas and imposed practices, which he mechanically learned.
The Catholic authority from the beginning of the conquest adopted energetic measures for the extinction of idolatry and resolved in American councils to translate the doctrine and prayers of its faith into local languages, thus composing lexicons, catechisms and collections of sermons. The difficulties of this effort are well understood, and how the purity of the dogma had to be contaminated in these versions, in the same way that the rites tended to degenerate, as soon as the European priest who practiced them left the Indian villages. The multitudes were baptized; the Spanish name was given to neophytes; the tribe was disciplined liturgically in the encomiendas and in the missions; and thus it was obtained to generalize the cult of the Cross throughout the Argentine territory. The cross, on the other hand, as Adán Quiroga has shown, had been a religious symbol among the pre-Columbian Indians, and is found profusely painted in the indigenous pottery of archaeological sites.
This process of converting indigenous people to Christianity has been called “spiritual conquest”, to distinguish it from military or political conquest, but both combined into one systematic action. The religious orders that most distinguished themselves for their virtue and enthusiasm in this undertaking were the Franciscans and the Jesuits. The Dominicans, Augustinians and mercedaries acted in the same way; but we recognize the primacy of the first two, not only for the zeal they showed from the early years and for the courage with which they interned in the most bitter districts, but for the constancy with which they persisted in their effort. On the other hand, the Jesuits organized the famous system of “missions” and wrote the chronicle of their evangelical action, while the Franciscans had real apostles, like Luis de Bolaños and Francesco Solano; the latter was canonized and left in the interior of Argentina a legendary tradition that still lives on.
The chronicles of Fathers Techo, Lozano, Guevara, Charlevoix, Dobrizhoffer, Machoni, Falkner and other historians of the Society of Jesus during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can serve to get an idea of the obstacles that Catholicism found among the indigenous, until it acquired its own characteristics in the religious life of the countryside.
Very different was the process that took place in the cities, with a quantity of Spaniards transplanted into them, and with the children of these, Creoles or mestizos. As soon as the conqueror entered America, he founded a city, since from that time almost all those of Argentina date, and with the city a cabildo for the local government, very similar to the municipalities of the Roman Empire. The urban plan of the foundation always consisted of land intended for the cathedral and the four convents of Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians or mercedaries. To these were added later convents for monks, shelters and hospitals entrusted to religious orders who owned doctors and herbalists, who in their treatment took advantage not a little of the indigenous medicine learned in the missions. With charity, the clergy practiced teaching. A bishop, Trejo y Sanabria, was responsible for the foundation of the University of Córdoba (1614), authorized by a papal bull and entrusted until 1767 to the Jesuits, then to the Franciscans. The college of San Carlo, founded in Buenos Aires by the viceroy Vertiz towards the end of the century. XVIII, was ruled by the canon Maciel, and its professorships, in which almost all the men who fought for independence until 1810 were trained, were held by poets. Basis of studies, theology and Latin. To access theological studies in colonial universities, it was necessary to prove one’s blood purity, free from contamination with Negroes, Moors or Jews (not with Indios): this gave the clergy a certain aristocratic prestige. The main families introduced their children to this profession, which was then that of letters, both in America and in Spain. To all this was added the juridical and moral authority that the priesthood enjoyed within families, for confession, for justice, for the Inquisition. Argentina did not have an inquisitorial stake (it depended on Lima, who had one), but there were commissioners of the Holy Office, and not a few trials against witches, Judaizers and heretics. The Catholic Church appears through the various sources as the moral center of Argentine cities, governing teaching, family, law, all ideas and all customs. The churches then erected and still springs in the Argentine cities recall this period.
The whole religious organization began to change with liberal ideas which, despite the inquisition and censorship, penetrated towards the end of the century. XVIII in the Spanish colonies. The social reforms brought about by the Bourbon dynasty, especially by Charles III and his ministers, the expulsion of the Jesuits, the foundation of new centers of culture, such as the first theater and the first periodical and the Collegio Carolino founded in Buenos Aires; the contact established in the Rio della Plata with other peoples, through smuggling and the English invasions (1806-1807); the stealth penetration of forbidden books, especially by French encyclopedists; travelers who spoke of the French Revolution and North American emancipation renewed their ideas, and when the revolution broke out, theMasonic and violently reforming ideas in the religious field.
In the Primera junta de Mayo, first revolutionary council, the secretary Mariano Moreno affirmed, in 1810, the principle of patronage, which Argentina incorporated to its sovereignty as successor of the Spanish kings, the assembly of 1813 broke relations with the Holy See and prohibited the clergy all obedience to the nuncio accredited to the court of Madrid. Measures of this kind perhaps obeyed more to political reasons than to philosophical reasons. The bishop of Córdoba, partisan of Spain in the revolution that was beginning, was shot by order of the revolutionary government; that of Salta, for the same cause, was deposed and taken prisoner to Buenos Aires. The high ecclesiastical dignities, such as Bishop Lué of Buenos Aires, and the Spanish clergy were enemies of independence, favored instead by the minor orders and the Creole clergy,
Continuing in these same liberal tendencies of the revolution, Rivadavia after 1820 carried out the ecclesiastical reform, involving the civil power in the internal organization of the local church. Nonetheless, the general sentiment remained Catholic. Belgrano, in handing over to San Martín the command of the Northern army, which was fighting against the royalists, on the border of upper Peru, said in a letter (1814): “Let your SV forget that you will be the leader of a Christian army and that we wage war between Catholic peoples “. The previous war against the English, in 1806, had taken on the character of a war against heretics. The winner Liniers offered the trophies of victory to the Virgin of the Rosary in Santo Domingo of Buenos Aires. The realists of Peru after 1810 described the Buenos Aires revolution as a heretical uprising of Freemasons. The liberalism of Castelli, Monteagudo Agrelo, leaders of the revolution, gave substance to these denunciations. In the upper Peruvian frontier the revolution lost popular sympathies following the imprisonment of the bishops and certain anticlerical excesses of the revolutionaries. Belgrano’s respectful attitude towards the Church, although Belgrano was also personally a sincere Catholic, must be seen above all as a reaction against this state of affairs. Like Liniers to the Virgin of the Rosary in Buenos Aires, so Belgrano paid homage to the Virgin of Grace in Tucumán, after her victory over the Spaniards in 1812. There may have been a calculus in this as a leader, as in his instructions to San Martín, who, although liberal, he kept to it in preparing, in Mendoza, the expedition from the Andes to liberate Chile. And so the democratic revolution was accomplished until reaching the proclamation of the freedom of cults in the constitution of 1813, still in force, and, in subsequent laws, to secular teaching and civil marriage and the dissemination of scientific culture, without the state and the Argentine people ceased to be Christians The Catholic clergy resisted these reforms, but they were defeated.
Today Argentine religious life can be defined as a state of complete tolerance. Philosophical freedom, cosmopolitan immigration, international trade have created an entirely different society, in this respect, from that which created the Spanish theocracy of the Counter-Reformation in the colonial era. From the previous era there is external worship, but with less devotion, and royal patronage, exercised, however, by a secular state. Catholicism is the official religion of Argentina, and the government intervenes in the appointment of bishops, maintaining diplomatic relations with the Holy See. The separation of the Church from the State has been proposed many times, and by liberal parties, and also by Catholics unhappy with the excessive interference of civil power in the Church. But it does not seem possible or convenient to reach separation. The culture of the national clergy is increasingly elevating, and the high hierarchies of the Church are reserved for it by law. Next to the official church, which has no direct action on civil institutions or on teaching, the other cults live, without controversy or noisy acts of intolerance.