The Catholic mission in the former Inca Empire lacked responsible and effective Church leadership. The image of the missionaries as having been principally responsible for the failure of the Catholic mission in Peru in the 16th and 17th centuries is incorrect. The Church leadership also bore a large part of the responsibility, a new thesis in history from the University of Gothenburg shows.
The personal reputation and religious zeal of a few ecclesiastical leaders might have been excellent, but the ability of the leadership as a whole to lead the gigantic missionary project in the former Inca Empire proved inadequate.
Researchers have traditionally depicted the mission in Peru as a matter between missionaries and the indigenous population. The priests in the field have generally been portrayed as being solely responsible for the mission’s problems, while the indigenous population has been depicted as rather passive objects of the care and mission of the Spanish State. The role of the Church leadership has in general not been scrutinised.
“However, in my view the Church, i.e. its leaders, had a crucial bearing on the results of the mission,” says the author of the thesis, Bertil K. Lundberg.
“It is easy to gain the impression that the Church was one with its representatives out in the field, in the active work of the mission. Christianising the indigenous inhabitants of Peru was the Church’s project, and the Church as an institution decided on strategies, controlled economic and personal resources and consequently decided how the mission developed. The missionaries were the tools for the implementation of decisions taken by their bishops and prelates.”
While the missionaries’ assignment was formulated and dictated by the Church, the same Church criticised its own missionaries when the poor performance of the missionary project was debated. The leadership simply distanced itself from the way the missionaries accomplished their assignment and did not take any share of the responsibility.
“In the records of Church meetings I have studied, there is a notable absence of internal criticism among the Church’s leadership. Instead the problems that arose were attributed to the behaviour of the priests in the field and, to some extent, to the religious leaders of the indigenous population. In a way one can understand the lack of criticism; it is not necessarily routine practice for any organisation to exercise and disclose painful internal self-criticism,” says Lundberg.
On the other hand, it is more difficult to understand the lack of interest or unwillingness of later research to focus attention on the Church leadership and its role in and responsibility for the mission. Researchers have instead glorified Church leaders and raised them above the criticism that has been levelled at others.
“The mission in Peru was a project on a scale the western Church had not previously faced, and it did not succeed in attaining the goals that had been set either – few among the Andean indigenous population were turned into true believers in Catholicism. The efforts of the Catholic Church to Christianize the Indians failed, a fact recognised by the Peruvian Church in the early part of the 17th century. This failure is the actual foundation on which the analysis should be based. Only then should we try to understand the roles played by various parties, especially the Church as an institution and its powerful leadership,” says Lundberg.