By Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM

From which standpoint can we read the individual missionary accounts and evangelical methods in colonial contexts? There are several dominant perspectives in the re-reading of colonial history in the Philippines.

On the one hand, the Hispanophiles – mainly Catholic writers – argue that the Spanish missionaries and their evangelical methods brought “civilized ways, salvation, and unity to the island.” To use the words of Pablo Fernandez, a famous Dominican church historian: the missionaries “were able, at [the] cost of so much sacrifice, to keep them for Christ and for Spain.”

On the other hand, the nationalists argue that Christianity in the hands of the Spanish friars was employed as an effective ideological weapon of domination. This view which started from the revolutionary era against Spain is not without basis. However, it also possesses the tendency to demonize the systems and actors – missionaries included – of the Spanish regime.

Beyond these readings, I argue that all practices – colonial practice included – possess a “double-truth”. In the words of Pierre Bourdieu, practices are both “structured structures” and “structuring structures”. Just as these practices are products of their socio-political contexts, they can also be creative and innovative within the bounds of their own historical limits.

Thus, to understand these historical events and missionary methods, there is a need to be open to their ambivalence – their dual truth – as these practices also contain unintended “surplus of meaning” beyond the conscious intentions of their historical agents. Let me elaborate this below.

Church and State, Gospel and Politics

By placing itself “at the service of both Majesties” – of God and of the king – the colonial Church already locates itself at the crossroads of potential tension between two contending powers.

On the one hand, this dual loyalty gives the Church the possibility of defending the conquered peoples from the unconscionable subjugation by the conquistadores. Since it has access to institutions of power, it can shape the priorities of the system towards the defense of the natives.

On the other hand, this location also automatically makes the Church complicit with imperial power. The rights granted to the monarchy over the church affairs by the Patronato Real not only announce future conflicts but also real collusion with colonial intentions. The last right, for instance, “the privilege of assigning civil functions to church personnel, especially parish priests, such as that of drawing the tribute lists, supervising municipal elections, and directing public works,” makes the priest a direct vassal of the Crown, thus, making his missionary work, no matter how well-intentioned, an ambivalent accessory to the colonial project. The friar might be the most holy, humble, conscientious of individuals but his location in the intersection of colonial power makes him complicit with the atrocities of the abusive regime.

Many Spanish missionaries who worked in the Americas already denounced the cruelty and the tyranny of the colonizers. The Dominicans Antonio de Montesinos (c. 1475-1545) and Bartolome de las Casas (1484-1566) were in the forefront of defending the rights of the Indians in the New World.

The school of Salamanca with its famous theologians, Francisco de Vitoria (1480-1546) and Francisco Suárez (1548-1617), fought for the natural rights of indigenous peoples anticipating the contemporary discussion on the international human rights of all peoples. This group of thinkers puts into question the right of monarchs to colonize peoples even for missionary purposes.

Domingo de Salazar, the first bishop of Manila, belonged to this school and was a faithful student of Vitoria. Thus, from the years he first stepped on the islands to the time of his death, the bishop defended the rights of the Filipinos against Spanish sovereignty, particularly against slavery and extortion of tribute. After a long fight with colonial rulers in the Philippines, he went back to Spain in 1591 to put his lifetime advocacy in front of the King: “It is clear then that the dominion over those Islands could not have come to belong to the King our lord either by title of election or of just war.” Before the issue was resolved, he died; and the same cause was taken on by another Dominican, Miguel de Benavides, his successor, who was with him on the trip.

But earlier than Salazar or Benavides, the first Augustinian friars who came with Legaspi in 1565 were already opposed to the conquest of the Philippines in the name of the Spanish monarchs. Foremost among them was Fray Andrés de Urdaneta who did not want Legaspi’s expedition to continue.

When he and his companions arrived in the islands – they were only told of their final destination while sailing on the high seas – they were constantly updating the King on the abuses of the colonists. The envoy they sent to represent them to the King, Fray Martin de Rada, categorically stated: “I have taken all the opinions of all the Fathers who were to be found here. They unanimously affirm that none among all these islands have come into the power of the Spaniards with just title.”

Despite this courageous and conscious defense of indigenous rights by church people, the Church’s location in the imperial structure establishes its complicity with colonial oppression. The exaction of tribute, forced labor, military service, and "bandala"(annual quotas to sell products to the government at lower prices) were direct instruments of exploitation and pacification.

While it is true that the friars were not directly in charge of their implementation, they were closely connected with the system as they were increasingly entrusted with civil duties – inspector of schools and taxation, of health units and public works, certifier of cedulas, auditing and partitioning of lands, among others. Despite being monks who could not own properties, the Pope exempted them from this monastic vow so that they can administer the parishes in the absence of the secular clergy.

"Canonical collation" – the act of bestowing ecclesiastical posts with a fixed amount of property or income – proved to be one source of corruption among the friars. This arrangement transformed the friar-missionaries into landowners gradually amassing large tracts themselves – some through confiscation of mortgaged lands, others through outright land-grabbing. These properties came to be called in Philippine history as “friar lands” which, together with other friar abuses, fueled the Filipino revolution against Spain.


Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM
St. Vincent School of Theology
Adamson University

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For the full article, click this link: D. F. Pilario, "Revisiting Evangelization Work in Colonial Philippines: The Ambivalence of Missionary Methods," 19-38.