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Church and State: USA and Mexico

by Joseph Toone

As a child, I gamboled off each morning ten blocks (yes, even in the snow!) to the local public grade school to play in their gym until the public school system bus arrived to schlep us off to the Holy Name of Jesus grade school. From that moment, throughout high school, my Catholic school's sport teams, debate clubs, and bands competed with the public schools.

Imagine my surprise, then, many years later, when my kids attended a private school in North Carolina, and I discovered that not only did the public school buses in that State not let private school students on, but that all their activities were only with secular, private schools like our own. This state of affairs results in every middle school basketball game requiring hours of travel on a private bus, as there simply weren't very many private schools.

Here is a small example of the difference in the Church's influence in northern versus southern states of the U.S.A. In Philadelphia, the question "Where do you live?" can be answered with "In OLBS," meaning in the geographical parish for church and school of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament. (Author's note: Despite my extensive knowledge of virgins, I still have no idea who she was.) Contrast this with Charleston, S.C., where to describe where you live, you give the exact street number, because such information indicates your wealth and status on the peninsula, not what church you attend.

Here in Mexico, from the beginning, the Church and State were bound together. The pope conferred powers upon the monarchy, giving it authority over all activities of the Church in New Spain (i.e., Mexico), except in matters of doctrine or discipline of clergy members. The Crown nominated to their posts all clergy, however low or high. The Crown determined who and how many clergymen would go to New Spain. The Crown gave or withheld approval for every building in the colonies: each church, rectory, school, hospital, etc.

In return, the Crown was responsible for the spiritual welfare of its subjects and was obligated to provide for the conversion and protection of all the native inhabitants of New Spain, regardless of whether locals wanted their spirituality managed by a conquering foreigner or not. Simply put, forced conversion was a job that exceeded even the capability of the papacy.

In many ways, the Crown and the Church worked together. The Church determined who became a citizen by virtue of baptism, and who had ceased being a citizen by virtue of a Catholic burial. Clergy collected tithes and remitted two-ninths of them to the Crown.

Throughout the three hundred years of colonial rule of Spain over New Spain, there were struggles of authority. There were also many disputes over ownership of property. At first, the Church was not allowed to own land, which was the major form of wealth, nor to buy it or receive it as a gift. For the Franciscans in the sixteenth century, with their vows of poverty, this was no problem. But for all the other religious orders, property became a source of legal maneuvers and conflicting interests.

Even after achieving freedom from Spain, it took another century and a revolution for common people to obtain the right to own land. The revolution in the 1920s is when the Church lost their land and everyday folks became able to own it, rather than only the Church and a handful of wealthy families of Spanish descent. With this right, the average man could farm his own piece of earth in the hopes of becoming self-sufficient, instead of being dependent on the wealthy and the Church.

When I give tours, book readings, and lectures, folks often ask "Why do you focus so much on the Church?" I reply, "I have to, because what we do in today's San Miguel all ties back to it. Whether you like the institution or not, believe in its dogma or not, chances are the Church is why you woke up to fireworks or got stuck in traffic today. Understanding of what goes on around you removes fear and its cousin, anger, which opens the door to a fuller enjoyment of San Miguel de Allende.


Joseph Toone is Amazon's bestselling author of the San Miguel de Allende Secrets series of books and TripAdvisor's best rated historical walking tour guide. For more information contact toone.joseph@yahoo.com or visit History and Culture Walking Tours or JosephTooneTours.com, also on FaceBook.

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