Casuistry in the Tropics

Research Project

In the wake of the debates held during the Council of Trent, there were continuous efforts to standardise religious practices among Catholics in colonial societies and missions in the areas under direct or indirect influence of the Portuguese and Spanish crowns in Asia. On the one hand, Europeans engaged in local trading, politics, diplomacy and social practices that kept challenging theological tenets and dogmas of Catholicism. On the other hand, Asians converted to Christianity, as Catholic missionaries combined local and Catholic religious concepts and liturgies, a widespread practice that posed a number of difficulties for Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking confessors in the region. Emerging moral issues related to slavery, marriage, contracts, trading and heterodoxy sparked the production of various guidelines, opinions and debates dedicated to addressing these problems.

In the process, theologians and casuists in cities such as Goa, Macau, Nagasaki and Manila produced a large corpus of casuistic literature aimed at solving the moral problems met in Asia. Effectively, they acted as intermediaries between European moral theology and local practices of trade, governance, matrimony, slavery and heterodoxy. On the Portuguese side, Jesuits such as Francisco Rodrigues, Lopo de Abreu, Gomes Vaz and Sebastião da Maya dominated the landscape, writing manuals and decisions that influenced generations of theologians and casuists both in- and outside the Society of Jesus in Asia. Meanwhile, the production of religious norms in Manila was dominated by Dominicans such as Domingo González, Miguel de Benavides and Juan de Paz, who found themselves under different pressures from New Spain and normative production from the Portuguese empire and its missions.

Bridging different centres of religious normative production, this project aims at overcoming traditional tropes of knowledge production in Iberian Asia by recovering the corpus of casuistry produced in India, China, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. In order to underline the local and global relevance of colonial settings and missionary frontiers as on-the-ground centres of production of normative knowledge, the project will investigate the careers of specific theologians and casuists in Iberian Asia, and explore the role casuistry and theology played in the resolution of issues related to local and imperial politics, governance and diplomacy, trading practices, as well as dependencies and bondage.

In 2024, the project will commence with both an edited volume of studies on Francisco Rodrigues SJ (1515-1573) and an annotated edition of his writings. In collaboration with the Tilburg University Library, a facsimile of the Summa Lusitana, the Latin translation of Lopo de Abreu’s Suma de Moral, which represents the only extant copy of this significant work, will be published. Furthermore, in partnership with Stuart M. McManus (CUHK), we will initiate the transcription an edition of Gomes Vaz’s De Mancipiis indicis, manumissionibus, et libertis libri quatuor (The Four Books on Slaves, Manumissions, and Freedmen of India), the most important early modern treatise critically examining the intricate nature of slavery in Portuguese Asia.

The project has already produced the following publications:

Ehalt, R. d. S.: "Instrue e informa bem os confessores": Um estudo introdutório acerca da Suma de Moral e da Summa Lusitana dos jesuítas Lopo de Abreu (1547-1606) e Vicente Álvares (1581-1634). Anais de História de Além-Mar 21 (2020), pp. 279 - 305 (2022)
Ehalt, Rômulo
Geninka and Slavery: Jesuit casuistry and Tokugawa legislation on Japanese bondage (1590s-1620s),
in: Itinerario, 2023. (Upcoming in print).
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