Casuistry in the Tropics

Research Project

In the wake of the debates held during the Council of Trent, there were continuous efforts in standardizing 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 one hand, Europeans engaged in local trading, politics, diplomacy and social practices that keep on challenging theological tenets and dogmas of Catholicism. On the other hand, Asians converted to Christianity, as well 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, matrimonies, contracts, diplomacy, 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 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 were themselves squeezed between casuistry from New Spain and normative production from the Portuguese empire and its missions.

Bridging different centers 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 centers of production of normative knowledge, the project will recover individual careers of 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, and slavery and bondage.

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