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
Slavery in Captivity: location, colonial slavery, and early modern Japan
in Wim Decock and Christoph Haar, eds., Slavery, Law and Religion (Leiden and Boston: Brill, forthcoming)
Ehalt, Rômulo
Ignorance Lost: the arrival of Franciscan missionaries and the Jesuit normative discourse in Japan (16-17 c.)
in Luisa Stella Coutinho, ed., Change over time in the Iberian Worlds: stabilising regimes of normativity (Leiden and Boston: Brill, forthcoming.
Ehalt, Rômulo
Geninka and Slavery: Jesuit casuistry and Tokugawa legislation on Japanese bondage (1590s-1620s)
in Itinerario vol. 47:3 (2023): pp. 342-356


“Taxonomies of Japanese Slavery: Jesuit debates and Tokugawa prohibitions (1590s-1620s)”, invited presentation for the International Workshop Dependencies and Transformative Circulations in the Asian World (16th-18th centuries), KULeuven, Leuve, Belgium (online) (10 May 2024).

“Misteriosos Remédios: Uma genealogia da produção de normatividades religiosas no mundo ibero-asiático, séculos XVI e XVII” [Mysterious Remedies: A genealogy of the production of religious normativities in the Iberian-Asian world, 16th and 17th centuries], invited lecture for the Seminar of Advanced Studies of the University of Coimbra, Coimbra, Portugal (online) (20 November 2023).

“Crooked Lines – Iberian casuistry in early modern Asia (16th-17th centuries)” invited lecture for the Lecture Series Rites Controversy: An Entangled History of Normativity Between the East and the West organized by the Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory, the Max Planck Partner Group A Digital Global Legal History with China (Beijing, China), and the Max Planck Parner Group The Production of Knowledge of Normativity and the Early Modern Book Trade (Trento, Italy), held in Beijing, China (hybrid) (8 November 2023).

“El Precio del Pecado: el problema del rescate en el Japón de la primera modernidad” (The Price of Sin: the problem of rescate in early modern Japan) for the roundtable Políticas de “rescate” y cautiverio indígena en América colonial (XVI-XIX) (Policies of indigenous rescate and captivities in colonial America (16th-19thcenturies)) at the Institut d’études avancées de Nantes, Nantes, France (28 March 2023).

“Thought Would Destroy Their Paradise: mendicant missionaries and Jesuit normative discourse in Japan (16-17 c.)” at the Glocalising Normativities Annual Conference “Change over time in the Iberian Worlds: stabilising regimes of normativity” at the Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory, Frankfurt, Germany (22 March 2023).

“Slavery in Captivity: The Society of Jesus and early modern Japan” invited keynote lecture for the Workshop Slavery, Law and Religion in the Early Modern Period at the UCLouvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium (8 March 2023).

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