The Roman Curia and the New World in Modern Times: Historical and Legal Aspects

Abgeschlossenes Forschungsprojekt

«Ista Romana Curia omnium aliarum forensium Curiarum mater, ac major totius Christiani Orbis merito dicenda est, longeque majora incomparabiliter peragit».
Giovanni Battista De Luca, Relatio Romanae Curiae forensis.

The discovery of the Americas marked a fundamental chapter in the history of relations between Rome and the world. Throughout the modern era, the Apostolic See and the governing bodies of the Catholic Church, i.e. the Roman Curia, tried to develop all the necessary theoretical and practical tools to incorporate the New World into their organization and their sphere of influence.

The links between the Apostolic See and the Americas have been addressed from different approaches. There are well-known studies on the political and diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the European kingdoms regarding the organization and promotion of the Church of the Indies, as well as extensive research on papal intervention in missionary activities and evangelization. In addition, some comprehensive studies have been conducted into the organization and development of local churches.

On the other hand, there are fewer studies on legal matters, the introduction of regulatory orders issued in Europe into Spanish American territories and the complex process of adapting and amending them to suit the particular circumstances in the Americas. This is also true for Canon Law: although its authority was never challenged, it was reshaped and supplemented until finally a Canon Law of the Indies developed.

Within the framework of new research on Canon Law in Latin America being conducted at the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte, this project focuses on the Roman Curia’s activities regarding the introduction and adaptation of Canon Law, as well as on the reception such interventions met in different local contexts. The topic will be considered from two perspectives that complement each other and are necessary to understand the complex Spanish American state of affairs: the issuance of rules and the administration of justice.

As for the first perspective, Roman intervention manifested mainly in the application of the Council of Trent in Spanish American dioceses, through the recognitio of provincial councils, supervised by the Congregation of the Council. To analyse the activity of this dicastery, current locally conducted studies on diocesan issuance of rules will be taken into account. Another important point to note is the constant creation of a body of jurisprudence by different Roman dicasteries, whose decisions had universal or local scope, according to the case in question. Consider, for example, the decrees of the different Roman congregations dealing with issues related to the New World; little use has been made of them in research on the Americas.

The Roman Curia continued to be the court of last resort to which the faithful, including those residing in the Americas, could turn to in order to claim justice. Thus, Roman intervention in the Indies also manifested in administrative and judicial spheres by means of the resolution of legal controversies and the conferment of graces, privileges and dispensations. Once the first stages of evangelization were over, Roman activities in this field became significant and very subtle since, by exerting influence on the regulation of local churches’ everyday life, they reached the interior of delicate power balances between central ecclesiastical jurisdiction, local authorities, and royal privileges and prerogatives.

The nature of Roman intervention changed in different ways, which reflects the complex composition of the Roman Curia itself and evidences the jurisdictional confusion of its dicasteries: some steeped in ancient tradition while others, cardinal congregations, recently founded. The Roman Curia, in effect, underwent deep changes during the 16th and 17th centuries, when several popes implemented reforms that introduced substantial changes in the Curia’s way of issuing documents. Due to the Spanish American case, this led to frequent and heated debates – within the Curia or with the state institutions involved – on the definition of the competences and jurisdiction of the Roman institutions in the Americas, a jurisdiction exercised in different ways. Thus, documents were issued with validity throughout the Indies and decisions were applied exclusively in one region, apostolic constitutions directed to the universal Church and responses to dubia put forward by ecclesiastical institutions of the Indies; controversies were resolved in Roman courts or referred to local courts; graces and personal dispensations were granted, perpetual privileges conferred.

Thus, what were the reasons for Spanish American parishioners, dioceses and religious orders to resort to Rome? Is it possible to find indications of a system in such resorting to the Holy See? What players, whether institutional or private, were in charge of favouring and keeping contact between both worlds regarding judicial instances? And, to conclude, how did Roman intervention or the recourse to curial dicasteries become part of the local issuance of rules and the administration of justice? What weight, finally, did Roman decisions have in the New World?

The archives of the different Roman dicasteries hold numerous documents, most of them unpublished, which can shed light on the abovementioned topics. It will be possible to supplement these sources with documents from Latin American local archives –also full of documents evidencing the frequent, though not constant or systematic relations between the centre of Christianity and America – with a view to discover the historical background, study the procedural development and assess the effects of and the reasons for the Roman intervention.

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