Mexico’s socialist president Andrés Manuel López Óbrador is on a crusade, or perhaps better put, an anti-crusade, to obtain an apology from Spain and the Catholic Church for the conquest and colonization of the Americas. He has insisted on this now for the three years of his presidency, and isn’t letting up, despite rejection and mockery from almost all quarters, including the indigenous he claims to be defending.
In his first foray in this ongoing campaign, López Obrador sent letters to the King of Spain and to Pope Francis in early 2019, “requesting them to give an account of offenses and to ask the indigenous peoples for forgiveness for violations of what today are known as human rights,” according to the president’s own summary.
“There were massacres, impositions. The so-called conquest was carried out with the sword and the cross,” the president said.
Spaniards defend themselves from the “black legend”
The response of Spain’s socialist government, and Spanish society in general, was not what López Obrador he had hoped for, but may be gratifying to Americans (and particularly Catholics) who are tired of seeing their institutions surrender to the “woke” excesses of socialist ideology, particularly the history-destroying antics of the advocates of “critical race theory.”
After the text of the letter to the Spanish king was leaked to the Spanish press in 2019, the government of Spain responded not with an apology, but by blasting López Obrador and unequivocally refusing his request, stating that it “profoundly laments” the content of the letter, which “we reject with all firmness,” and adding that “the arrival, 500 years ago, of the Spanish to what is currently Mexican territory cannot be judged in the light of contemporary considerations.”
Obviously Spain isn’t going to make these untimely apologies for the same reason that we are not going to ask the French Republic to apologize for what the soldiers of Napoleon did when they invaded Spain. Nor are the French going to ask the Italians for an apology for the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar,” said Spain’s then Minister of the Exterior, Josep Borrell.
This year López Obrador brought up the issue again, now in the context of the impending celebration of the 200th anniversary of Mexican independence, only to receive additional scorn from a former Spanish president, José María Aznar, who notes the irony of the Mexican president’s very Spanish name.
“In this age in which people ask for forgiveness for everything I’m not going to fill up the lines of those who ask for forgiveness,” said the ex-president, who added that he was proud of his country’s history. Addressing López Obrador, Aznar quipped, “It’s the two hundredth anniversary of the independence of Mexico, congratulations. And now you change everything around and say that Spain has to ask for forgiveness. And you, what is your name? ‘My name is Andrés Manuel López Obrador. “Andres” for the Aztecs; “Manuel” for the Maya. “López” is a mixture.’”
Aznar lamented that the “new communism over there (in Latin America) is called ‘indigenism’” and pointed out that under Spanish rule the indigenous of the region were protected by the Law of the Indies.
The leader of Spain’s conservative opposition Popular Party, Pablo Casado, had even stronger words for López Obrador. “Hispanicity should be a cause of pride, despite this black legend of cancel culture, of this current stupidity of historical revisionism.”
Mexico’s president has also offered his own apologies for past atrocities of the Mexican government against the indigenous and other groups, such as Chinese immigrants, although his mea culpas have been reserved for periods of time far removed from the present. Some indigenous groups have received the president’s overtures with gratitude, but others have not. Mayans of the Yucatan peninsula, who live in poverty and are often in a struggle over land and resources with federal and state governments allied with corporate interests, have contemptuously dismissed the president’s overtures.
One group, which marches under the Mayan banner of “U Je’ets’el le Ki’ki’kuxtal” (“The Settlement of Good Autonomy”) has asked why they should accept an apology from someone who represents “an open alliance with big corporations and with the military, the continuation of the devastation of the forests that surround us and which give us life, the contamination of the waters that we can no longer consume, the plundering of the territory that we have lived in for centuries and which they want to take away from us, and the terrible exploitation of our Mayan people through so-called ‘development’ that enslaves and kills our people.”
Their sentiments have been echoed by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who has opined that Lopez Obrador, “must have sent the letter to himself” complaining of abuses of the indigenous, given the ongoing mistreatment of such people in Mexico.
Pope Francis gives a backhanded apology
Clearly the Spanish know how to defend themselves against historical smears, but the Catholic Church under Francis might seem to be a different matter. Pope Francis has promoted his own form of “indigenism” that glorifies the tribal and pagan cultures of pre-Hispanic America in recent declarations, particularly those associated with the Synod on the Amazon. Moreover, Francis preceded the Mexican president with his own unsolicited apology for offenses committed during the evangelization of the New World.
I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” Francis famously told Evo Morales during his visit to Bolivia in 2015. Morales, in turn, gave Francis a sculpture of a crucifix together with the hammer-sickle symbol of Soviet communism.
So in should be of little surprise that, in contrast to the rebuff of the Spanish, Pope Francis has responded to López Obrador’s request by offering something of an apology. However, he was also careful to add to it a reference to the government of Mexico’s persecution of the Catholic Church during the 1920s and 1930s, when hundreds of thousands died in the Cristiada, a struggle to protect Catholic religious practices from being virtually eliminated by government restrictions.
On various occasions, both my predecessors and I myself, have asked for forgiveness for the personal and social sins, for all actions or omissions that did not contribute to evangelization,” wrote Francis to Cardinal Rogelio Cabrera, President of the Mexican Episcopal Conference, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Mexican independence in September. “In that same perspective, we also cannot ignore that actions that in more recent times were committed against the Christian religious sentiments of a great part of the Mexican people, which caused profound suffering.”
How true are the accusations?
Lopez Obrador’s take on the Spanish Conquest and the Catholic evangelization of the Americas, is, as is usual in ideologically-motivated critiques of colonialism, tainted with serious historical errors and an obvious anti-Catholic bias. In the case of Spanish colonialism such critiques have a foundation older than socialism, which is found in what the Spanish have come to call the “black legend” (“leyenda negra”), an historical mythology created over the centuries by the British for their anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic polemics. This narrative has been largely corrected in recent years by British historians, who have recognized that it rests on an erroneous and selective reading of Spanish history. The Spanish are thus particularly sensitive to historical smears, which is why even leftists among them reject such critiques as little more than anti-Hispanic bigotry.
It has been my duty to review these issues every year here in Guadalajara, when a new batch of Fraternity of St. Peter seminarians come to the city to learn Spanish and to experience Mexican culture. As a resident of Mexico of almost 16 years, I’ve taken the time to study the religious and political history of the country, and the Fraternity recruits me each year to teach the seminarians a course on that history, beginning with both the pre-colonial Spanish and prehispanic indigenous roots of the country.
In exploring these events, an interesting picture emerges. While Spanish colonial policy and even the Catholic evangelization of the new world were sometimes marred by corruption and abuses, the surprising reality is that most of the charges against Spain and against the clergy of the Catholic Church are not only false or exaggerated, but often the very reverse of the truth. In fact, the Catholic Church and the Spanish government worked hand in hand at the highest levels to fight against the exploitation and abuse of the indigenous and the poor, and to liberate them from the tyranny of superstitious paganism, bringing them into the international fold of Christ and the higher culture of European civilization while respecting their legitimate traditional customs.
Although there was some bungling on the part of clergy and even on the part of popes, the commitment of the Catholic Church and the Spanish state to protecting the poor and vulnerable, and particularly the indigenous, was so strong that it is credited with laying the groundwork of what would become known as “human rights” law. The “Laws of the Indies” referred to by José María Aznar, as well as other legislation created by the Spanish crown, was a model for establishing and protecting those rights, even if it was not always enforced.
Moreover, contrary to impressions created by Britain’s “black legend” propaganda, the Spanish colonies were much more humanely governed than the British ones. Catholic prelates and Spanish royal officials were much less inclined to racism, and took an active interest in the spiritual and temporal welfare of indigenous peoples in ways that put the Protestant British and their colonists to shame.
This is not to say that there were not abuses, even systemic ones, in Spanish America, and in some cases the clergy were themselves the instigators. However, the number of such cases is surprisingly low. And in reality it was the Catholic clergy that were the loudest voices against such abuses, rallying the Spanish crown to counteract them by affirming the rights of indigenous people against the claims of opportunistic conquistadores and colonists, who wished to use the conquest of the Americas to rationalize the exploitation of native populations.
I hope to explore this topic in greater detail in a future article, but for now let it be said that if Spain and the Church owe an apology for abuses committed against the people of the Americas, much more does the latter owe to the former a deep debt of gratitude for the massive gift of the Catholic faith and of the richness of Spanish culture, both of which are today integral elements of what is called “Latin America” for a very good reason. As my own experience has confirmed after more than a decade and a half living in Mexico and visiting other Latin American countries, the peoples of the region cannot be separated from their Hispanic, European, and Catholic roots without denying the core of what they are.
That’s a reality that transcends the ephemeral ideological agendas of the day, and should bring clarity to our understanding of the history of the region. The indigenous peoples don’t need empty apologies for past abuses – they need the values of the Catholic faith, which include social justice, truly implemented in the region’s public policies. Their rights, which are often violated today, can be found to be affirmed by the very Spanish that López Obrador seeks to blame for current ills. Catholicism and Hispanicity are not the problem, but are integral to the solution.
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