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Jesus saves, but the Jesuits invest

3 August 2016

Back to working on a revised (and expanded) Gods, Gachupines and Gringos.

One who felt [the prejudice and discriminatory policies against Mexican-born colonial elites] keenly was the criollo Jesuit priest, Francisco Clavijero. Although his father was a gachupine government official and his mother a “pure” Francisco_Xavier_Clavijero,criollo, Clavijero, more than anyone, instilled in the Mexican conscience pride in their indigenous identity. Like Sor Juana, he showed an early gift for languages, mastering Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Nahuatl, Mixtec, Hñähñu (Otomí) and several other indigenous languages by the time he entered the seminary in 1748, at the age of 17. The Jesuits were receptive to the “new philosophy” and, as a professor and college administrator, Clavijero pushed for higher education focused on a curricula based less on theology and more on science, the humanities and modern languages… including the indigenous ones of his own country. He amassed the largest library of Nahuatl documents known, and would write a defense of the Aztecs quite different from those of the past, which attempted to at most see the native people as “misguided” or childish. He compared the Aztec favorable with the great western cultures, writing “The state of culture in which the Spaniards found the Mexican exceeded greatly, that of the Spaniards when they were known by the Greeks, Romans, Gauls, Germans and Britons.” Going one step further, he put the Aztec culture above that of the Romans and Greeks, saying that while human sacrifice and cannibalism were part of the religion, the Aztecs at least were less superstitious and their beliefs less ridiculous than those of the Romans.

Ironically, Clavijero would have to write his La Historia Antigua de México not in Mexico, but in Italy. Although the Jesuit order (Society of Jesus) had been founded by Spaniards, and had been ceded the administration over vast regions of the Empire the crown found it unprofitable or difficult to administer (notably, California in New Spain), they were never fully trusted as loyal subjects. The Jesuits — who answered only to the Pope, and not their King — had a history of militancy on behalf of the Church, even when their actions went against the best interests of the realm. Recruiting the “best and the brightest” (like Clavijero), the Jesuits were more than just scholars. It is not always as a joke that they are known as “God’s Marines”. In England, they had worked as undercover agents for the Church (as Thomas Gage had been expected to do), while their missionaries in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, had acted as military advisers (and even as officers) for local rulers, even fighting against other Europeans. Within Mexico and throughout the Spanish Empire, the Jesuits had carved out a reputation not only for providing elite education, but for their business acumen.

One of their more innovative ideas was what today is the modern endowment fund to finance not-for-profit enterprises. Baja California, mostly desert, isolated from the mainland, and sparsely populated, was strategically important to the crown (if only to prevent English pirates from establishing a base from which to attack Spanish shipping in the Pacific) but unprofitable and, although there were mineral resources, unattractive to colonial investors. As was done in other isolated parts of New Spain, missionaries were expected to act as the civil government, as well as to provide religious services. Most were self-supporting, the priests or friars often running (and sometimes owning) extensive business operations that exploited the labor of the local community they were meant to serve. In the Baja, the distance from markets, and the scarcity of labor mean any missionary work would have to be supported through charitable contributions.

But, rather than ask for donations to be given directly to the California missions, the Jesuits asked for donations to what they called the “Pious Fund”. The donations were used to buy cattle ranches in mining districts, an extremely profitable investment. The fund more than paid for the missions, amassing a fortune that allowed the missions to later expand into what is now the U.S. State of California, but to become a sustainable income source that provided funding for the Catholic Church until late in the 20th century1.

Unfortunately, the Jesuits in Spain had been involved in plots against the king, and 1767 were expelled from the entire Spanish Empire. This caused riots in some parts of México, where the Jesuits were seen as relatively good landowners. The Jesuits were not the only religious orders who had invested in income properties, and they hadn’t only invested in ranching. Religious orders were the biggest slumlords in México City, but the Jesuits were either better landlords, or gave better terms to their tenants, being popular with the poor, because they would work out terms for tenants in arrears on the rent, and less likely to evict.

There were two unintended results from expelling the Jesuits. Clavijero was not the only Mexican Jesuit writing anti-Spanish, pro-Mexican tracts and books. Smuggled back into México, it educated people to be able to see themselves, not as Spaniards living in the Americas, but for the first time, as Mexicans who lived in culture very different from Spain. The other unintended consequence was that the forced sale of Jesuit property (the Baja missions were turned over to the Franciscans, and the Pious Fund — although less well managed — continued to grow) revealed how much of México’s land and wealth was in Church hands.


1 In the 1830s, the fund would be taken over by the government, by which time it was supporting Catholic missions goldin Alta California as well. Alta California became the U.S. State of California in 1849. In 1869, on behalf of the Catholic bishops in California, the United States sued the Mexican government for twenty years of back payments and interest due from the fund. Although there was a partial settlement, the case dragged on, becoming the first ever heard by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 1889. IN 1902 the Permanent Court awarded California’s bishops $1,420,682.67 in gold, and an additional $43,000 a year to cover back interest. Although the fund was effectively liquidated, Mexico continued to make the interest payments until 1912. The Mexican government finally liquidated the fund with a lump sum settlement payment of $720,000 to the California bishops in 1966.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 3 August 2016 11:02 am

    Were the Jesuits then preaching “Our Heaven is here on this worldly plain”? Spend your money here because you can’t take it with you?

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