Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Truth in Many Tongues:
Religious Conversion and the Languages of the Early Spanish Empire

by daniel i. wasserman-soler
penn state university, 
240 pages, $33

As a historian who studies missionaries, I am sometimes asked by my fellow Catholics: How did the Church think about evangelization in the past compared to the present? Typically it is clear that they regard one age as wiser than the other. The more progressively inclined assume that things are better today, whereas the traditionally minded look back to a lost golden age of missions and evangelization.

Questions like this cannot be answered straightforwardly, because we cannot really speak of the mind of the Church per se on this matter prior to the late nineteenth century. That was when Leo XIII began to employ the papacy in ways never quite seen before, issuing more wide-ranging encyclicals, letters, and exhortations than any of his predecessors. These ­included six major documents relating to evangelization, intended to shape ­Catholic attitudes worldwide. There ensued an explosion of papal and episcopal statement-­issuing about evangelization, continuing to the present day. Highlights include ­Pius XI’s Rerum ecclesiae (which urged the whole Church to think and act in a missionary way), the Vatican II decree Ad gentes, Paul VI’s book-length Evangelii ­nuntiandi(­issued ­after the 1974 Synod on Evangelization in the Modern World), John Paul II’s even longer Redemptoris ­missio, and ­Francis’s whopping ­Evangelii ­gaudium.

Multiplying along with these statements were conferences, seminary and university courses, and even degree programs and departments devoted to the study of the Church’s now large body of teachings on evangelization. The Jesuits’ Gregorian University in Rome has had an entire Faculty of Missiology operating since 1932.

Because the modern Church thinks and says many programmatic things about evangelization, Catholics and scholars alike presume that the Church of more distant times did, too. They also assume that decisions related to evangelization made by churchmen of the past stemmed from conscious stands they, with the Church, took—drawing consciously upon formulated principles and action plans. But Catholics generally did not function this way before modern times, and certainly not before the rationalistic turn of the Enlightenment era that, in time, inflated the value of ideas, words, and analytical and schematic thinking far beyond what had previously been the case.

In Truth in Many Tongues, Daniel Wasserman-Soler vividly illustrates these differences and dispels certain myths. Drawing from archival research in Spain and Latin America, he analyzes the attitudes and practices of sixteenth-century churchmen regarding the use of indigenous languages in the evangelization of both Native American and Islamic communities across the Spanish Empire.

As Wasserman-Soler shows, churchmen posted throughout colonial New Spain and in traditionally Islamic parts of old Spain were pragmatic. Their ultimate goal was winning and keeping souls for Christ, so they approached issues of language based on whatever seemed most expedient for those ends. ­Unlike Catholics of later eras, they were not motivated by clear, conscious stands on the suitability for true Christians of Latin, Castilian, or local vernacular tongues. To be sure, they occasionally favored suppressing a language. This was particularly true in Spain, where they looked askance at Arabic because of its character as a rival scriptural language. Nevertheless, they were far more comfortable with experimental uses of Nahuatl, other Native American tongues, and sometimes Arabic—even at times in liturgical contexts—than one might assume based on common ideas about inquisitorial, Tridentine-era Spain.

Wasserman-Soler argues that many modern scholars hold distorted views of that period because they have asked inapt questions about their early modern subjects and source materials. Take the Spanish Inquisition’s regulation of religious books in vernacular languages. Instead of asking to what extent inquisitors engaged in censoring books, and based on what general, Tridentine-era schema, ­Wasserman-Soler asks in his first chapter why they targeted some vernacular books and not others.

The answers are surprising. For example, the inquisitors who famously had Bishop Bartolomé Carranza arrested in 1558 for his Castilian Comentarios sobre el catechismo christiano, and those who had the Dominican friar Louis of ­Granada’s Libro de la oración y meditación put on the Index around the same time, were not opposed in principle to religious-themed books in the vernacular for laypeople. Instead, they believed that some books that speculatively treated the mysteries of Christianity posed risks to the faith of uninstructed laypeople unless they were read with in-person guidance from a clergyman with university-level theological training. In the end, Wasserman-Soler tells us, after proceedings in Spain and Rome, the Church’s organic system with its checks and balances led to Carranza and Granada’s vindication. Carranza’s book was endorsed by the Council of Trent and Granada’s is remembered as a Catholic classic, endorsed by Charles ­Borromeo and the reforming Pope Pius IV.

In the second and third chapters of Truth in Many Tongues, Wasserman-Soler covers Spanish churchmen’s efforts to convert Muslims and Moriscos in sixteenth-century Granada and Valencia. These areas of southern Spain, retaken from Muslim rulers by Catholic armies in the fifteenth and thirteenth centuries, respectively, were by the sixteenth century home to numerous Moriscos: Muslims who had been baptized but were often nominally Catholic and were targets of evangelistic activity.

Because of several famous royal edicts expelling Moriscos from early modern Spain, scholars have tended to focus on degrees of tolerance or intolerance exhibited by churchmen toward Islamic ways. Wasserman-Soler argues that this is not the best approach to the sources, because a close look reveals a complex mix of utterances and practices that, although they appear incoherent to modern observers concerned with tolerance and cultural accommodation, have a logic of their own.

Although in 1567 King Philip II of Spain attempted to prohibit Moriscos’ writing and speaking in Arabic in Granada, because the language was seen by some authorities as an impediment to conversion, Spanish churchmen before and after this decree favored Arabic in certain places and contexts. They experimented with—and sometimes changed their minds about—preaching in Arabic, playing Moorish zambra music in Eucharistic processions, using Arabic psalters and prayer books, and even offering Arabic ­responses to priests’ Latin chants at Mass. They sometimes urged priests to catechize in Arabic, while simultaneously encouraging Morisco children to read and write in Castilian and Valencian and discouraging Islamic-style ritual bathing and the circulation of many books in Arabic. Their overriding goal was neither diversity nor conformity. It was saving souls. Prudential judgments, varying in different locales across Granada and Valencia, were made about the use of Arabic. These were based on determinations as to what best fostered fuller understanding of Catholic doctrines and ­worshipful reception of the Church’s ­sacraments.

Likewise in the New World, Wasserman-Soler shows in his fourth and fifth chapters, the accommodation-versus-­intolerance paradigm favored by modern researchers fails to account for reality. Sixteenth-century missionaries and Church officials in Mexico and Central America did not think in an either-or way about indigenous languages versus Latin and Castilian. Although they did, indeed, “see themselves as part of a battle, pitting Christianity against indigenous ‘idolatry,’” Wasserman-­Soler explains, “they did not engage in a parallel conflict between European and native languages.”

In fact, Spanish clergymen largely favored the study and use of indigenous languages. Although the bishops of New Spain were determined to root out indigenous forms of idolatry and encourage “uniformity of doctrine,” this did not mean that they were “searching for uniformity in all aspects of Catholicism.” The very same churchmen who favored the importation of the Inquisition into New World settings also encouraged the study of indigenous languages—energetically at times, while promoting instruction in Castilian and Latin. Wasserman-Soler demonstrates that numerous priests and missionaries in New Spain “learned a native language, and many learned more than one,” and that Church officials’ “interest in indigenous languages took on a . . . profound and long-lasting nature.”

In 1580, with the encouragement of bishops in New Spain, the Spanish Crown ordered the establishment of professorships in Nahuatl and other indigenous American languages. In Latin America in that period, a clergyman was more likely to be reprimanded by authorities for his lack of skill in an indigenous tongue than for his use of one in contexts of religious instruction or even worship. This, Wasserman-­Soler proposes, is among the reasons (along with natives’ resistance to Spanish cultural domination) that Nahuatl and some other indigenous languages survived into modern times, even as many others went extinct. But as was the case in traditionally Islamic areas of Spain, the degrees to which sixteenth-­century churchmen tolerated or even encouraged the use of indigenous languages had little to do with set views on language per se. Rather, decisions were based on determinations about which tongues facilitated acceptance of basic Christian teachings, reverential and sincere worship of the ­Triune God, and getting souls safely to Heaven.

Wasserman-Soler dispels several myths that continue to haunt discussions about early modern Spain, Catholicism, and missionaries. One is that, even compared to other imperialistic Europeans of the time, ecclesiastical and civil authorities in Spain were especially intolerant of indigenous ways. This perception endures despite more than a ­century of scholarly efforts to exorcise the old “Black Legend” about the cruel, intolerant Spaniard—a legend based partly on Anglo-­Protestant ­prejudices.

After reading Truth in Many Tongues, I realized that in my own work on early modern French missionaries, I had presumed too much contrast with Spanish ­approaches. There were far more Spanish churchmen than I had thought who, like the Jesuits and other missionaries in colonial New France, favored religious instruction, hymnody, and even liturgical responses in indigenous tongues.

There were certainly some large-scale Spanish efforts to suppress indigenous languages in favor of Castilian and Latin. But Wasserman-­Soler points out that the most wholesale of these were the work not of early, post-­Conquest Spanish officials but rather of their ­Enlightenment-era successors. In the late eighteenth century, the Spanish Crown and episcopate, hand in hand, embraced Enlightenment notions of rationalized, centralized governance and enforced cultural uniformity. That later regime was the same one responsible for the suppression of the Jesuits, with their culturally adaptive reducciones in South America’s rainforests, throughout the Spanish empire.

Wasserman-Soler also addresses the myth that the Council of Trent (1545–1563) led to an escalation of linguistic intolerance among Spanish churchmen. It has long been believed by many that Trent’s privileging of the Latin Vulgate and of Latin over vernacular tongues at Mass spurred on rigorous efforts to discourage the vernacular throughout the Catholic world. Wasserman-Soler’s close look at the Spanish empire, however, shows that attitudes about the vernacular were diverse and uneven in application depending on local conditions before Trent, and they remained so long after Trent.

Furthermore, Wasserman-Soler highlights post-Tridentine practices that will surprise many readers. For example, the bishops at the Third Provincial Council of Mexico of 1585 cited Trent when encouraging the use of indigenous languages for catechisms and even explanations “during the solemnization of Mass” and “the celebration of the divine office.” Then there is the story of Archbishop Ribera in Valencia, whose stance on the Moriscos and Arabic shifted several times over the course of his late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth-century tenure. The complexities Wasserman-Soler delves into in his analysis of Ribera’s and other churchmen’s careers illustrate that, even at the highest levels of ecclesial governance, this was not an era characterized by a rigorous Tridentine program regarding language in relation to evangelization and worship.

A third persistent myth is that Jesuit missionaries were, relative to other Catholic churchmen and religious, exceptionally accommodating of indigenous cultures. Wasserman-­Soler suggests that modern scholars have focused too exclusively on Jesuits and the pioneering adaptations of Catholicism to indigenous idioms and customs. As a result, they have left us with the impression that most other regular and secular clergymen in early modern mission settings were intent on imposing European ways along with Catholic worship and beliefs.

When viewed alongside the various churchmen with whom they sometimes collaborated, Jesuits in late-sixteenth-­century Granada, for example, appear much less exceptional, although they have long been considered especially tolerant of Islamic ways. Truth in ­Many Tongues ­contains ample evidence not only that the Jesuits were far from alone where experimental accommodation was concerned, but ­also that some of the clergymen we least expect to see up to such things—post-Tridentine ­bishops, ­Dominican friars, even the ­occasional ­Inquisition official—bear little resemblance to latter-day ­caricatures.

Although language was certainly something early modern churchmen thought seriously about, it was much more a secondary concern to them than it is for modern scholars who study them. It was also less fraught a topic than it would become for their modern counterparts, especially by the time of Vatican II. They lived in cultural milieux that were imprinted by neither the Protestant Reformation’s intensified focus on the preached and written Word, nor the Enlightenment’s rationalistic turn. It was not “­obvious” to them, as Wasserman-Soler says it is to modern Westerners, that debating and developing policies regarding indigenous and other vernacular languages should be central to any evangelization effort. Catholic churchmen of the era put less emphasis on the rational grasp of points of Christian faith than on “living virtuously and . . . participati[ng] in the sacraments and the life of the Church.” In other words, discerning whether the faith had been communicated well was not primarily a matter of whether Church members could articulate, in a dominant language, various creedal points, and intellectually assent to the same. More important was whether such members consistently manifested, through deeds more than words, that they were doing their best to obey and love the Christian God as their Creator and Redeemer.

In our day, not a few Church authorities are reluctant to emphasize the harder truths of the faith because they associate this with unpastoral intolerance toward culturally diverse populations. The sixteenth-century religious leaders described in this book were highly insistent on the truths of Catholicism. Yet they seem also to have been more “practical,” more “­situation-specific,” and less interested in “comprehensive prohibitions or endorsements” than contemporary Church authorities. Perhaps precisely because they seem to have been more convinced of the God-given purpose of their sacred profession, they were also more flexible about various matters, including liturgical ones, than the men in control of our current centralized ecclesial hierarchy. Today’s churchmen have something to learn from their predecessors.

Bronwen McShea is Writer in Residence at the Institute on Religion and Public Life and a Visiting Assistant Professor in History at the Augustine Institute Graduate School.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines