They Designated Their Sins with a Stick: Franciscan Accommodation in Confessing the Nahuas in Sixteenth-Century New Spain

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM
Chicago Ballroom B (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Veronica A. Gutierrez, University of California, Los Angeles
When the first official contingent of twelve Franciscans arrived in New Spain in 1524, they carried in hand a papal bull, Exponi nobis feciste, also known as the Omnímoda, in which Adrian VI granted them apostolic authority to preach and administer the sacraments in the New World. In it, the pope stipulated that the regular clergy might use any means necessary to evangelize the native peoples whenever they were two days distant from their local bishop, except in situations requiring episcopal consecration. This permission granted by the Holy See was unprecedented in the history of the Catholic Church, approved as a response to the extraordinary circumstance of discovering an extensive population of non-Christians in desperate need of baptism and eternal salvation The friars’ religious autonomy in the New World initiated a tension between the regular clergy and episcopal authority that continued until the secularization of Mexico’s parishes commenced in the late sixteenth century, which ended a period known as the Mendicant Church. From the beginning, the friars established a monopoly over the administration of the sacraments to native peoples, so that their refusal to accept the Tridentine reforms in 1565 – particularly the decree on episcopal authority – led to their postponement in New Spain until the  Third Mexican Provincial Council in 1585. In this essay, I explore Franciscan accommodation of Nahua cultural traditions in the administration of the sacrament of Confession, reading primary texts – such as fray Toribio de Motolinía’s Historia de los Indios de la Nueva España (1541) and fray Bernardino de Sahagún’s Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España (1569) – against the proceedings of the Mexican Provincial Councils, New World confesionarios, and Papal bulls.
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