Posted on October 23rd, 2016
Our recent visit to Madrid recalled the country’s devotion to Catholicism. The churches are fabulous and the museums replete with religious art. Both cost a great deal, which prompted me to explore how the Spanish church could acquire such wealth.
From very early days, Spanish priests enjoyed great power over their uneducated flocks, representing the only pathway to heaven. Opposing the church could lead to denunciation as a heretic and being burned at the stake. It was vital to keep the priest happy. A tithe of 10%, the diezmo, was paid to the church on all agricultural production, supplemented by additional tolls on harvest primicias (first fruits). The tithe was not abolished until 1841. Moreover you were expected to work on church land for free several days a month, yet the church owned 20% of all land and paid no taxes. Subjects paid for church baptisms, marriages and burials, without which entry to heaven was denied. Church collections were monitored. Wealthy families paid large sums to have relatives appointed to high church positions, thus expanding family influence and securing salvation. Revenues were also raised through the sale of indulgences, fleecing pilgrims and the trade in officially sanctioned relics, such as pieces of the cross, dove feathers and manger straw, all promising nearness to Jesus. By 1660 the archbishop of Toledo was the richest man in Spain after the king and the wealthiest Catholic prelate after the pope.
The church also profited handsomely from colonial exploration. In 1493 the Pope divided the world between Spain and Portugal, drawing a line down the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal was awarded the “old” world, including Africa, while Spain was assigned the “new” world, including the Americas. The church was a majority investor in Spanish exploitation of gold, silver and sugar resources, worked with slaves bought from Portuguese African colonies.
And so the money flowed in, the clergy enjoyed opulent lives, great churches were built and fine art commissioned, all to impress and intimidate those who continue to pay for them.