In 1647, an odd case played out in French courts. A man named John d’Alba, unhappy with his wages, made off with a few pewter plates from the Jesuit college where he served; once caught, he was duly charged with larceny. When questioned, however, though he admitted to having taken the plates, he denied it was stealing—instead claiming he had simply been following the teachings of university priests, and showing the court a pamphlet authored by the one instructing him in cases of conscience. The judge was unsympathetic. According to Pascal, who tells the story in his brilliant, scathing ‘Provincial Letters’, the incensed order was given not only for the man to receive a good whipping at the college gates, but also for all materials with a doctrine “so illegal, pernicious, and contrary to all laws, natural, divine, and human” to be burnt. D’Alba didn’t stay around for the repercussions, disappearing from the scene along with the pewter.
The “pernicious” doctrine appealed to so unsuccessfully? ‘Probabilism’, a theological notion with roots in the Universidad de Salamanca in Spain. Initially taught by the Franciscans and Dominicans, it eventually came to be firmly associated with the Jesuits. The idea, briefly, was that right and wrong are not so obvious as they seem—that abstract reason must adapt itself to the specific case, and that many seemingly immoral or un-Catholic actions can be justified retrospectively by taking into account the circumstances.
Mere sophistry or moral relativism, say some—but as the D’Alba case shows, the ideas weren’t limited to dusty Latin texts. Nor was their influence limited to the continent. When Spanish Jesuit missionaries arrived in the Americas—including Argentina—they were confronted with native populations speaking other languages and following customs different from their own. At times these ran quite counter to the Catholic practices the missionaries espoused. And so, to continue living in harmony, the priests practised a flexible doctrine—adapting their arguments to the conditions, and in doing so drawing on theological ideas picked up in Europe.
In the north-eastern Argentine province of Misiones, and just across the border in Paraguay and southern Brazil, lie the crumbling rust-coloured remains of the reducciones where Jesuit priests organised the indigenous into communities. Despite their somewhat difficult accessibility (requiring long walks down dusty roads), and slightly diminished grandeur (the buildings were destroyed during the war with Paraguay), they draw thousands of visitors per year. Most are Argentines, intrigued by “las ruinas” and by this period in their own past.
The first missionaries arrived in Argentina in 1585, after coming to Brazil (1553), Peru (1567), and Mexico (1572). Many were from the Extramadura region of Spain, notable for its harsh living conditions and bleak landscapes, the forge of many strong characters. Still, they found Argentina rough-going. The land wasn’t the problem—that was green and fertile. It was the strange-seeming culture of the natives, their disinterest in city life, commercial interests, and the particular form of religion that for the Spaniards meant civilization.
The most immediate challenge was language. Hundreds of native tongues could be heard in the area; luckily, most tribes could understand at least Guaraní. Unluckily for the Spaniards, Guaraní is a language incredibly difficult for the non-native, with words which can sound like a guttural staccato for a speaker of the Romance languages. Since preaching to an uncomprehending audience in Latin or Spanish would be inutile, however, the Jesuits immediately set themselves to work mastering the unfamiliar sounds and syntax—with surprising success, as several impressive grammars of the period attest.
Any change in language affects what one says as well as how one says it. Guaraní didn’t have words for many of the Catholic terms the missionaries were trying to impart. And so the priests “translated”—putting highly abstract ideas into more practical indigenous language. The interpretive flexibility didn’t go unnoticed. Critics pounced, denouncing the “pagan” teachings before the Tribunal de la Santa of the inquisition in Lima. In this case, the supposed offenders were pardoned—the judges understood the missionaries’ argument that the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception is difficult to explain elegantly when words like “grace” or “conception” do not exist.
A pragmatic coexistence
On the reducciones, while it was the Spaniards who managed everything, the “tubichá” (chief) of each tribe gave formal approval and was specially treated. Organisation was based on a mixed system of public and private property, which in their writings the priests attribute to influences as diverse as Tommaso Campanella and Plato. In fact, it was an organic twist on the ideas of the Indian community—each family received its own piece of land, or “abambaé,” which it worked three days a week; another three days it worked a different property “belonging to God”, called the “tupambaé”. Food produced on the latter went to the old, the sick, and the children; there, Indians also worked in their workshops, made tributes, and built up the food reserves.
The reducciones were largely self-sustaining, basing themselves around workshops—blacksmiths, carpenters, spinners, potters, sculptors, bakers, silversmiths, and rosary manufacturers. What could not be made was purchased with the money made by selling yerba mate to Spain. As in medieval times, there was a hierarchical structure of apprenticeship, with work tools held in common and an equitable distribution of benefits; all was shared and there were no salaries.
The fine arts were thought of practically, and adapted to incorporate the aesthetics of indigenous crafters. If paintings and miniature wooden statues were well-made and kept the Indians at work and thinking of God, what did it matter if they bore no resemblance to any European image of the divine? Architecture was conceived of in a similarly utilitarian way. As the priest P. Diego de Torres wrote in 1614: “The churches must be brightly lit, so that they can follow the service well and read the prayers in their book. The acoustics must be such that one can hear the preacher and that the hymn reaches the masses. Easy access to the Holy Table is necessary so that one can give the communion without disorder… The plan of the building, the style of construction, are left open to the preference of the donors, the taste of the architects, and the subordination of circumstances.”
Education (of both sexes, rare for the time) went by the classical Ratio Studiorum, fitted to the individual case. It was a two-way learning process: Indians mimicked priests in religion and education, and Jesuits adapted to indigenous practices, an exchange not entirely free of biases. For the priests, the indigenous were largely thought of as children who had to be protected from their own supposedly worse instincts—largely cultural stereotypes. Ana Maria Galileano’s ‘Las Reducciones Guaraníticas’, published by the Argentine government’s Ministry of Culture and Education, is a snapshot of both the philosophy and the prejudice. “To civilize the aborigines, the Jesuits adapted to their mentality and their habits,” she writes. “They were able to halt their warlike impulses and exaggerated taste for alcohol, and, developing their artistic and manual aptitudes, attract them by means of sumptuous temples and solemn ceremonies with songs and an orchestra, to a sincere expression of the worship due to the grandeur of God.”
A subversive doctrine?
Both Jesuit justifications and probabilist or proto-probabilist texts by thinkers like Vitoria, Cano, Soto, and Molina can now be found bound in large Latinate tomes in the Argentine universities in Córdoba and other major cities. In colonial times, the schools of law reinforced the teachings, both through explicit study of the texts themselves, and through the training of lawyers to argue and resolve cases of doubt by providing a plurality of possible acceptable answers.
Not everyone liked this flexibility. The Jesuits gained a negative reputation for “worldliness”, the soothsayers of the “leyenda negra“, due to their willingness to adapt and to work with governments; but since their doctrine was pragmatic and anti-systemic, and focused on the individual case without recourse to a larger legal framework, it could just as easily go the other way. It took as justification the voices of church authorities, but these might be tailored to justify nearly any action retrospectively. In the Argentine context, the Jesuit flexibility was subversive in two ways: It was used by some to defend indigenous rights on the reducciones when the Spanish crown would rather simply rule the natives, and it was used by some to justify clearly anti-government or illegal practices like tyrannicide.
Eventually, the Spanish crown came to see these nonconformist ethics as a threat. In the 1750s, Spain and Portugal negotiated a treaty expelling the reducciones from Río de la Plata; Jesuits and Guaranís combined forces in protest, but were defeated by a joint Iberian force. In 1767 the Jesuits themselves were expelled from Argentina, an act Spain justified by exaggerating the number of probabilists who were “laxists”—the extreme of probabilism, in which nearly anything goes. Portugal was only too willing to help; its minister Marqués de Pombal published several notes meant to discredit the Jesuits, so that his country would have less resistance for its own South American conquests.
Pascal accuses the Jesuits of using complicated arguments to further their own worldly ambitions, rather than purely loving God; their flexible ideas “merely serve to betray, by their contrariety, the duplicity of your hearts… ‘Vae duplici corde, et ingredienti duabus viis! Woe be to the double hearts, and the sinner that goeth two ways!’” But Pascal himself drew on similar resources in his own ‘Pensées’, in his famous wager with God. Moral theories based on uncertainty, chance, double possibility, and probability, were particularly frequent and rich during this time—partly due to the influence of the Enlightenment, with its skepticism, unsettling scientific advances, stirrings of secularism, and questioning of moral certainties.
The probabilism and religious syncretism of the Argentine reductions might thus be worth turning to once again, as one possible response to still-existing problems. As one Jesuit priest in Argentina wrote, quoting Loyola: “The same illness cannot be treated invariably in all cases in the same way; one must rather consider the nature of the patient.”