The significance of the Church and religion in Spanish America is well known; the close relationship of Church and State and the importance of that relationship to the colonial system have long been recognized. But we lack scholarly monographs to explain the various elements of that connection, the changes in Crown policy and their impact. This lucid, competent study, solidly based on archival materials in Spain and Mexico, is thus a welcome addition to the literature.

Nancy Farriss traces the evolution of royal policies for ecclesiastical control in New Spain from the early sixteenth century to the end of the colonial period. She explains the early colonial system founded on the patronato real and then proceeds to an examination of Hapsburg variations. These increased royal control of colonial clergy through the vicariato, but left the basic nature of the system untouched, so that the Crown continued to exercise authority through ecclesiastical officials and institutions whose freedom was restricted.

After laying the foundation for her study, she describes the Bourbon shift in royal policy and analyzes the impact of the Caroline reforms. The Crown continued to use the familiar methods of indirect control over the clergy, but these were strengthened and supplemented by direct control. The clergy were brought under the jurisdiction of secular courts. Clerical judicial immunity was increasingly curtailed and finally abolished altogether during the War of Independence.

The author explains the attitudes of the clergy, high and low as royal policies of control evolved. While accepting subordination to royal authority in theory and sometimes welcoming royal intervention, the clergy were particularly sensitive to infringement of their judicial privileges and immunity. “The more closely related the methods were to judicial and coercive power over the clergy, and the further removed the royal agent was from the immediate authority of the Crown, the greater the degree of ecclesiastical resistance” (p. 10). Nevertheless, the decision to effect direct judicial control over the clergy was not solely politically motivated. It was based as well on the failure of indirect methods, exercised through clerical superiors, to maintain ecclesiastical discipline. Direct control, however, provided no solution to this problem. Nor did it exorcise the worry which had been the primary reason for the new policy—royal concern for the security of the State, the fear of clerically-inspired conspiracies.

Nancy Farriss shows that although the Caroline measures were imperfectly implemented or to a considerable extent thwarted, they did contribute to Spain’s loss of the colony by alienating a large proportion of the lower clergy and pious laymen and ultimately the hierarchy itself. While only one of many factors stimulating the complex Independence movement, Spain’s determination to enforce the Bourbon ecclesiastical reforms was a significant element.

This monograph sheds light on an important aspect of late colonial history and particularly on the disparity between royal intent and results, the gap between royal theory and colonial practice. More generally, the book exemplifies the limitations of enlightened despotism. It deserves a place among the number of careful studies increasing our knowledge of colonial institutions and administration.