In this slim volume based almost exclusively on archival sources, Michael P. Costeloe reveals the complex organization and operations of the hitherto unstudied Juzgado de Capellanías. He particularly emphasizes the corporation’s pervasive financial activities and examines the implications of these activities for the Church, the government, and individuals. Although the author restricts his attention to the archbishopric of Mexico, the operations of the juzgados in the other dioceses were similar. The juzgado functioned as banker to agricultural, commercial, and business interests in the country, investing funds available from pious foundations through loans made especially to individuals, though it extended credit to the government and corporations as well.
After placing the institution in the political and economic context of nineteenth-century Mexico, the author defines the role and functions of the juzgado ; he discusses the personnel and their duties and authority; and he reviews the specific sources and uses of its income, emphasizing the purpose and effects of its investment policy. Finally, he examines relations between the juzgado and the State, explaining the basis of the corporation’s unique and strong position in withstanding government attacks on its wealth in contrast to the relatively more vulnerable position of other ecclesiastical corporations. This was because the juzgado’s employees, with the exception of the chief official, were generally not ordained, and because it was almost exclusively concerned with commercial and financial matters. Furthermore, the invested capital of the juzgado, representing the bulk of of its wealth, was secure from confiscation because it was in the hands of the lay population. Because the juzgado’s investments were extensive and affected many people, any government effort to confiscate its wealth was dangerous politically, however desirable it might be financially or economically. Only a very strong government could afford the political dangers of confiscating invested wealth—not only that of the juzgado, but of all ecclesiastical corporations—and forcing debtors to redeem mortgages. This occurred finally under Benito Juárez after a gradual weakening of the Church’s position and influence.
Costeloe considers the Liberal arguments about the detrimental economic influences of clerical wealth and, after a careful analysis of available primary materials, he concludes that “the activities of the Church in the sphere of personal loans provided an essential service and that the monopoly of credit exercised by the clergy was not abused in any way” (p. 85). While carefully weighing the evidence on the extent and effects of Church wealth, Costeloe does admit that the Church exercised a dominant and almost complete control of the land in Mexico; and although he finds Liberal attacks on Church wealth deficient in several respects, he does not impugn the sincerity of Liberal motives and intentions.
This is a sound, thoroughly-researched, and well-written study; yet it raises intriguing questions. Some of these cannot be answered because sources are lacking, while others are beyond the scope of the study and point the way for further research on ecclesiastical corporations, their activities and influences, and Church-State relations generally. Far more than being simply a detailed study of a single institution, Costeloe’s book contributes significantly to our knowledge and understanding of several important aspects of Mexican economic and ecclesiastical history.