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On a Jesuit ‘Genius and Scoundrel’: Understanding Jose de Acosta’s Role in Shaping the Latin American Church


Claudio Burgaleta, S.J., Ph.D., assistant professor of theology, has written about the earliest Jesuits in the Americas.
Photo by Victor M. Inzunza

There’s a story that Fordham University theologian and historian Claudio Burgaleta, S.J., loves tell about Jose de Acosta, the controversial 16th-century Spanish Jesuit. After his long tenure in the New World, Father Acosta wrote what is considered one of his master works, De Procuranda Indorum Salute (1588). It’s a rigorous, if Eurocentric and idiosyncratic, argument for allowing the native peoples of Latin America to be brought into the Christian fold.

But it’s one passage, thrown in almost as an aside, that always elicits laughter from Father Burgaleta’s Irish-American brethren when he recounts it.

“In making his argument for the evangelization of the Amerindians and therefore for their full rights in the Spanish empire,” said Father Burgaleta (FCRH ’85), an assistant professor of theology in the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education, “Acosta wrote that if the Irish could be evangelized, there was hope for everyone.”

Father Burgaleta is full of Jose de Acosta stories—and well he should be, for he spent years detailing just about every aspect of the man’s life, the result of which is a well-regarded revisionist biography of one of the “fathers” of the Catholic Church in Latin America.

Born in Medina del Campo in northwest Spain to a wealthy merchant family that is believed to have converted from Judaism, Father Acosta lived from 1540 to 1600, a time when the Spanish empire was solidifying its grip on vast territories throughout South and Central America.

He was, Father Burgaleta said, a man full of contradictions, a champion of social justice and the consummate political intriguer and insider. Indeed, his writings provide the first detailed description of the geography and culture of Latin America, and they’ve remained of interest to ethnographers to this day. His Doctrina Cristiana y Catecismo Para Indios (1585) is believed to be the first printed book in South America. He’s even considered one of the pioneers of modern aeronautical medicine for his work on altitude sickness in the Andes.

Father Acosta spent most of his time in Peru but traveled widely, becoming familiar with the Incas, Aztecs, Mayans and the Taino people of the Caribbean.

He pushed successfully for the Jesuits to become more directly involved in missionary work at a time when the order was divided on the issue. In fact, he was instrumental in establishing the first Jesuit reduction, or mission, in South America. That would prove a fateful development as the Jesuit reductions in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil would go on to protect hundreds of thousands of native peoples from Spanish and Portuguese cruelty and enslavement.

But it was on the great debate of the day that Father Acosta distinguished himself, Father Burgaleta said. The question was whether the Amerindians could or should be allowed to become Christians. It was not an inconsequential issue because under Spanish law if someone wasn’t a Christian they could be exploited without consequence. It was essentially the slavery debate of its day.

“He believed that the native people could be brought into communion with God at a time when many Spaniards did not,” Father Burgaleta said. “The notion was that these people were in the hands of the devil. So in this very Jesuit intellectual way, he challenges that both on theological grounds but also—and this is why Acosta is of such interest to ethnographers—he challenges that on the basis of the complexity of their cultures and the similarity, particular among the Aztec and the Inca, to European cultures.”

During his 15-year stay in Latin America, Father Acosta grew more powerful within the order and among the Spanish political establishment. He became the provincial of the Jesuits in Peru, help found several colleges, served the archbishop of Lima and was a favorite among the Spanish colonial elite.

His prominence transformed him, Father Burgaleta said, from Padre Jose to Don Jose de Acosta, an intellectual force and esteemed figure with access to the highest reaches of power in the New World.

Upon his return to Spain, Father Acosta would wield his power and access to the court of King Philip II to orchestrate an attempt to oust the Jesuit superior general, Claudio Aquaviva, S.J. It was, among other things, a generational clash, Father Burgaleta said, with Father Acosta representing a cadre of first-generation Jesuits who opposed the direction in which the younger superior general was taking the order.

Ultimately, the attempt failed, leaving Father Acosta a reviled figure in some Catholic circles. For Father Burgaleta, the reality is more complicated. The superior general survived by an act of political expediency of his own: He called for barring anyone from becoming a Jesuit who was not born into a Christian family. Only two Jesuits voted against the measure, one of them was Father Acosta.

The sordid affair is for Father Burgaleta classic Jose de Acosta, at once the consummate manipulator and intriguer and the champion of social justice.

In the end, Father Burgaleta believes that re-examining the lives of men like Father Acosta is valuable for Hispanic Americans and Latinos throughout the Americas because it sheds light on a neglected aspect of their history.

Father Burgaleta, himself Cuban born and New Jersey reared, has been in recent years actively involved in efforts to deepen the church’s reach into the Latino community. He’s leading an effort to develop the Isidoro project, a bilingual Web site and portal that will focus on Latino ministry in the United States and features such things as podcasts and Hispanic-oriented pastoral music.

For Father Burgaleta, attention to the needs and aspirations of Hispanic parishioners is growing in the United States, and developing an appreciation of the historical forces that have shaped their faith is more important than ever.

“If you look at liberation theology and Latino theology in the United States, there’s been a neglect of the historical sources for both of them as way to elaborate a theology that has something to tell us about the Gospel and how we live the Gospel today,” Father Burgaleta said. “So I think that chronicling these stories is very important from the point of view of the Latino community that is ever-growing in the United States to know its history and to let that history, with all of its lights and shadows, serve as a resource and inspiration and challenge—and also to provide a good laugh from time to time.”

By Victor M. Inzunza


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