The Controversy over Justification
of Spanish Rule in the Philippines


The following article consists of the main extracts of a lengthier one, with 
48 scientifically precise footnotes. For reason of space, we have omitted 
these footnotes. We will be pleased to forward a photocopy of the complete 
article to the readers asking for it.

In preparation for the trip to the Indies proposed by Christopher Columbus, 
the Catholic kings of Spain "consulted the most eminent jurists and 
ecclesiastics . . . concerning the most convenient manner of taking 
possession" of new-found territories." The Portuguese had relied on a number 
of pontifical documents for their possessions in the Indies, but the 
Spaniards could only fall back on the provisions of Law 29, Title XXVIII, of 
Partida III, which gave legal right over any newly discovered land to 
whoever inhabited it first. On the strength of these provisions Columbus 
took possession of the lands he discovered for and on behalf of the Spanish 
monarchs, who, he asserted, could dispose of them just as they would the 
realms of Castille. Although at the time it was commonly accepted that the 
lands of infidels would belong to the Christian nation that first discovered 
and conquered them, this did not satisfy the Spanish desire for clear title 
since their own legislation provided that only uninhabited lands could 
belong to the discoverer. Clearly this was not the situation in the lands 
discovered by Columbus. Hence Spain appealed to the Roman pontiff for some 
more plausible legal title.

This recourse was in keeping with the prevailing view among jurists and 
theologians of the time, believing that the pope was universal lord of the 
world, whose authority extended to the non-Christians and. that he could 
therefore, in a given case, appropriate, transfer, and assign, quite 
legally, political dominion over their lands to Christian princes. Spain 
could, therefore, legally acquire sovereignty over an inhabited territory in 
one of four ways, namely: (1) heredity, (2) voluntary choice of the 
inhabitants, (3) marriage to an heiress of the realm, or (4) pontifical or 
imperial grant. Obviously, in the case of the lands discovered by Columbus, 
provisions one and three did not apply. Of the remaining alternatives, the 
Spanish monarchs chose to assuage their conscience by the most convenient 
means possible?an outright pontifical grant. Their royal request was 
approved with the issuance of the papal bull "Inter caetera", dated May 3 - 
4, 1493. But what was the precise meaning and scope of the grant? Did it 
really entail political sovereignty or was it simply a special commission to 
spread the gospel? This was an issue of continuing controversy that occupied 
the royal attention throughout the sixteenth century.

In this national controversy the views of the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria 
loom impressive and commanding. The best efforts of the king's counselors, 
who opposed Vitoria, proved to no avail. The king himself saw the justice of 
the Vitorian opinion and gave it royal sanction. The pope, said the learned 
professor of Salamanca, is not the temporal sovereign of the world; hence, 
he enjoys no authority over the non-Christian peoples and territories, for 
which reason, whatever the construction to be given to his bull "Inter 
caetera", it could not entail any grant of political dominion over said 
discovered lands. This view soon brought forth zealous defenders as well as 
bitter opponents. But with the years, it gained ground through the sustained 
efforts of Vitoria's brothers in habit, notably the Dominican Bartolomé de 
las Casas, bishop of Chiapa. The impact was such that the Spanish emperor, 
Charles V, was of a mind to forsake the occupied territories of the New 
World. But Vitoria himself dissuaded the monarch, lest Christianity be lost 
from among the native converts; for which reason, the emperor pledged to 
leave these peoples to themselves as soon as they were able to keep 
themselves within the Catholic religion.

In September 1581, Msgr. Domingo de Salazar, O.P., the first bishop of the 
islands, arrived in Manila. It was during his time and on his initiative 
that an assembly of sorts was convened in 1582 on the lines of a council, 
"to deal with matters concerning the furthering of the Faith and the 
justification of past and future conquests by Spain".

The fathers of the council were of the opinion that no valid claim could be 
laid to the conquest of the Philippines other than that based on the right 
to preach the gospel, with the qualifying clauses, mentioned above. But for 
this right to justify possession of territories, it was unnecessary to 
depend on any direct opposition of the natives to the preaching of the 
gospel, since the inferior or primitive organization of their government and 
of their laws as would hinder or thwart their conversion was, in itself, 
sufficient reason.

This theory of the Council of 1582 was unanimously accepted by the religious 
of the Philippines, including Bishop Salazar.

The opinion of the Jesuits can be summarized thus. The right of the Spanish 
sovereigns to rule the new territories was based, in the first place, on the 
natural right to help the needy and protect the innocent. Upon this basis 
Pope Alexander VI made the King of Spain supreme ruler of these people to 
advance the spread of the gospel. But what authority did the pope have over 
pagan lands as far as safeguarding evangelization was concerned? Directly, 
of course, he had none, but indirectly he could intervene in the affairs of 
pagan nations when necessary for the exercise of the right to defend the 
innocent and to preach the gospel. The same indirect authority rested with 
the king and, by papal concession, was restricted solely to him to avoid 
friction and confusion in the new Lands. Both the pope and the King of Spain 
could exercise this indirect authority in three cases, namely, should the 
preaching of the gospel be hindered by these people; when there was a 
probability that the maintenance of Christianity in their lands could not be 
entrusted to them; and when; in the opinion of learned and virtuous persons, 
the preaching of the gospel could not be carried out in safety but on the 
contrary, there was danger that it cease altogether. Consequently, the King 
might acquire no authority over these peoples without first ascertaining the 
existence of these conditions. Moreover once the native had been converted, 
the King would acquire added justification to continue his rule over them 
based on the natural right to be protected in their new faith.

The Augustinians saw in the pontifical grant a justification for Spanish 
rule over the Philippines. By divine and evangelical law the supreme 
pontiffs had been entrusted with the proclamation and spread of the gospel. 
throughout the world. Since they were unable to do this personally 
everywhere, much less in remote places, who could doubt that they might or 
even ought to entrust this care and task to one who was able to attend to it 
with less hindrance and greater means. Inasmuch as the discovery of the East 
and West Indies had been achieved through the intervention and at the 
expense of Spain and her sovereign, the popes, particularly Alexander VI, 
had good cause to delegate to the King of Spain the evangelization and 
conversion of the Indies, and the governance and protection of those 

The opinion of Bishop Salazar, on the other hand, may be gathered from his 
brief "Resolution" as well as from his tract on the collection of tribute 
from the pagans in the Philippines. The Dominican prelate began by 
distinguishing between two orders or kinds of rule, political or temporal, 
and spiritual or supernatural. The former, he believed, proceeds from God 
through the choice made by the subjects and is destined to keep them in 
peace and justice while the latter, which derives from Christ and was 
delegated to Saint Peter and his successors, the bishops of Rome, is 
ordained to the teaching of the true and salutary doctrine that would lead 
men to eternal salvation.

Only in one of these two ways, he continued, could the King of Spain rule 
these lands: the political or temporal authority of the king might have 
originated either when the Spaniards first reached the Philippines, or after 
they had settled there. In either case, to be valid, he said, it must be 
founded either on popular choice or upon a just war. But, in the case of 
popular. choice, the following conditions had to be fulfilled: first, that 
all the natives, or at least a majority, should have chosen the King of 
Spain for their ruler?thus becoming his subjects. If originally they had 
their own rulers, these too should have expressed their consent to the 
decision. A choice made either by the natives or by their rulers alone would 
not have sufficed; it had to be a joint action. Moreover, this decision must 
have been made freely, without the intervention of fear, force, pain, or 
ignorance. Failure in any one of these conditions would invalidate the 
King's rule.

Bishop Salazar then broached the existential phase of the question, alleging 
that all available information failed to show any such deliberate and free 
choice ever having been made by the Philippine natives and their rulers in 
favor of the King of Spain and his rule. He went on to say that neither did 
the Spaniards acquire legal dominion by reason of a just was since two of 
the essential conditions were lacking: authorization from the king to carry 
out the war and, secondly, an offense committed by the natives.

Touching on another aspect of the problem, Salazar stated that the Spanish 
kings could be considered the legal rulers of the Indies by virtue of the 
concession granted to them by Pope Alexander VI, but this went no further 
than the right to lead men to their eternal goal through the preaching of 
the gospel and related activities.

Bishop Salazar next dealt with the jurisdiction of the Church over pagans. 
He brought forth the same distinction established by the Dominican 
theologian Cajetano. There are those, he said, who are de facto and de jure 
subject to the Church, namely: (1) those residing in the papal estates; the 
pope may rule them, except in matters relating purely to divine positive law 
or ecclesiastical law; (2) those who are legally but not de facto subject to 
the Church, such as the pagans living in lands unjustly withheld by them 
against their lawful Christian rulers; in this case, the latter may validly 
declare war on such pagans as unjust aggressors; (3) lastly, those not 
subject either de facto or de jure to the Church. Those in the third group, 
he argued, are not hostile to Christians nor do they occupy lands once 
belonging to the Church or to Christian princes; they are the owners and the 
lawful rulers of their territories, just as the Spaniards are of theirs. The 
Church has authority over them, he said, only to the extent that, through 
the preaching of the gospel, she attempts to bring them to knowledge of the 
truth; thus, unless they hinder the preaching of the gospel or are totally 
opposed to it, or their attitude toward Christians proves destructive and 
malicious, neither the Church nor the Christian princes have any cause for a 
just war against them. The pagans of the Philippines were to be classified 
in this third category.

For his part, Father Miguel de Benavides, O.P., later third Archbishop of 
Manila, also discussed these points, basically agreeing with the views of 
Bishop Salazar.

For Salazar and Benavides the King of Spain had yet to become the political 
sovereign of the Philippines; his only authority was as an instrument of the 
spiritual power of the pope, directly so over the Christians and indirectly 
over the pagans. While Salazar merely rejected the legitimacy of the Spanish 
dominion the Philippines, Father Benavides suggested a means of vindicating 
it. He proposed that the king should send religious and secular clergy to 
convert the natives in justice and charity, while leaving them to rule 
themselves. In this way the natives were likely to choose freely to become 
subjects of the King of Spain even before becoming Christians. The natives 
should be attracted to the Spaniards through friendship, so that they might 
eventually decide, of their own volition, to accept the rule of the Spanish 

From what has been said, it is clear that there was a divergence of opinion 
among the religious in the Philippines on the temporal or political 
authority of the Spanish king over the islands. The Augustinians and Jesuits 
maintained the legitimacy of this dominion, based on the papal concession 
and the opposition of the natives to the preaching of the gospel. The 
Dominicans, led by Bishop Salazar, rejected this legitimacy as 
insufficiently established according to law.

This matter was at length taken up by the royal council of the Indies. 
Governor Gomez Perez Dasmariñas sent to this council all the relevant 
documents supporting the royal claim, and also Father Francisco Ortega, whom 
he instructed to oppose the view advanced by the Bishop of Manila. Bishop 
Salazar, then aged 78, also left for Spain to defend in person his opinion 
before Philip II, taking with him Father Miguel de Benavides.

After lengthy discussions, Philip II issued a decree on June 11, 1594, 
addressed to the governor-general of the Philippines. All the decisions in 
it were completely contrary to Bishop Salazar's views concerning the 
collection of tribute, although?thanks to the efforts of Father Benavides¾it 
was declared that the natives who were rulers before their conversion to the 
Catholic faith should remain so after their conversion.

Bishop Salazar died on December 14, 1594, at the age of 82. Father Benavides 
then took the matter into his own hands, determined that the royal decisions 
should be reversed. He prepared a new study of the whole affair and 
submitted his views in writing to Philip II, who hastened to convene the 
Council of the Indies, instructing its members to hold sessions without 
respite so that a decision might be reached before Benavides left the 
country. On October 17, 1596, the council signed a declaration, later 
endorsed by the king, favorable to the stand of Father Benavides. On 
February 8, 1597, Philip II issued a decree ordering the governor-general of 
the Philippines to call together the authorities of the islands to determine 
ways and means, first, to restore tribute unjustly collected from pagan 
natives, over whom the king had no legal power, and, second, to obtain, 
without coercion, ratification of the natives' submission to the Spanish 
sovereign who, in his own words, had been convinced by Father Benavides that 
he should cherish submission of his subjects only when voluntarily given.

In 1598, Benavides (by then, bishop-elect of Nueva Segovia) returned to 
Manila, bringing along with him this unprecedented cedula. In pursuance 
thereof, on August 4 of the same year, the governor-general convened the 
council proposed by the king. All the authorities present at the meeting 
pledged to comply with the. royal wish. The next day, the cedula was 
publicly proclaimed by Francisco Pos, Manila official town crier, before a 
huge crowd.

Soon thereafter, in the various dioceses of the country, public meetings 
were held at the town square, with the native residents; led by their 
chieftains, attending. Once the cedula terms were made known to them in 
their own dialects, they were asked whether they freely chose to submit to 
the sovereignty of the King of Spain over them. The results were 
overwhelmingly favorable, even if in some instances reservations and 
conditions were attached. On July 12, 1599, Governor Tello de Guzman could 
already inform His Majesty, among other things, "that measures have been 
taken for the execution of the royal decree brought by the Bishop of Nueva 
Segovia in regard to rendering submission … In the province of Ilocos, in 
the diocese of the Bishop of Nueva Segovia, this was very well done; and 
submission was rendered to Your Majesty. Likewise the whole district of 
Manila , missionary territory of the Augustinian Fathers, has rendered 
submission. La Laguna, in. the care of the Franciscan Fathers not so readily 
yielded, for the natives there have asked for a year in which to reply . . . 
. Something similar has happened in other provinces." Again, in some sectors 
of Pangasinan, it was agreed that the natives would accept Spanish rule with 
the understanding that they receive due redress for the abuses committed by 
the alcaldes mayores and encomenderos and that the tribute hitherto 
unlawfully collected from them be returned.

In due time, it can be surmised, nearly all the other regions and provinces 
of the Philippines gave their free consent to the supreme authority over 
them of the King of Spain. This can be gathered from the invariable conduct 
observed by the Spanish government in its rule over the islands. An example 
is the submission freely given by the natives of the Batanes Islands on June 
1, 1782, upon being publicly convened and, through the interpreters, Pedro 
Paturayan and Marcos Ruiz, told of the message of Governor-General Jose 
Basco issued in Manila on February 15 of the same year. There is also the 
free consent given in 1845 by the different chieftains of Basilan Island in 
Mindanao, who were contacted by the governor of Zamboanga upon instructions 
to that effect given him by the then Governor-General Narciso de Claveria. 
It is noteworthy that, in a later communication to the central government in 
Spain, Governor Claveria corrected the earlier erroneous information that 
Dato Usuk and the people of the Maluso region, in the said island had given 
their consent. Governor Claveria made it clear that such had not been the 
case, so the government was to refrain from exercising any sovereignty over 
them. Such was the scrupulousness with which this matter of free consent was 
regarded by Spain. Even as late as 1881 the same criterion would be followed 
by the Spanish government. Thus, desirous of incorporating the northern 
Luzon provinces into the territories under the rule of Spain, 
Governor-General Primo de Rivera, on January 14, 1881, issued a decree 
appealing to all the Filipino Igorots to accept the rule of the Spaniards, 
under pain of being forcibly subdued should they fail to do so within a 
given time period. Although quite a number of them heeded the call, many 
more refused to do so, whereupon a punitive expedition was sent against 
them. The government troops were successful, and the governor-general 
elatedly informed the home government. But, in reply, Governor-General Primo 
de Rivera was ordered from Madrid to stop immediately all such expeditions, 
for they were deemed "in violation of the existing laws that did not allow 
ill-treatment of the Filipinos nor their forcible submission to Spanish 
sovereignty". The governor general faithfully complied with the 
instructions, and it was left to the missionaries to achieve the 
government's purposes through persuasion and conversion.

Irrespective of whether such procedure was followed by the Spanish 
authorities in every instance and in all parts of the Philippines, the 
overall general picture is undeniably favorable. Certainly it is not true, 
as some have suggested, that Spain's legal title over the Philippines was 
based on the so-called right of discovery and conquest of these islands by 
the Spanish conquistadores. These were the very grounds put to question by 
the Spaniards themselves, for "discovery" as a legal title could only apply 
to uninhabited territories, which was not the case with the Philippines, and 
"conquest" is but a euphemism for the sanctioning of might as right, 
contrary to the very ethos of Spain.

In light of all this, it is therefore truly amazing that a king, on whose 
empire the sun never set, should have evinced such an unswerving 
determination to seek the free acceptance of his dominion over a people whom 
he had ruled as subjects for more than thirty years. This, in large measure, 
was no doubt due to the alert and lively passion for justice and fairness of 
those early missionaries¾men for whom the rights of God and of God's 
children were more deeply embedded in their hearts and minds than the 
awe-inspiring majesty of crown and throne.

Society of St. Pius X
Newsletter of the District of Asia
Oct - Dec 2001


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