Above: Portrait of Bartolome de Las Casas
Image in the Public Domain
BARTOLOME DE LAS CASAS (1474/1484-JULY 18, 1566)
“Apostle to the Indians”
My background reading for this post included sources with diametrically opposed understandings of Bartolome de Las Casas. He was imperfect, to be sure, but he was hardly the bete noir some have depicted him as being or the increasingly intolerant man of conscience of whom I read at the New Advent website. (He was increasingly intolerant of slavery. How is that a vice?) I have concluded that The Church of England was correct to decide to celebrate his life, with a feast day of July 20. Henry Irving Louttit, Jr., the Ninth (Episcopal) Bishop of Georgia, said in my presence while he was still the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta, Georgia, in the early 1990s that one can find a reason not to think of any given saint as a saint, and that such nitpicking was not a helpful endeavor. What really mattered, Louttit argued, was whether one considered a saint was a person of God, especially at the end. (That is also the point of view of Thomas J. Craughwell, author of Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil Worshippers Who Became Saints, 2006.) The Episcopal Church, which maintains a calendar of saints without canonizing anyone formally, has established a set of standards by which to evaluate proposed saints. Among them are significance, memorability, perspective, and Christian discipleship. That denomination has decided to celebrate the life of Las Casas on July 18. Likewise, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) have decided to remember him on July 17.
Bartolome de Las Casas changed much during his lifetime. He, a native of Seville, Castille and Leon, came from nobility. His father, Francisco Casas, returned from the second voyage (1493-1496) of Christopher Columbus with an Indian boy, who became our saint’s servant. Las Casas studied law and theology at the University of Salamanca then practiced law. In 1502 he sailed to the Spanish Antilles to begin work as an advisor to the government there. Eight years later, at Santo Domingo, Las Casas became the first Roman Catholic priest ordained in the Americas. Then the direction of his life changed.
Our saint came under the influence of Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican friar and the first Spaniard to preach against Spanish cruelty to indigenous people in the Americas. Las Casas accompanied Diego Velasquez’s expedition to Cuba in 1511-1512 and tried in vain to prevent the massacre of natives at Caonas. The Spanish Empire employed a system called repartimiento, the allotment of encomiendas, or slaves to Spanish landowners for forced labor. Defenders of this arrangement cited economic necessity and public safety as justifications for it. In 1514 Las Casas, having concluded that this system was evil, renounced his rights within it and encouraged others to follow his example. Then he commenced his decades-long effort devoted to the abolition of repartimiento.
This work began in Spain in 1515, when Las Casas spoke to King Ferdinand V of Castille and Leon (reigned 1474-1516)/Ferdinand II of Castille (reigned 1506-1516), “Ferdinand the Catholic.” The monarch was a power-hungry and unscrupulous figure, so that stage in the great work failed. In 1516, however, Cardinal Jimenes de Cisneros, the regent, appointed Las Casas to lead a commission to inquire as to the best way to alleviate the injustices inflicted upon the native peoples by Spanish settlers and conquistadors. Our saint returned to Hispaniola, While there he found the zeal of his fellow commissioners lacking. In 1517 he returned to Spain. King Charles I (reigned 1518-1556)/Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1519-1556) was struggling to gain recognition for his claim to the throne. There was a regency in place, however, and our saint spoke to people in power to make decisions. He proposed an end to slavery for native peoples. (That was good.) To replace that slave labor force Las Casas proposed African slaves. He disavowed that recommendation shortly thereafter and spent the rest of his life making apologies for it. No part of this proposal bore fruit. Our saint was able, however, to obtain royal approval for the founding of a model colony (without slave labor) at Cumana, on the coast of Venezuela. That colony failed in 1521, due to the violence of conquistadors. Powerful economic and military interests defended the enslavement of indigenous peoples tenaciously.
The effort continued. In 1522 Las Casas entered the Dominican Order and the monastery at Santo Domingo. There he wrote History of the Indies (published in 1875-1876), an account of early Spanish colonies in the Americas. Our saint returned to Spain in 1530 and obtained a royal decree forbidding the enforcement of slavery in Peru. He delivered it to Peru in person. Circa 1535 Las Casas wrote The Only True Method of Attracting All People to the True Religion, in which he argued that preaching and good example, not enslavement, should be the first step in the process of converting Indians. Next, in 1537-1538, our saint converted the fierce Tuzutlan tribe of Guatemala to Roman Catholicism. He also changed the name of their territory from Tierra de Guerra (“Land of War”) to Vera Pax (“True Peace”). The Dominican Order sent Las Casas to Spain to gather recruits in 1539. At that time he wrote A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (published in 1552).
On November 20, 1542, the New Laws took effect. They were not all that Las Casas wanted, but they were more than many settlers considered wise. The New Laws, prior to amendments which made them useless, were supposed to be the beginning of the end of the repartimeinto system. Our saint, having declined to become the Bishop of Cuzco, in Peru, in 1542, became the Bishop of Chiapas, in Mexico, in 1544. His tenure (1544-1547) was difficult, for he had to contend with constant opposition (related to the New Laws) from clergy, laymen, and authorities. Our saint even refused absolution of sins to anyone who refused to free his Indian slaves.
Las Casas left the Americas for the last time in 1547. He returned to Spain, where he spent most of the rest of his life living in monasteries. In 1550 and 1551 our saint debated famed scholar and theologian Gines de Sepulveda in public on the topic of the enslavement and destruction of indigenous peoples. Four years later, in 1555, Las Casas followed Prince Philip, soon to become King Philip II (reigned 1556-1598), to England, to prevent colonists from winning royal approval of the perpetual slavery of Indians. Our saint died at Atocha Monastery, Madrid, on July 18, 1566. The struggle against slavery in the Spanish Empire continued.
The designated collect from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (2010) emphasizes modern slavery. That is appropriate, for Las Casas opposed slavery in his day. One might think of religious-based slavery in Africa. That practice is evil, I agree, but stopping there might lead one far away from Africa to think,
What can I do about that?
and do nothing else. I live in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, on the outskirts of the Metropolitan Atlanta Region. (To be precise, I live just a few miles from part of the eastern border of that region.) Southeast of my location is Atlanta, a hub of human trafficking. Even closer to home, human trafficking is a problem in Athens-Clarke County. The life of Las Casas challenges me to ask myself what I might do to resist slavery just a few miles from my front door. As for religious-based slavery in Africa, certain organizations fight that evil. They need support.
Evil, supported by powerful economic, political, and military interests and frequently dressed up in the attire of morality, surrounds us. We cannot fight all of it successfully or partially so, but we can do our part. God, I suppose, does not really need we mere mortals. God is omnipotent, correct? Yet we, I have heard, are God’s hands and feet. Will I–will you, O reader, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant in The Book of Common Prayer (1979),
…seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
…strive for for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
One of the great difficulties of timeless principles is that many people who agree to them differ when the question becomes how best to apply them. If, for example, one accepts the proposition that one person’s rights end at the edge of the other person’s nose, how does one resolve the conflict of these two sets of rights? May each of us, by grace, succeed in bringing honor to God and in respecting the dignity of every human being as we navigate and shape the circumstances of life.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
APRIL 16, 2016 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINT BERNADETTE OF LOURDES, ROMAN CATHOLIC NUN
THE FEAST OF HEINRICH THEOBALD SCHENCK, GERMAN LUTHERAN PASTOR AND HYMN WRITER
THE FEAST OF ISABELLA GILMORE, ANGLICAN DEACONESS
THE FEAST OF SAINT WILLIAM FIRMATUS, ROMAN CATHOLIC HERMIT
Eternal God, we give you thanks for the witness of Bartolome de las Casas,
whose deep love for your people caused him to refuse absolution to those who would not free their Indian slaves.
Help us, inspired by his example, to work and pray for the freeing of all enslaved people of our world,
for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
—Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 469