Immaculate Mary

The Immaculate Conception

The feast of the Immaculate Conception is a meditation on a key line in the Gospels’ presentation of Mary: “The angel Gabriel . . . coming to her, said, ‘Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.’ But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”

We too are called to ponder what sort of greeting this might be. It’s an unfortunate thing that sometimes Catholics think of the Hail Mary as a kind of mantra within the rosary, sort of a meaningless thing we repeat to keep time, like we might just as well say the ABC’s. We say that prayer over and over again because we want to ponder what sort of greeting it might be. We want to be troubled by it.

Mary highlights the two most “troubling” claims of Christianity. The first is that the Lord is with us, that Jesus is truly the most high God, and that he has truly become man. We call Mary “mother of God,” and repeat that over and over in our Hail Mary’s, too, because if you aren’t troubled by that claim, you don’t understand what Christianity claims. Mother of God is a ridiculous thing to say. God can’t have a human mother. And yet that is the very center of Christianity: not a mystery about Mary, first of all, but a mystery about Jesus. “Mother of God” is the best phrase we’ve found for making us really ponder just how much “the Lord is with us” in the person of Jesus Christ. If you’re not troubled, you haven’t heard what we’re saying.

The second troubling claim flows from the first: Mary is “full of grace.” The Greek is complicated: kecharitomene is something about grace (charis, in the middle), something about becoming (-o-), and something about completion (ke-). She has been totally graced. It’s not just extrinsic, it’s something about her. Grace has something to do with God’s free gift, and with his favor, with his liking her. He has freely given to her because he likes her—and he likes her because of what he has given to her, because he has made her likeable. That’s the claim of this Greek word, kecharitomene. Of course the angel spoke Hebrew (or Aramaic?) to Mary, and we don’t have the original, but if we believe in Scripture, we believe that Luke’s Greek gets to the substance of what the angel said.

That too is troubling: that we can be likeable to God—we, who know ourselves sinners, and who have some sense of God’s awesomeness. (It helps that Mary is a figure out of the Old Testament: they knew what sin was, and its prevalence, and what God was.) I find that Americans today, at least—and probably everyone always—is disturbed at the notion that God would do something to our interior, to somehow make us different. I teach my students, “grace does something.” And I find them, oddly, constantly trying to come up with ways that grace doesn’t have to do anything, because we do it all ourselves. They find the very notion of grace kinda disturbing. But here it is, right in the Gospel: God graces us. God makes us likeable.

In fact, this is another way he is “God is with us.” He is with us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. But he is also with us in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us. In Catholic theology, we use the word “grace” to name the way the presence of the Holy Spirit changes us. We are not the same. God is in Mary’s womb, in Jesus Christ—and God is in Mary’s heart, by grace. If you are not “troubled,” if those claims don’t startle you and confuse you and upset all your categories, then you need to ponder them a lot more. Say the rosary!


One little way the Church has meditated on these claims, this very heart of the Gospel, after decades and centuries of repeating the words of the Hail Mary, is with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

By conception, we mean, from the very first. It’s a sign of the radical gratuity of what God does in Mary. First, it’s a sign of the totality: she is so “full” of grace, so totally graced, that there is not a moment of her life without grace. And second, it’s a sign that God acts before we do: it’s not that Mary took a step towards God and earned his grace, it’s that God took this radical step towards Mary before she could earn anything. Grace is total gift. That’s what the Immaculate Conception means.

Immaculate is a funny choice of words. Macula is Latin for “stain.” It’s a metaphorical word, and actually, not that central to Scripture or theology. (I searched the ESV, one of my favorite translations, and found precisely one use of the word in the whole Bible.) “Unstained” appears in 1 Timothy, “keep the commandments unstained”; Hebrews, “a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners”; and James, “keep oneself unstained from the world.”

But where it comes from in the Latin tradition is our second reading for the feast of the Immaculate Conception: “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish,” immaculati.

Notice, first, that “immaculate” is the flipside of “holy.” Holy tells us what God gave us, and what he gave Mary. Immaculate tells us what he got rid of. In fact, metaphysically, theologically, “without blemish” is a double negative, a nothing. The deeper point if what God has done.

Second, notice that it is “in Christ.” Somehow, what happens in Christ, the way “God is with us” in Christ, is repeated in Mary. Because Jesus is holy, Mary can be holy. That’s the point. Jesus became man so that we could share in his divine life.

Third, notice that, in fact, this language about Mary, “immaculate,” is actually language about all of us. She was conceived immaculate; God has a plan to make us holy and immaculate. I still have a long way to go; in that sense, I am different Mary. But we are called to the same destiny. The grace that happens in Mary is the same grace that God wants to give to me.

In fact, in this same reading from Ephesians we also find our unity with Mary in grace. “In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, . . . for the praise of the glory of his grace.” In Jesus Christ, “the beloved,” is the fulness of grace, which he shares not only with Mary, but with us. We are meant to discover that grace, and to live forever in praise, “that we might exist for the praise of his glory.”

That’s what the great Carmelite saint Elizabeth of the Trinity called herself, “laudem gloriae,” the praise of his glory. That’s the work that God wants to work in us, to make us full of grace, immaculate, all caught up in the praise of glory, like Mary. That she received this grace from her conception only reminds us that it is truly grace, unearned, pure cause for praise and thanksgiving.

The Immaculate Conception is a celebration of what we are called to.

First Sunday of Advent: Preparing for Jesus

As we prepare for Jesus’s coming at Christmas, Advent begins by having us prepare for his final coming.

“People will die of fright,” says our first Gospel of the new Church year, “in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”


Our first reading, from the prophet Jeremiah, gives his coming a social, even political, spin. “The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah.” He will come not just for an individual, but for the nation.

Jeremiah, like all the prophetic authors, writes during the time the people of Israel are being taken captive, first by the Assyrians, then by the Babylonians. They are looking for a restoration, for peace and freedom and the blessed kingdom the Lord had promised, that seems destroyed by the kingship of sin.

They are looking especially for justice: “I will raise up for David a just shoot,” the Lord tells them, “he shall do what is right and just in the land. . . . In those days . . . this is what they shall call [Jerusalem]: ‘the Lord our justice.’”

Let us love that word “justice.” Some of my students seem to think it mostly means punishment. It doesn’t. Justice is people treating each other rightly. The first image for justice is when I pay the baker and he gives me a loaf of bread, the payment is balanced, and everyone benefits: right relationship. Of course this rises to much higher kinds of justice, to right relations between neighbors and between God and man.

If we love the Word of God, we learn to love that word, “justice.” We long for justice, hunger and thirst for it.


In Jeremiah, justice is something we look for at the end of time. The Lord is our justice. Only the true king will make a just kingdom. We could be tempted, then, to say that justice is not for now.

Our reading from First Thessalonians, however, warns us that we need to prepare to meet the Lord. It is true that there will be no just kingdom, no happy land, until the Lord comes. But it is also true that if we want to be part of his kingdom, we need to get ready by living by kingdom standards now.

We want to be “blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.” The ones with him are the holy ones. If we want to be with him, we need to be holy ones. We need to live by his standards. Half of our reading from St. Paul simply reminds us, “You know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus”: we listen to the Word of God, and so we are instructed in the ways of his people. We are instructed, among other things, to hunger and thirst for justice—the kind of justice, of real right relation, that, according to the Beatitudes, leads us to mercy.

But just as we receive instruction, even more, we receive the Lord’s Spirit, who is the truest instruction, the Law written on our hearts. So what St. Paul tells us we need to do even more than listen to his instructions is to receive the Lord: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love.” It is his work in us. He pours his love into us.

To be ready to receive the Lord, we must let him transform us into images of himself. If we let his love transform our hearts, we will be ready to meet him when he comes, ready to join his kingdom of justice.

As we look towards the baby at Christmas, what we really look for is the Lord who comes into our world, and teaches us his humility and love, so that we can meet him when he comes in glory.


Jesus says to his disciples, “People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”

I don’t know what exactly the clouds mean; my imagination still struggles with the image of him “riding on the clouds.” But notice, first, that Greek makes no distinction between “in” and “on.” Maybe he is “on the clouds,” floating through the sky. But maybe the point is that he is “in a cloud.”

When the Bible talks about clouds, it often means mystery, as the cloud that leads them in the Exodus and the cloud that overshadows them, “and they were afraid as they entered the cloud,” at the Transfiguration. Maybe the point is not so much that he is riding down from the sky as that he comes in mystery.

But notice, second, that “they” will see him in a cloud: they, the people who are dying of fright.

“But when these signs begin to happen,” Jesus tells us, “stand erect”—not they, but you, you who know me, who have prepared for my coming—“and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” If we live in his justice and his love—if we let his justice and love live in us—we have nothing to fear, because we will know him, and welcome him, not as a frightening stranger but as the one whose face we have contemplated, whose words we have memorized.

Let us live that way. Let Christmas be our preparation for his Advent.

(Las Casas, part four: a modern detractor)

This post is far less significant than my others about Las Casas, because it merely refutes a very poor criticism of it. It is probably not worth your reading. But it does respond to a comment I received, and perhaps it helps us see what is at stake with Las Casas.

The following is my summary of “A Loving Ambivalence,” an article by Helen Andrews, in First Things, October 8 (Columbus Day), 2018. The title refers to the final lines: “Since we have failed to come up with a better solution, even after forty years of postmodern sensitivity to indigenous rights along the philosophical lines suggested by Las Casas, maybe we should take a lead from Motolinía instead. It could be that in a saga as complex and wrenching as the meeting of the Old World and the New, loving ambivalence is the best we could hope for.” “Loving Ambivalence” seems to mean Las Casas is wrong, so we should kind of shrug our shoulders about historic atrocities against the Indians. The author does not explain what makes that proposal “loving,” or if it has any relation to Christian love; she does not refer to Christian principles at all, except to mock Las Casas for talking about “love and gentleness and kindness.”


Ms. Andrews devotes one paragraph (two if we are generous) to the actual arguments (148, or generously 273, words of a 3790-word essay). My main reason for addressing her article is to point out again that what I did in my post yesterday was to outline the actual arguments of Las Casas and Sepúlveda.

Sepúlveda’s argument, she says, is that “Spaniards also have human rights”—which is kind of a strange way to talk about the people who are invading someone else’s home, enslaving and slaughtering them by the millions, and dominating their whole continent.

“To create the conditions of peace and order that would make peaceful propagation of the gospel possible, such peoples would simply have to be ruled, as the Roman empire had ruled Hispania.” That, as we saw yesterday, is the real argument. It has both a general principle (a major, or “wider,” premise) and a specific application (a minor, or “narrower,” premise). The general principle is that the effective way, and the only way, to preach the Gospel is first to conquer. In yesterday’s post we saw how Las Casas contradicted the idea that conquering with the sword is in general either the only way or effective—but you don’t need Las Casas to make that argument for you.

The specific application is that the Indians in particular required this form of domination. Indian specifics are irrelevant if we agree with Las Casas that the sword is never the way to preach the Gospel. But the specific question depends, of course, on anthropological evidence. We shall see in a moment how Ms. Andrews quickly trashes Las Casas’ several books on anthropology; I can add that Ms. Andrews adds no anthropological evidence of her own; but the question remains to be studied just how primitive and incapable of the Gospel Indian culture was. As a theologian, I would add that the notion that any culture is incapable of receiving the Gospel seems to me problematic. JPII sure didn’t think that.

Ms. Andrews seems ambivalent about Indian culture. In this same paragraph, she says, “With an advanced civilization like the Aztecs, one might negotiate a treaty concerning the rights of misssionaries,” and in the next, “The Aztecs had developed an advanced tribute system” (which somehow legitimates the Spanish enslaving the Indians), but a few paragraphs before she commends Cortes for his “undisputed mastery of the Aztec empire.” To me that sounds like a contradiction. Should the Aztecs be conquered, and “become more civilized,” or respected as a civilization?

She contrasts the Aztecs with “pre-literate tribes in a place like Guatemala,” a strange choice of example. Guatemala is the Mayans. Their period of great building ended around 950, but the city of Mayapan still had a population of 10-15,000 people a hundred years before the Spanish came. (Madrid was about 4,000—though London, for example, was more like 50,000.) Every historian of civilization I know agrees that the Mayas were one of the most advanced civilizations in history. They were certainly literate. Google the “Popol Vuh,” and you’ll find they had a highly developed religion and mythology; the Mayan “Madrid Codex,” “Dresden Codex,” and “Paris Codex” are three famous examples of Mayan writing from the time, though the conquistadors destroyed what they could. I don’t know what Ms. Andrews is talking about, or whether she knows what she’s talking about, when she uses Guatemala as an example of illiterate people who need to become Spaniards before they can become Christians.

In the next paragraph, Ms. Andrews gets to her, and Sepúlveda’s, real argument, which is that it was more economically advantageous to Spain to enslave the Indians and steal their stuff. That might be true, but it is beside the point: Christians do not believe that economic advantage is a good reason to do immoral things. That’s really the debate, between materialists and Christians.

Ad hominem

Apart from these two paragraphs, the article is a string of unsubstantiated personal attacks. Ironically, she accuses Las Casas of what her article does: “Rather than answer Sepúlveda’s arguments, Las Casas preferred ad hominem attacks” (that is, putting down the person). But we have seen his arguments, which make no appearance in her article. Ironically, accusing him of ad hominem attacks is itself an ad hominem attack.

This is going to be long. You should probably skip it, but it’s worth documenting.

She quotes people (as if quoting someone makes it true) as saying Las Casas is “mentally ill . . . a paranoiac, a fanatic, a chronic exaggerator, and an impossible man to work with.”

He only pretended to defend the Indians because it “brought him worldly success and the favor of the establishment.” His “worldly success” included being named “Protector of the Indians” and given the opportunity, in “a lavish charter” (quickly retracted), to form a colony in Venezuela. (In fact, many of his Dominican brothers were slaughtered by the Indians in response to a slave raid they opposed and he was chased out of town by the slave raiders; when he was made a bishop in Mexico, he was chased out at gunpoint; and when he returned to Spain he was accused of treason.)

“Las Casas swore he would find thousands” to populate this colony, but the word “swore” suggests he was untrue to his word; his “worldly success” was somehow compatible with no one joining him.

“Rather than stay and put his pacific principles into practice, he ran off to Hispaniola to file bureaucratic complaints against the local traders and soldiers whom he blamed for the rising tensions. The men he left behind at Cumaná were killed.” Bad person!

“Las Casas absolved himself of responsibility for the deaths of his men at Cumaná. It was the fault of those traders and soldiers who had refused to recognize his authority.” Andrews never explains why it is unreasonable to claim that armed men breaking laws would cause problems. But she sure thinks Las Casas was irresponsible for trying to stop them.

“That was the way his guilt worked.” This is an odd line, common in today’s conservative discourse. Somehow anyone who has a sense of guilt is morally compromised. I do not know how to square that claim with Christianity. Christians are supposed to feel guilt. Moral relativism is not Christianity.

After “his moral crisis in 1514” (again, having a crisis over one’s immorality is something to mock), he “turned to a life of activism” (Christian action is also obviously wrong). He is “the original humanitarian personality,” a strange claim, except when she claims he begins a “shift from pre-modern to modern ideas of moral heroism, from Christian saints to human rights activists.” She does not support the claim that Christian saints do not care about human rights; her argument seems to be guilty by association with modern “activists” (whom, I guess, readers of First Things dislike).

He “so easily shrugged off the deaths for which he really was individually responsible”: so despite being bad for having had a moral crisis, he is also bad for not realizing that he was “individually responsible” whenever other people violated his principles.

“Las Casas did not know a calpixqui from a coatimundi.” Snap! “He knew little about pre-conquest cultures. There is no evidence he spoke any Indian language. At Valladolid, he spoke generically of ‘the Indians,’ making no distinctions between the Aztecs, whose capital was larger than any European city at the time save Constantinople, and the Tainos, whose idea of advanced technology was a spear with a fish tooth on the end.” I confess that I have not read Las Casas’s five-volume History of the Indies, or his Apologetic History of the Peoples of these Indies, or his separate book on Peru, but I do find Andrews’ claim improbable; she does not substantiate the accusation that these books are vague and unsubstantiated.

“Avoiding specifics, Las Casas merely offered the judges his repeated assertion.” “Las Casas frequently referred to his firsthand experience of the New World as the basis for his authority, but this experience was far less extensive than he led people to believe.” “The Hieronymites’ open-mindedness galled Las Casas to no end. For the crime of not taking his word for everything, he accused them of being in the pay of the encomenderos.” “There was hardly an intellectual low to which Las Casas would not stoop.” “For someone who knew so little, Las Casas was astonishingly resistant to correction. A central point of conflict between him and the Hieronymite monks of the Hispaniola commission was that they insisted on actually talking to the colonists about their experiences.” “Las Casas’s constant misrepresentations. . . . ‘Everything which he attributes to me is false, as is well known by those who have read my book, and he knows better than anybody.’” “Las Casas spent most of his time on his drive-by visits to the missionary field collecting atrocity stories and very little time administering sacraments or preaching the Word.” (Was that a Rush Limbaugh reference?) “At a time when the use of Indians as carriers was widely condemned (the practice was periodically banned, though enforcement was difficult), Las Casas traveled with twenty or thirty, ‘and the greatest part of what they were carrying was accusations against the Spaniards and other rubbish.’” If you’ve ever been unclear on what “ad hominem attack” means, there you go.

She even claims, “Las Casas revenged himself on his former mentor by forging a deathbed retraction on his behalf,” substantiating the claim by saying that everyone present said the deathbed retraction was true, but she doubts it. This is an example of a circular argument: when people agree with Las Casas he must have manipulated them because no one would agree with Las Casas.

Finally: “he simply reiterated his categorical belief that pacifism would meet all eventualities.” This appears to be her summary of his appealing, not to pacificism—as I have said, and will document, if I get a chance, his allies defended him precisely on the grounds of just war—but to the Gospel at all. Of that, he is guilty. But he does more than just “reiterate his categorical beliefs”: as we have seen, he responds with arguments to arguments.

Las Casas’s friends get the same treatment. “Charles V’s priority was limiting the power of American landowners in order to prevent the emergence of an aristocracy that would threaten his power. That, and not humanitarianism, was the reason for his hostility to the feudal encomienda system of compulsory labor.” Couldn’t be that he was convinced by Christian arguments.

Opposite ad hominem arguments

But if her response to Las Casas is entirely an attack on his character, her defense of his opponents is entirely an appeal to their character.

“Among Las Casas’s many enemies were other men who had better claim to moral authority,” among them, “a more decisive man—Hernán Cortés.” I don’t know what “decisive” means here: Cortés did kill a lot of people, but she seems annoyed at how much Las Casas fights for what he thinks is right.

Las Casas was “in contrast to the hundreds of devoted Franciscan and Dominican missionaries who lived among their Indian flocks for decades at a time.” Among them, “Domingo de Betanzos was not just any Dominican friar.” (He was present when Las Casas joined the Dominicans, so there.) “He nonetheless opposed Las Casas, writing open letters condemning his intemperate activism.” Good people—vaguely defined—didn’t like Las Casas. How do we know they were good? Because they didn’t like Las Casas.

“The most saintly of Las Casas’s opponents was the Franciscan friar Toribio de Benavente . . . This holy friar hated Las Casas with a passion.” Torobio was also known as Motolinía. One way Andrews knows he was right is that “Motolinía’s memoir . . . is livelier and less repetitive than Las Casas’s.” What does that mean?

The greatest hero, however, is Sepúlveda, Las Casas’ opponent in the debate at Valladolid that we detailed yesterday. Andrews says almost nothing about Sepúlveda’s arguments, which we reviewed in a previous post. But she says a lot about what a great guy he was.

He is introduced as the “underdog at Valladolid.” Poor guy. “To the university professors on the judges’ panel at Valladolid, Sepúlveda was a man out of his depth. They were scholastics of the old school, trained in the methods of Aquinas, to whom Sepúlveda was an upstart rhetorician who had the nerve to opine on moral questions without the proper theological grounding.”

But she’s a little confusing on this. He isn’t a scholastic. He is a rhetorician. But she also claims, “No man in Europe knew Aristotle better. Sepúlveda’s Latin translation of the Politics was the standard throughout the continent.” The second sentence seems to be her evidence for the first. But no one who studies texts thinks that the translators are the philosophical experts. I think scholars would agree there were quite a few great students of Aristotle, including the Spanish Dominicans who took Las Casas’ side and who were those evil “scholastics.” And none of Andrews’ arguments, nor any of the arguments we saw in actually detailing the Valladolid debate, come from Aristotle: they come from the Bible, from claims about evangelization and culture, and from claims about the Indians, all totally foreign to Aristotle. This claim that he is the greatest Aristotelian, apart from being probably false, is also irrelevant. It’s just another ad hominem argument.

But poor Sepúlveda, his “book in defense of the conquistadors was never published in Spain during his lifetime, thanks to lobbying by Las Casas to have it censored by the royal licensing office.” Somehow people not publishing your book is proof that you’re right.

But “Sepúlveda’s goal was to come up with a long-term solution” . . . as opposed to Las Casas? “Sepúlveda thought the answer was to create a fully functioning New World aristocracy.”

What’s the point?

I do not know Ms. Andrews, and I will not conjecture on why First Things was eager to take down Las Casas’s call for moral treatment of the Indians. My main point here, not really worth anyone’s time, is to show that her long article does little but make ad hominem attacks. That doesn’t prove that there are no substantive attacks on Las Casas. But it does show that some of the attacks, at least, lack substance. You can’t contradict an argument simply by vigorously asserting that you think he was a bad guy and his opponents are good guys.

What is her real point? In part, she may be arguing that economic expediency trumps Gospel morality. Some people think that. I disagree.

But she begins and ends with a point much more easily made. She begins, “The so-called ‘Black Legend’—the idea that Spanish imperialism was categorically more brutal than any other country’s—derives in large part from the Brief Relation, which was immediately translated into every European language and enthusiastically embraced by Spain’s Protestant rivals.” She ends, “For all our Anglophone sneering about the Black Legend, there are 1.7 million Nahuatl speakers on this continent today and only 150,000 speakers of Navajo. Our empire exterminated its indigenous peoples far more thoroughly than the Spanish ever did.”

As I said in a previous point, if the Black Legend is meant to say that Spain is the only sinful nation on earth, it is indeed a bad thing. The English were worse! But if “the Black Legend” is that nations in general are sinful, it is no legend at all, it is the Gospel truth. One good reason to learn about Las Casas, and our fallen history in general, is not to make us feel smug for being English, not Spanish, but to teach us to rely on Christ, his Church, and his saints, not on any nationalism, English, Spanish, Indian, or American. Our hope is in Jesus Christ, and him alone.

Las Casas, part three: the arguments

We have been considering the great sixteenth-century Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas, and his defense of the Indians of the Caribbean against the Spanish conquistadors. Today, we get to the heart of the debate: the actual arguments on either side.

In 1551-52, Las Casas, by now a bishop in Mexico, came back to Spain to debate the Franciscan Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (emphasis on the syllable with the accent mark).

The Dominicans had been denouncing the enslavement of the Indians since 1510.

A papal bull of 1537, Sublimis Deus, declared that the Indians were fully human, just as capable as anyone else of becoming Christians, and therefore, “are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved.”

In 1542, Spanish Emperor Charles V passed the so-called “New Laws,” written in part by Las Casas and his Dominican confrere Francisco de Vitoria, required just treatment of the Indians. But by 1545, the conquistadors had gotten those laws repealed.

So in 1550 the Emperor called for a debate by theologians on what to do. The Franciscan Sepúlveda had written that the actions of the conquistadors were just and that the king should allow the Spanish to enslave the Indians. The Dominican Las Casas opposed him, arguing “in favor of the liberty of the Indians.” It is fascinating to read their actual arguments.


Sepúlveda argued four points:

  1. The Indians were violating natural law, especially by idolatry, and therefore deserved to be conquered.
  2. The Indians were savages and therefore needed to be enslaved to a more civilized nation, such as the Spanish, in order to be trained in civilization.
  3. This kind of enslavement was the only way, and an effective way, to teach the Indians about Christianity.
  4. That the Indians must be stopped from their evil ways, which included human sacrifice and canibalism.

Fascinating! These are real arguments that Christians were making at the time, the leading arguments for how the Spanish treated the Indians. These are not just reconstructions by later anti-religious people: these were the arguments by the leading theologian explaining what the Spanish were doing in America.

He supported these arguments with examples from Scripture, trying to explain how the invasion of the Americas was like the invasion of the Israelites into the land of Canaan.


Las Casas responded by contradicting the example from the Old Testament. He argued that the Catholic tradition does not read the Old Testament in this way. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Chrysostom, for example, specifically argue that idolatry, and non-Christian religion in general, is not a valid cause for just war. Notice here an important turn: to the question of just war. . . .

To Sepúlveda’s first claim, that idolatry deserves war, Las Casas argues first that the Tradition and the New Testament itself oppose such an argument, and then explains that where Christians have justly battled non-Christians, it is in defense of Christians: where non-Christians have conquered Christian territory and then defiled churches or attacked Christian peoples. There is a right of self-defense, but not a righ to attack non-Christians on principle.

To Sepúlveda’s second claim, that the Indians are savages and need slavery to become civilized people, Las Casas opposes not the general claim that Christians ought to bring civilization but the specific claim that the Indians lack it. Las Casas had documented at length (especially in his Apologetic History of the People of these Indies) that, far from savages, the Indians built houses, baked bread, farmed, had government and religion, etc. They were not just like the Spanish, but nor were they savages. (I have been reading a lot of Indian history recently: the stories we learned in grade school about naked savages really aren’t true.)

To Sepúlveda’s third claim, that slavery is the best and only way to convert Indians to Christianity, Las Casas responds at length, and with multiple arguments. The Gospel has to be received, if it is to be received in truth, as good news. At the point of the sword, it can only be seen as a tool of oppression. The preacher needs to show love and elicit love; enslavement produces hatred, a terrible obstacle to seeing the truth of the Gospel. Las Casas (repeating a point St. Thomas Aquinas makes, for example, in the sixth chapter of Summa Contra Gentiles) says converting people with the sword is the way of Islam, not of Christianity. Christianity teaches that our sins are forgiven, especially by baptism; enslavement holds our sins against us. Las Casas argues, too, for the importance of first impressions of Christianity: however violence works in a culture that already knows the Gospel—and however we judge whether a culture does already understand the Gospel—in the case of the Indians, we need to be sure they know that Christianity is not just a form of Spanish domination. Finally, Las Casas argues that Jesus came in peace, not with the sword.

Finally, to Sepúlveda’s fourth claim, that war is necessary because of the crimes of the Indians, such as human sacrifice and canibalism, Las Casas argues that war is an ironic way to stop killing. War unleashes, on both sides, all kinds of sins; certainly Las Casas has seen the sins of the Spanish conquistador, which the Spanish king should be at least as eager to stop as the sins of the Indians. Las Casas adds a strange but thought-provoking argument: that human sacrifice, though wrong, is done with a good intention. Abraham himself was willing to sacrifice his son to recognize God. The Indians are wrong, but one mustn’t thing of them as completely depraved. Instead, the Dominican calls for Spain to preach the Gospel to them.

Las Casas ends by proposing that instead of war, the Spanish take a twofold approach, sending peaceful bands of missionaries into the interior, and establishing peaceful trade on the exterior, as ways of gently pulling the Indians around to alliances and to Christianity. He did not win this debate.


I think it’s pretty exciting to read the actual arguments these sixteenth-century friars were making about race and colonialism. Too often we read this history through the lenses of people who hate Christianity and Christians who just feel defensive. Instead, it is good to read what real Christians argued. And it is good to see that the heroes of this story, mostly Dominicans, were calling for a more peaceful way.

The key is the Gospel. My non- (and anti-) Christian colleagues in the university seem to fear that Christianity is an imperialistic religion. Spain wanted to take over the world; Christianity says go out to all the world; therefore Christianity is about conquering. I think Christians themselves too often seem to think in the same confused way.

To the contrary, Las Casas uses the universality of the Gospel against the over-particularity of Spanish imperialism. The Spanish are not God’s chosen people. (Nor are the English, or the Americans, or the Indians.) Jesus Christ came to save everyone. In recognizing that the Indians are human beings, living human lives (including their own forms of civilization and even religion) and waiting for the truth of the Gospel, Las Casas makes the argument for why they should not just be slaves to another country.

So too in making the argument for preaching, for a religion that is based on good news, received through the word, not the sword, understood as a spiritual good and not just as a way to avoid the physical pains of war and slavery, Las Casas shows that the nature of Christianity is peaceful. Lose that sense of Good News, and you lose the Gospel—and fall into imperialism.

Thank God for the great Spanish Dominicans of the sixteenth century, who teach us a better way to look at race and imperialism.

Las Casas, part two: Las Casas and the Dominicans

Last week I tried to explain the encomienda system, which the Spanish brought with them to the Americas. The upshot is: when Bartolomé de las Casas came to Hispaniola in 1502, at the age of eighteen, in the year of Columbus’s fourth voyage, the plan was to force the Indians to find gold and silver. Not very noble.

In 1510, some reports say Las Casas was ordained a priest. I don’t know how that fits into the story.

But in 1510, too, Dominican friars came to Hispaniola. I said last week that history is mostly a story of sin—including the encomienda of the Indians, in which Las Casas was participating—but that there were also saints. These Dominicans were among the saints. And I’ll admit at the beginning: I love the Dominican tradition, both spiritual and intellectual, and the Dominicans are going to be the heroes of this story. I’m telling a story of sin, but also a story of heroic Dominicans.

The Dominicans who arrived in 1510 denounced the enslavement of the Indians. In fact, they refused to grant absolution to anyone still involved in enslaving the Indians—which was everyone, including Las Casas. Today we talk about denying communion to politicians who support abortion. That is a weak echo of these Dominicans. Here, we’re not just talking about people who support an idea, but people who are participating in it. And the Dominicans were in a dangerous place, in a Wild West where they were confronting violent men with weapons, who had no one to stop them from slaughtering the Dominicans. (Note, too, the location of the denial: in the confessional, not at the altar rail.)


The Dominicans were founded around the year 1200 to preach the Gospel in places where destructive ideas were being preached. One way to put it is that they were fighting heresy. But another way to put it is how they were fighting heresy: with the word.

They came to a situation in the South of France where knights were killing heretics with swords, and where priests went around in fancy carriages. The Dominicans, instead, were poor preachers. Their poverty, their willingness to forsake everything but Christ, showed the authenticity of their preaching, just as their risk of danger in Hispaniola and their opposition to the rich showed that they were not in it for money or comfort, but for Christ.

And their choice of the word instead of the sword said a lot (too much for this post) about their understanding of the Gospel. It’s not about winning battles and conquering people. It’s about liberating them by proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. The sword and the word proclaim two very different versions of Christianity. Trusting in the word, in preaching, means believing that the people to whom you are preaching can see the truth themselves, and embrace it not because they are afraid of what you’ll do to them, but because they see that the word of Christ is true freedom.

The Dominicans were later put in charge of the Inquisition. That’s a complicated thing, but I think the great twentieth-century Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper makes an important point when he says putting the Dominicans in charge—the poor preachers—said a lot about the goal of the Inquisition. There were inquisitions by the sword, crusades to kill heretics. The Dominican Inquisition said that the real question is preaching the truth of the Gospel. The Inquisition, yes, wanted to contradict people who were preaching false Gospels. But the concern was with preaching, and the response was with preaching. The Dominican Inquisition meant confronting word with word, falsehood with truth—not conquering heretics with the sword.

Of course, the Inquisition was a temptation, and I fear there are times the Dominicans became more inquisitorial than Dominican. In every generation there is this temptation, to abandon the word of the Gospel and instead choose the way of power. But that was not the Dominican way.

In fact, a fascinating part of the story of Hispaniola is that in the very same year Columbus first sailed to the New World, 1492 (and when Spain finished driving the Muslims out of Iberia), the Spanish King and Queen launched their own Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition—because Rome’s inquisition was not nationalist enough for them. Here I’ll join the Black Legend again, but again, on the side of the Catholic faith, not of English nationalism: the Spanish Inquisition was not approved by Rome, and it was a dangerous mix of the Gospel with nationalism. The Spanish Inquistion coopted the Dominicans, who let themselves be coopted—not their best moment—to use violence to persecute heretics. This is not what the Dominicans were about.

The good news is that, just as the Dominicans in Spain were getting caught up in the evil of the Spanish Inquisition, a renewal movement was happening, represented by those Dominicans in Hispaniola. One group was using the sword to support nationalism. The other group was using the word to fight those who used the sword to support nationalism. One preached the Gospel, the other preached a false Gospel of Spanish nationalism.


It was these preachers who came to Las Casas in Hispaniola, not as members of the Spanish Inquisition, using the sword to promote nationalism, but as preachers of the Gospel, demanding that nationalism be put aside in favor of the truth. They were inquisitors: holy inquisitors, who refused to let conquistadors say they were agents of the Gospel when they were acting contrary to it—who refused to grant absolution to those who, by enslaving the Indians, were embracing the way of sin instead of the way of the Gospel.

Las Casas’s transformation was a long journey. At first, he defended encomienda against the Dominicans, and was part of the group of conquistador-colonists who, led by Christopher Columbus’s son Diego, managed to get the Dominicans kicked out of Hispaniola.

In 1513 he served as chaplain for a group of conquistadors attacking the Indians on Cuba. His conscience, he says in later writings, began to be moved; he began to see the truth in what the Dominicans were preaching.

The next year he experienced real conversion trying to prepare a homily on Sirach 34:18-22

18 If one sacrifices from what has been wrongfully obtained, the offering is blemished;

    the gifts of the lawless are not acceptable.

19 The Most High is not pleased with the offerings of the ungodly;

    and he is not propitiated for sins by a multitude of sacrifices.

20 Like one who kills a son before his father’s eyes

    is the man who offers a sacrifice from the property of the poor.

21 The bread of the needy is the life of the poor;

    whoever deprives them of it is a man of blood.

22 To take away a neighbor’s living is to murder him;

    to deprive an employee of his wages is to shed blood.

The words, he believed, applied to him as conquistador. The Dominicans were right.

In 1515 he went home to Spain, to try to convince the King to stop the atrocities against the Indians. He wrote his first of several accounts of what was happening, Memorial de Remedios para las Indias. He proposed several concrete solutions: a complete pause on using Indians for labor; self-governing Indian communities; a grant to the conquistadors, as payment for their work, not of Indian slaves, but of a certain number of man-hours, from the Indian communities; Spanish towns built for the Indians, including hospitals. Still imperialism, but with more respect for the natives.

He succeeded in getting some priests, from the old Order of St. Jerome, placed in positions of oversight over the Spanish treatment of the Indians. But these priests accommodated the conquistadors, arguing that Indians were incapable of taking care of themselves without Spanish oversight. (That claim would be funny if it weren’t evil: the Indians had been taking care of themselves for thousands of years. Notice too a resonance with modern priests, always tempted to take the side of the rich and say the poor are not capable of the Gospel.) Las Casas became such a thorn in the side of the conquistadors and their pet priests that he had to take refuge—in the Dominican monasteries.

Next, he tried to set up a refuge for the Indians in Venezuela, where he would manage things in a more respectful way. After about seven years of being harassed by Spanish colonists and conquistadors, he gave up—and joined the Dominicans.

After that, he gave his whole career, from 1522 to his death in 1561, to defending the Indians. He traveled the Caribbean, and even tried to go to Peru, to document what was happening. His Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies documented what the Spanish were doing. His Apologetic Summary of the People of these Indies documented the civilizations of the Indians, to contradict the idea that they were primitives and somehow less than human or desperate for Spanish government. A much longer History of the Indies tells the story at greater length. He saved Christopher Columbus’s diaries, so that we could hear what Columbus himself described of the civilization of the Indians and of Spanish atrocities. De thesauris in Peru (the treasures in Peru) defended the Incas and opposed the Spanish mission to take their gold and silver.

And in 1550-51, he participated in debates back in Spain about the treatment of the Indians. In our next installment, we will consider the substance of those debates. . . .

Las Casas, part one: Spain

I have been doing some research on Catholic contact—and war—with non-Catholic nations, for a small part of a book I’m writing. I thought it would be helpful for me to write out a narration, and I thought it might be interesting to some of you.

Today, the back story of Bartolomé de las Casas. Soon, more of his story.

Las Casas was one of the early Spanish Conquistadores in the Americas. He came with his father to Hispaniola (“Little Spain”), Columbus’s main island, and now the location of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in 1502, the year of Columbus’s fourth voyage. He seems to have been about eighteen. We know about Las Casas primarily through his own extensive reports.

The Spanish colonists imported a system they called encomienda. Understanding it needs a brief history of pre-Columbian Spain. 1492, the year Columbus sailed, was also the end of the Reconquista, the re-conquering of Spain from the Muslims. The verbal similarity between the Re-conquista of Spain and the Conquistadores in the Americas points to the deeper legal and cultural similarities: Spain brought to America the ideas they had developed fighting Muslims in Spain.


Muhammed died in 609. For whatever reasons (beyond the scope of this post) conquering bands picked up his new religion and spread quickly. In 710-711 these Muslims invaded and conquered almost all of the Iberian Peninsula. 732 was their first major defeat, by Charles Martel (martel means “the hammer”), all the way at Tours, about three-quarters of the way through France to Paris (which is in the far north). The French nation was born of beating back the Muslims into Iberia, which they had mostly done by 759. After that, France moved on to other things.

But Spain had another seven hundred years to fight. They gradually got a foothold in the north, then expanded slightly south, century by century, until in 1492, among other things, the Spanish drove the Muslims out of their last redoubt, Granada, in the very south.

File:Reino de Asturias.jpg

Was this a just war? I may come back to that in a future post, after we (and they) have figured out what just war means. The Spanish could make the claim that they were taking back land that had been taken from them: hence they call it re-conquista: not the conquering, but the reconquering of what had been taken from them. Their case looks a little better when you watch the development: they established Asturia, in the far north, around 720, when it was clearly the Christian Visigoths retaking their land from Muslims who had invaded in the last decade. The next move south, the Kingdom of Léon, founded maybe 910, was a small expansion of Asturias against their neighbors. It was not a major invasion, just a pushing back of borders. Castile, founded about 1065, was an expansion eastward, from Léon toward Christian allies in France. And they continued to push forward their borders. Grenada, in the far south, was the last to fall (and the least obviously just war), in 1492.

I don’t want to prolong this discussion. What I do want to point out is that most of Spain’s history was forged in these wars. In fact, if you think about the dates 720 (the foundation of Asturia), 1492 (both Columbus and the final conquest of southern Spain), and 2020 (today), Spain spent 772 years fighting the Muslims, and it’s only been 528 years since they stopped. Spain is the Reconquista. And it certainly was at the time of Columbus: the only thing they had ever known was this war of (re) conquest.

So when they got to the Americas, that’s what they did. A standard method of the Reconquista was this system of encomienda.


In all of Feudal Europe, society was organized around knights: guys who could devote their whole life to learning to fight on horseback. Fighting on horseback takes a lot of skill, so it’s something you need to devote your whole life to, but before guns (and long bows), it was also incredibly effective, so everything military revolved around it. It was also expensive, so you had to be rich.

Beneath the knights, you had serfs who supported them. The knight wasn’t working the land, so he had other people work the land for him. Was it slavery? Kind of, kind of not, but that’s not our point here. The point is, knights needed people to work the land for them, so that they could ride horses.

Above the knights, kings could only be effective if they kept the knights happy. Everything revolved around these warriors on horseback. (Interesting sidenote: the same was true of the Mongols, though there they didn’t even bother with farming: similar and different.)

In Spain, where war was the entire way of life, the way a king got knights to fight for him was by offering him serfs. Encomienda means something “commendation,” “handing over.” The basic idea was: if a knight conquered an area for his king, he got control of the land—and of the people who would farm it for him. That was the way Spanish kings encouraged the knights, the re-conquistadores, and that was the way they paid them.


So, naturally, conquest and encomienda was the idea the Spanish brought to the Americas. It had no roots in anything especially Christian (or anti-Christian). It was just the way of life of the Conquistadores.

With two differences. First, where in Spain they were pushing up against their Muslim neighbors, who had previously conquered them and who, at least sometimes, could arguably be seen as agressors, in the New World the Conquistadors were completely invading someone else’s country. Though the Spanish came up with other arguments—which we shall consider later—none of the arguments for the re-conquest of Spain applied to the conquest of America.

Second, where in Spain they used encomienda for farming, in America what they wanted was gold. This has to do with Spanish materialism, which is shocking. But it also has to do with the distance from home. In Spain, they wanted to make a home. In America, the Spanish wanted to get rich and then go home. It is an interesting difference between Spanish America and English America that the English were coming here to settle (which had its own problems). The Spanish were coming here to extract gold and silver and head home.


So when Las Casas came to America, he came looking for gold. But the encomienda system was adjusted in some strange ways. In Spain, you had to prove yourself a conqueror before you got the slaves: that is how the kings urged the knights to fight. In America, you just had to take the boat ride over: that was awful enough that the king needed to offer recompensation—and the compensation was slaves.

And in Spain, the people you were conquering were people an awful lot like you, people you had fought with on equal footing for hundreds of years, and people whose technology and way of life were pretty darned similar. In America, the Indians were really different.

A key part of this difference was weapons. The Spanish had guns. They had steel armor. And, of course, they had germs. I have been reading the recent popular histories 1493 and Guns, Germs, Steel. There are some fascinating reasons, having nothing to do with cultural superiority, that gave the Spanish huge advantages. For example, the East-West orientation of Eurasia meant that germs could travel over huge areas and encounter similar climates. It also allowed the spread of farming technologies (because farming in East Asia works about the same as farming in Western France) that supported the growth of cities. Whereas the north-south orientation of the Americas meant that a germ or farming technique that thrived in Argentina would not make it north to Mexico, etc. The upshot is, Eurasia had developed much more virulent diseases, as well as immunities, than had the Americas, and it was a pretty unfair advantage. Eurasian germs laid the Indians waste. Indian germs had no effect on Europe. (Whether advances in weaponry and the willingness to use it made early-modern Europe culturally superior or inferior to the Indians is a question I will leave open.)

So settlers like Las Casas came to Hispaniola and then spent the bulk of their energy enslaving Indians and demanding that they find gold and silver. And they called it encomienda, the Spanish way.


I’ll end this post with a thought about (cue spooky music) “The Black Legend.” Anti-Spanish northern-Eurpean Protestant historians like to talk about how horrible Spain is. The Inquisition and the treatment of the Indians are exhibits one and two in anti-Spanish history.

In response, Catholics whine about “the black legend”: black because it’s bad, legend because it’s false.

One of my purposes in the study of history is to get the story right. And part of getting the story right is realizing that history is bad: the history of humanity, from a Christian perspective, is the history of fallen men, hell-bound but for the Savior. Part of the reason I am studying this Spanish history, I admit, is because I, not as an English Protestant but as a Catholic, abhor triumphalist claims that some countries are without sin. No country is without sin: not Spain, not America, not the Indians, no one.

Certainly not England. I got into this reading about the Indians reading about Anglo America’s history. I knew it was bad. When I read it carefully, it’s way worse than I thought. The United States was built on the destruction of the Indians, whose country we invaded, and whom we largely defeated not on the field of battle but by burning villages and killing women and children. (There’s a word for that . . . .) The English have nothing to brag about when they talk to Spain. And I think everyone should read Evelyn Waugh’s life of Edmund Campion, not least so that we can see that the Spanish Inquisition has some pretty stiff competition from England when it comes to horrific religious persecution.

In other words, my point isn’t to take sides with one nation against another. My point is, first, to get the history right—but even more, to think about the world like a Christian. A Christian does not look around the world and think things are fine and history is a long story of wonderful people being nice to one another. Human history is a parade of horribles. My salvation is in Jesus Christ (and his body, the Church), not in the awesomeness of Spain, England, the United States—or the Indians, for that matter.

“Black Legend”? It’s no legend that human history is black. It’s the truth. The lie is that we are fine without Jesus. A parallel lie is that whole nations are saintly: the Church rightly treats saints as the exception in human behavior, not the norm. There were saints in Spain and in the Americas, and I’m going to write about them. But encomienda and the Conquistadores? It’s no legend to say that they were not saints, they were fallen men, and their behavior was very dark, ugly, and un-Christian. I think we’d all do a lot better if we stopped treating any nation as holy, and find our identity and salvation in the Church, and in Jesus Christ.

Racism and the Good Samaritan

I’ve been silent for too long. This blog has been silent, for a variety of reasons I’ve mentioned over the past six months—including that our now-six-month old seventh child, though awfully sweet, remains a pain in the neck at bedtime.

But I’ve also been too silent about issues of race. Now is a good time to break that silence.


Race has been an important issue for me and my wife. We both grew up in very white places, but have spent our adulthood in poor, urban neighborhoods. We spent the first several years of our marriage in poor, black neighborhoods of white cities, and have spent the last eleven years in a white, working-class, immigrant neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, a predominantly black city. Race has been an issue we’ve had to think about, and we have grown more passionate about it over the years.

But it’s also an issue that is hard for American Catholics, as some recent events have shown. I won’t get into those events, but I will say: I’ve been afraid to speak up as much as I’ve known I should, and it’s time to break the silence.


My main way of thinking about this issue is in terms of the Good Samaritan. A man is bleeding on the side of the road. In the story Jesus tells, it is irrelevant whose fault the man’s plight is.

The point is that Scripture tells us to love our neighbor. In fact, in Luke 10, it is a “lawyer” (that is, an expert on the Old Testament) who asks Jesus, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer correctly answers, Love the Lord with all your heart-soul-strength-mind, and your neighbor as yourself. When the man asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells the story.

He concludes, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” The lawyer answers correctly, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus says, “You go and do likewise.”


There’s an important point here about tribalism. The Jews, like all of us—especially Americans today—believed they should love their own countrymen, but hate their opponents. (The Old Law’s command to love your neighbor and hate your enemies was not a command to hate your enemies, it was a command to love at least your neighbor; the lawyer correctly quotes it not as “hate your enemies” but as “love your neighbor.” It was a mitigation of our tendency to hate even the people in our own community. Jesus does not contradict that command, but doubles down on it.)

Jesus scorns the religion of the priest and the Levite in the story, who think they can get away with religious self-righteousness while walking past a suffering neighbor. Commending the Samaritan, he commends someone who, first, is not part of the tribe, not part of the tribalist definition of what a neighbor is. Jesus is insisting that we think of neighbor not in a tribalist way, but in a loving way. Americans today are way too focused on our tribes, including our political parties. Jesus condemns that.

And second, Samaritans don’t worship right. Jesus is slapping us in the face for our tendency to self-referential religion, religion more worried about how nice our vestments are than whether we love God or neighbor. (Look, I care about liturgy—but good liturgy, even Pope Benedict will tell you, is liturgy built on love, not self-righteousness.)


I like to read Luke as a kind of commentary on Matthew. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’s teaching culminates in chapter 25, his very last word of his fifth and last sermon, before going to his death: “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. . . . I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 

I have pondered these words over the years, and more and more they cut me to the quick. They are the greatest condemnation in all of Scripture. People who don’t read the Bible think the Old Testament, or St Paul, is full of fire and brimstone. They are wrong. There is no greater fire and brimstone in all the Bible than in what Jesus says to those who fail to see the man bleeding on the side of the road.


This is not the place for a lecture on American history, but I believe there is no greater wound in our country than what we have inflicted for the past four hundred years on African Americans. There is no other moment in history—because it was technologically impossible—in which millions of people were brought to a new continent purely to be abused, their every child marked by the color of his skin as a slave. It is one of the great evils of history, and it is certainly the great original sin of our country.

It is a sin that, of its nature, endures, by the brilliant combination of DNA and a visible distinction. Every time a cop pulls over a black man, that man bears in his skin color the mark of centuries of oppression. He is held suspect of every failure of a people born with a knee on their neck. He is held responsible for every time a black kid has responded to that violence with anger.

The coronavirus has killed vastly disproportionate numbers of black people, and the coronavirus economy has had a vastly disproporionate effect on them. There are long books to read and write about the legacy of racism in our country, but we need to look no further than the coronavirus to know that somehow—save the explanation for later, first acknolwedge the fact!—everyone who is born black in this country is bleeding on the side of the road.


Our Lord tells us, in the parable of the Good Samaritan and in Matthew 25, that the path to eternal life (“what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”) is through the man bleeding on the side of the road, because love of God is inseparable from love of neighbor. He tells us that those who ignore that suffering “will go away into eternal punishment” because they have refused the Lord himself (“when did we see you?”)

The Good Samaritan is a good way to understand two very different meanings of the word “racism.” White people tend to use that word to mean personal animosity, or even direct action, against black people. If I haven’t kicked any black people today, they say, then there is no racism, and I bear no responsibility. I can walk past like the priest and the Levite.

Black people tend to use the word “racism” not to refer to personal animosity but to a Situation, the situation in which, among so many other things, black people are disproprortionately hurt by the coronavirus and its economy. However we explain the mechanisms of it, the fact is that black people are lying bleeding on the side of the road. It is because of “race”, and one of the meanings of the suffix “-ism”, says the Dictionary, is a “state, condition, or property.” There is an -ism, a condition, a status quo, about race, and it’s a problem: racism.

In the Good Samaritan and in Matthew 25, Jesus is not interested in whether you personally caused the problem. In Christianity, we are not innocent until proven guilty; Jesus does not absolve us of personal responsibility unless we’ve personally caused the man to be bleeding on the side of the road. Everyone who proclaims herself not responsible proclaims herself not a Christian. In Christianity, Jesus demands that we come to the aid of that man whether or not it’s our fault. Because Christanity calls us not to absolve ourselves of responsibility, but to love, with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.

To say it’s not my problem is to fail to love. Jesus condemns that attitude, because eternity without love is hell.


Loving requires opening our eyes. It is easy, especially in our suburbanized and polarized country, to cross to the other side of the road and avoid ever seeing the wounded man. Jesus calls us to get out on the road and see people. Read some books. Read some web pages. Come to our cities—get over the horrific lie that places with black people are dangerous—and see what is really going on. Open your eyes and learn to love.

This blog post is the tiniest first step I can make in binding up the wounds of my neighbor. Pray for me to do a lot more.

Please, recommend some good places to learn!

Ordinary Life in Apocalyptic Times

I haven’t been writing for awhile, a halfway intentional decision, in part because I’ve been working on some longer writing projects (a virtuous reason), in part because I’ve been overwhelmed by a colicky newborn, and a transition from a very busy early semester to a global health crisis in mid-semester (the force of events)—and mostly because I’m just disorganized and give up too easily.

But a thought on the present crisis gives me a chance to begin again.


A couple of my Catholics friends whom I most respect have suggested we see this crisis in sort of apocalyptic terms.  There is obvious truth to that proposal.  We are experiencing a cataclysm.  Beyond the death toll, which may be shocking, the health crisis is demanding an economic and social crisis.  None of us will forget being unable to go to work or Mass.  Many may face long periods of unemployment.  Loneliness and other social pathologies are sure to be horrible.  We already had rising rates of suicide and other “deaths of despair,” such as opiate overdose.

And we must receive these things as coming from the hand of God.  (God does not, of course, dictate how we handle the crisis.  But with numbers of infections and deaths doubling multiple times per week, along with 20% of those with known infections needing to be hospitalized because they can’t breathe, I’ll accept the unanimous opinion of public-health officials that we do need to take drastic measures.)

There are careful distinctions we can draw, of course, between what God directly causes and what he only allows.  But those distinctions don’t change the fact that we must receive this crisis, like everything else, as somehow part of God’s plan for us.  Horrible times plus the sense that it comes from God: Apocalypse.

Finally, we must hope that somehow God plans to bring good out of this crucifixion.  And good means conversion.  Somehow this is a special time of conversion.

Apocalyptic literature talks about an “illumination of consciences.”  Somehow what’s supposed to happen is that, alongside horrible signs, people recognize their sins, and many, somehow, convert.  It’s not hard to imagine how the fear of death, the shattering of our sense of control, and even our isolation, with or without family, could create a perfect context for such an illumination.


But I resist ultra-supernaturalism.  Perhaps it is partly a matter of personality.  But it is also a matter of theological conviction.  Let me approach this topic again, but from a more humdrum angle. 

I’m stuck at home.  I’m teaching online, but I already had a light schedule this semester, and now most of my meetings are cancelled, I have no commute, and my time is freed of the million things that take up my time at work.

I daydream about productivity.  Now I should have time to teach my children music, and math, and theology, and literature; to take long walks and do other exercise; to read; to get enough sleep; to write!  What an opportunity!

But in fact, though the circumstances around me have changed, it’s still the same me.  The me who reads too much on the internet during ordinary times does the same thing during extraordinary times.  The me who spends too much time daydreaming and not enough time working: that’s still me.  I am still too irritable with the people I should love.  I am still distracted when I should be praying.  I still get caught in negative internal monologues. 

One of my favorite professors once said that the central idea of science fiction is that you put human beings in completely unusual circumstances—and it just brings out what is always true about human beings.  I haven’t read much science fiction, but in the Lord of the Rings, for example, what’s really great is that Sam and Frodo, hobbits deep in Mordor, are still showing us the most basic realities of friendship, weariness, and temptation.  Put me in the wildest situation—and it’s still me. 

(A silly way to say the same thing.)


Over the years I’ve had the opportunity for many hermitage retreats.  Mystical!  Spiritual!  Hermitage is wonderful.  But it’s still the same me.  I’m no more insightful on hermitage than I am at home.  I pray more, but I get distracted just as much.  On more than one hermitage, I’ve managed to waste hours and hours, and undermine my big plans, just playing with the fire.  Take away the internet, and I still get just as distracted.  (Sure, playing with the fire is pretty “contemplative.”  But it’s also a pretty good way to procrastinate, even on hermitage.)

In fact, what’s wonderful about hermitage is not that I become a different me, but that, as in science fiction, I put myself in a totally different situation—and find the same me.  Silence just reveals how distracted, and self-focused, and silly, I’ve always been.  It is very illuminating!  Certainly helpful!  But not because it magically makes me a new person, but because it shows me who I was already, forces me to deal with it.


I suspect death, our personal apocalypse, like sickness, is the same way.  All our selfishness, all our greediness and ingratitude, will come to the fore.  We’ll have to deal with ourselves, in the most naked, face-to-face way.  And that will be scary.  The final judgment, the final chance to deal with our reality, which we’ve done such a good job covering over.


I’ll tie this all back to the coronavirus apocalypse two ways.

First, sure, this is a crisis given to us by God, an apocalyptical moment of some kind (though anyone who tells you they know the day or the hour of Christ’s final coming needs to spend more time reading his words and less time with private revelation).  This is an illumination of conscience, absolutely.

But I don’t think anything magical will come of it.  Like hermitage, all that an illumination of conscience can do is throw us back to where we were in the first place: to show us our selfishness, and to see if we are humble enough to cast ourselves on his Mercy.  What the Apocalyptic reveals is the Ordinary.  And what it demands is the Ordinary: to live our lives the way we ought to live them everyday. 

That’s how this apocalyptic crisis affects ourselves.  The same is true of how it affects our relationship with our neighbor.  It’s tempting, when we think about apocalypses, to hope that suddenly God will step in and handle evangelization for us.  Suddenly, this grand moment will come, and God will magically convert everyone, and all that ordinary boring Gospel stuff will disappear, and we won’t have to love our neighbor, or speak the Gospel to him, or be good witnesses.

But here, too, all the apocalypse does is throw us back to the Ordinary.  In this crisis, and in the final crisis—both the personal final crisis we’ll each face on our deathbeds, and the ultimate final crisis at the end of history, whenever that may come—nothing changes.  What the apocalypse reveals is what was always true.  We still need to love our neighbor, preach the Gospel, be good witnesses of Christ’s love.  There is no other way. 

How do think about the Apocalypse?  How do you think about the moment we’re in?

Dostoevsky’s Christianity

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I’ve been enjoying the novels of Dostoevsky the last few years (I’ve read and reread Brothers Karamazov, then The Idiot and Demons), as well as American Southern authors, from Flannery O’Connor to Faulkner, who evoke something of his sense of hopeless poverty, and Russian spiritual authors, from the Vladimir Lossky to Catherine Doughtery to the Philokalia, who I feel have . . . something important to say to us in the West.  I also find something hopeful in the bleak hopelessness of English Catholic novelists like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.  But no one speaks to me of both that bleak poverty and that special Russian sense for the Gospel like Dostoevsky.  I’ve been trying to figure out why. 

I have felt like part of the value of the Russians is that, for all their problems, they speak into the West from the outside.  Their problems are not our problems, so they offer a perspective that can at least shake us out of the narrow ways we often frame things. 

I’ve had a sense that somehow this fits into the Russian debate, at Dostoevsky’s time, between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles.  Dostoevsky was one of the Russians who thought that they shouldn’t be imitating us in the West.  On the one hand, Slavophilia (whatever it means) makes me nervous.  I believe in Catholicism, which means rising above our national biases into the universal perspective of Christ; I hate nationalist Christianities, and Russian Orthodoxy is one of the most nationalist.  I don’t want to follow Russians deeper into their self-regarding parochialism. 

On the other hand, that might be what makes the Russians useful for us: they can shake us out of our Western biases, help us see beyond the narrowness of our own sort of nationalism, and so recover a Christianity that is bigger than America and the modern West.


I recently began another read through Crime and Punishment, and found this wonderful line, already in the second chapter:

“A follower of the latest ideas was explaining to me just the other day that

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in our era compassion has even been prohibited by science and that this is already being done in England, where they’ve developed political economy.”

From the pen of the Slavophile Dostoevsky, the line is obviously ironic.  It identifies the problem of the West as a kind of know-it-all pseudo-scientific outlook that thinks it rises above basic human relationships.  Dostoevsky’s word “compassion” nicely ties together a central part of the supernatural Gospel with the most natural parts of human existence.  “England”—that’s us—thinks it’s too sophisticated for either Jesus or basic human decency.


I happened to read these lines in a bright white Urgent Care, with one of those home improvement shows playing on the television in front of me.  On tv, they’ve just knocked open a wall and discovered some new opportunity.  I wasn’t following exactly, but the contractor says to the couple, “Do you want to switch over to a tankless water heater?”  They say, “Is that within our budget?”  He says, “Oh, it will only be fifteen hundred dollars.”  And she says, “Yes, I think we should do it: for our future, and for the environment!” 

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The impression is that “normal” people have thousands of dollars to throw around on spur-of-the-moment ideas; that we should be “investing” in “our future”; and that the most meaningful things in life are how fancy your latest renovation is.  There is no interior life, no need for compassion, no relationships, just lots of expensive stuff. 

Meanwhile, I read about Dostoevsky’s characters, horrifically poor, living in a hallway, dying of consumption and drunken despair, physically beaten by their bosses, hiring their daughters out for prostitution because they have no other hope of feeding their starving children. 

Two very different worlds: Dostoevsky’s Russia and our modern West.


Within the first thirty pages, a main character is on his kness, arms stretched out like a cross, proclaiming his wretchedness to his wife.  The same character has proclaimed of himself, “There’s no reason to feel sorry for me!  I should be crucified, nailed to a cross, not pitied.”

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But he says of the Crucified: “He who has pitied all men and who has understood everyone and everything, He will take pity on us; He and no one else; He is the judge.  He will come on that day and He will ask: ‘Where is thy daughter who sacrificed herself for her wicked and consumptive stepmother and for a stranger’s little children?  Where is thy daughter who pitied her earthly father, a useless drunkard, , and who was not dismayed by his beastliness?’  And he will say: ‘Come forth, I have already forgiven thee!’ . . . Then He will summon us, too: ‘Come forth, He will say, “even ye!  Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weaklings, come forth, ye shameless ones! . . . And He will say, ‘I receive them, oh, ye wise men, I receive them, oh ye learned men, because not one of them hath ever considered himself worthy. . . . ‘And He will stretch forth His arms to us, and we will kiss His hands . . . and we will weep . . . and we will understand all things.”


In our world of HGTV, we pretend that compassion—compassion for one another, compassion for the poor, the compassion of Christ, our own desperate need for compassion—is a thing of the past, solved by economic “progress.” 

Of course, that’s not true.  Though we might not live in the wretched physical poverty of Dostoevsky’s characters, we real human beings still feel the terror of all sorts of emotional and relational and spiritual poverty.  We still anaesthetize our pain, just like Dostoevsky’s drunks.  But we pretend that economic growth replaces compassion.  And we lose the immediacy of the Cross, Dostoevsky’s sense that our whole lives revolve around the pity and suffering of Jesus Christ. 

That’s one of the reasons to read the Russians, and all those other authors who still know that suffering is real.

It might explain, too, why our South American pope sounds so strange to the ears of rich white Americans . . . .

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Fifth Sunday: Lavishly He Gives to the Poor

Our readings this Sunday begin with a controversial idea: “Share your bread with the hungry.”

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Modern politics seems to be split between those who think the hungry probably don’t deserve my bread, and need the stimulus of their hunger to teach them a better work ethic; and those who think the government should take care of them so I don’t have to. 

And modern Christianity seems split between those who substitute the so-called “spiritual works of mercy” (counsel the doubtful, etc.) for the Gospel’s somehow inferior “corporal” works of mercy (“I was hungry, and you did not feed me . . . Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”; and those who prefer to ignore all the business about God and Jesus and Truth and Virtue in favor of an entirely material social program.

Oddly enough, the solution to this tangled controversy is in what the old Greek theologians call theosis: divinization.  “God became man so that men could become God.”


One place to find the key is in our Gospel.  “You are the salt of the earth . . . .  You are the light of the world,” says a familiar Gospel.  (These are the lines immediately following the Beatitudes, but it happened that this year the Presentation replaced that Gospel, something that only happens on average every twenty-one years.) 

No matter where you are on whatever ideological spectrum, these lines are attractive: We all think we should make the world a better place.

But our Gospel ends on an odd note: “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”  What is the connection between my good deeds and “glorifying” God in heaven?  The first part focuses on me—but the second on God.  The first part is very this-worldly—the second part is about worship and heaven. 

The Tradition sees it this way: our good deeds are a product of God’s good work in us.  The saints are his masterwork.  This is parallel to Creation: the world is good because God made it.  The things of this world are less good than God, but they really do have a share in his goodness, because he made them, and therefore they are reason to give thanks to God, to “glorify your heavenly Father.”  But whereas the world is only his Creation, the saints are his children, really sharing in his life; only a human being can love as God loves. 


The flipside is the other odd part of this Gospel: whereasas the second part, about the light of the world, ends with glorifying your heavenly Father, the first part, about the salt of the earth, ends with a threat.  “If salt loses its taste . . . It is no longer good for anything but to be throw out and trampled underfoot.” 

God created us in image so that, through us, he could show his glory through this material world, just as salt brings out the flavor of food.  But if we do not serve that purpose, our lives have failed.  That is the real threat of Hell: we can fail to let God work through us.


The Tradition notes an interesting double layer in the various calls to serve the poor.  “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless . . . .  Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!” 

The poor cry to us for help—and we, who are poor, cry to God for help. 

Our Psalm says, “Lavishly he gives to the poor.”  Who is he?  God?  Or us?  In fact, it’s both.  We give, because he gives, and when we give to them, he gives to us.  The whole mystery of Christianity is in this chain of giving: “Lavishly he gives to the poor.”


Our reading from First Corinthians adds the key middle ground: Jesus.

“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 

All of Christianity, it turns out, hinges on Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

He is both the poor man and the generous man, and he teaches us to be both.

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“I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,” says Paul, and so he renounces all claim to glory and riches and power.  In Christ the poor man, we find that our true riches are not in what we hoard for ourselves, but in our total reliance on the mercy of God, who raises the dead.

And in our love of Christ, we long to poor ourselves out as he did.  The corporal works of mercy give flesh to that call to imitate Christ.  Yes, of course we should preach the Gospel.  But if we turn the corporal demands of the Gospel into merely “spiritual works,” we empty the Gospel of its power, and deny the flesh of Christ. 

The world offers a false choice, between God or this world, the spiritual or the material.  Christ shows us how the two come together.

Where do you find yourself making that false division?

[Incidentally, my apologies for my absences.  Our seventh was born in early December.  Relying to much on my own strength, I have often been finding how weak that strength is!]