(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. . . .