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 But by 1545, the conquistadors had gotten those laws repealed.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.


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