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. . . .


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