Bartolomé de las Casas and the Popes

Posted on January 6, 2023


Bartolomé de las Casas and the Popes

The recent passing of Pope Benedict, his memorials, and burial earlier in January 2023, brought to mind another Catholic prelate, hardly known in the twenty first century. He was however an iconic figure of his age in the sixteenth century, a man of Christian wisdom and strength, someone to be remembered in this day and age when the human spirit seems so bereft of faith and driven by ego and self-interest.

Pope Benedict’s funeral was an impressive display of pomp and ceremony in the Vatican. He probably would have wanted something simpler, more in keeping with his sense of dignity and propriety as a Christian, not the ruler of millions of followers in the Roman Catholic church around the world. Power tends to corrupt us all. We forget the simple virtues Jesus prescribed for us to keep us alive and vital in Scripture, not simply in the Four Gospels, but also in the wonderful Holy Spirit-inspired writings of the Apostle Paul. But this is not a lesson in theology. Go to church next Sunday!

A few months ago, Pope Francis came to the Americas, specifically to Canada, to apologize to the indigenous people for the behavior of certain priests in the past.

Pope Francis is not the first apologist of the Roman Catholic Church to bend the knee before American indigenous peoples in such a dramatic fashion as we saw on his visit. He wasn’t even the most articulate or demanding Catholic clergyman to do so, even being a member of the distinguished Jesuit Order, among the most scholarly and active clergy in the history of Christianity. The honor belongs to a flinty, argumentative priest of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Bartolomé de las Casas (1485-1566) who almost split the Church wide open with his defense of American Indians in the face of the Spanish Conquest of the New World.

That Las Casas was a contemporary of another priest who did split Christianity wide open, Martin Luther, makes us reconsider how we judge the very nature of Christianity. Not too long ago I heard one of my pastors deliver a good sermon on change, and then another one on accepting “process” as part of our Christian life. Change and process both drove Francis to travel to Canada and apologize. Things have changed since Catholic missionaries subjected indigenous children to a rigid discipline and regimen that undermined their very rights as a people to exist with their own voices and ways.

Bartolomé de ;as Casas did the same thing in the sixteenth century when he first traveled in 1502 to the Indies, as the Spanish called their new possessions. There he witnessed the brutality and greed driving Spanish conquistadors to exploit the Taino peoples of the island of Española (modern Haiti and Dominican Republic). Las Casas, then among the settlers himself, was moving towards embracing his true calling as a member of the Church. He was reading Scripture, largely of course in the Latin version produced by St. Jerome in the fifth century, but it’s the same Scripture you and I read, whether in English, Spanish, or the dozens of other languages of our world. The language may change, but not the message.

As Las Casas witnessed the Spanish impose a brutal institution, the encomienda—a kind of extension of Middle Ages serfdom of Castile—on the Tainos, and slam others into unadulterated slavery, he was stunned. Greed and cupidity were driving them into brutal and monstruous crimes as they drove the Tainos to labor in the mines for gold or labor in the fields and forests claimed by the Spaniards. Women were raped, children slaughtered, and men driven to suicide. What to do?

Las Casas, like Pope Francis five hundred years later, read Scripture like the beautiful chapter thirteen of the First Book of Corinthians written by the Apostle Paul.

In part it reads: “If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. …And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Where was love amidst all this barbarity? What about some of the other great Christian principles Las Casas was reading about, or had inherited from the teachings of the Church over the past 1500 years? What about Equality? Justice? Liberty?

In 1510, one Sunday during Epiphany, a new Dominican friar on the island, Antonio de Montesino, was chosen by a small group of fellow Dominicans to preach the sermon the settlers needed to hear. That sermon should be ringing in the ears of all Christian clergy across the centuries and the lands of the world. Here’s a small part of what I think is the most important sermon preached in the New World since Europeans arrived in 1492.

“Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? By what right do you wage such detestable wars on these people who lived mildly and peacefully in their own lands, where you have consumed infinite numbers of them with unheard of murders and desolations? Why do you so greatly oppress and fatigue them, …so that you may extract and acquire gold every day? And what care do you take that they receive religious instruction and come to know their God and creator, or that they be baptized and hear mass? Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves? Be sure that in your present state you can no more be saved than the Moors or Turks who do not have and do not want the faith of Jesus Christ.”

The congregation was stunned, but as Las Casas later drily observed, none were changed. Las Casas, however, was changed forever, especially after he went to Cuba on another expedition, and witnessed a slaughter in 1514 near the river Caonao on eastern Cuba. It transformed him. In the language of Scripture, it was his “road to Damascus” experience like when Jesus awoke the Apostle Paul to be a follower, not a prosecutor of Christians. In age Las Casas was nearer his epiphany than Paul, but it was nonetheless a transformative moment in his life.

Returning to Spain in 1515 he began a long life of lobbying and preaching on behalf of the liberty and freedom of the indigenous of the Americas. He travelled, preached, and taught all the way from Venezuela through Panama and north through Nicaragua, Guatemala, and into Mexico, traveling back and forth from Spain at least six times in his lifetime. He preached before kings, like Charles I of Spain and later his son Philip II, and taught and sometimes suffered with the humble indigenous in places like Chiapa, Mexico where he served a short time as Bishop.

He was appointed “Defender of American Indians” in 1516 by the aging King Ferdinand and embarked on a prophetic career of freedom and righteousness for all the indigenous.

Pope Francis was treading a well-worn path in the life of Christianity when he came to Canada a few months ago. And Pope Benedick’s lifelong devotion, especially as a Cardinal preceding his election to Pope in 2005, to original Christian principles marked him as good descendant of one of his priestly predecessors Bartolomé de las Casas.

Finally, a bit of Scripture. In a weekly Bible study I attend run by a friend, John Belcher, here in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, we are studying Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It is both instructive and compelling, and amazingly timely and contemporary, even if written two thousand years ago.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;  idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Gal. 5: 19-22)