Feed on

One of the many great benefits (unworthily I should say) of studying this topic is that I have had the privilege of meeting some of the most brilliant theological minds of our age. Last semester at Notre Dame, Padre Gustavo Gutiérrez offered his seminar on Las Casas. I was able to audit it. Sitting around for two and half hours a week with such keen students from across the disciplines (theology, law, and history) in the presence of Padre Gustavo was nothing short of ecstatic. Gustavo’s utterly courageous intellect and wit is deeply rooted in his love for the holiness of Christ present among the forgotten and neglected. He is the stuff of saints, in my opinion. Yesterday, I met another person of deep holiness and unstinting erudition. He is a virtual unkown in the states. He is Padre Ramón Hernández.

When I arrived in Salamanca over a week ago, I was under the impression that Padre Ramón was living in Rome. The helpful library assistants at San Esteban informed me immediately that he was not in Rome, but now residing once again at the priory that he taught at for so many years.  I finally had the chance to meet and talk with him in person. We had a conversation for about an hour that felt like the eternal now. I was glad I had my Moleskine handy. Even at his ripened age, Padre Ramón could throw out references and theses left and right. I was not able to keep up but I divulge at least the surface of that enjoyable conversation we had.

Padre Ramón is a maverick. In a period of impasse between “Lascasistas” and “Vitorianos” typified by thinkers like Isacio Pérez Fernández and Ramón Menéndez Pidal, respectively, Padre Ramón breaks down the barriers and prejudices. Similar to the way Gustavo speaks about “drinking from our own wells,” Ramón wants to return to “las fuentes,” or the original sources or “springs” shared by these sixteenth-century figures in question. His writings capture this spirit of unity, rather than division. That is not to say that he ignores their differences. Ramón is well aware that Las Casas and Vitoria differed with regard to how the address the Amerindian question. But these differences were not fundamentally opposed and should not be overlooked in the effort of serving reigning theo-political interests.

One such source that I alluded to in my last post was the disciplinary code formed at the Dominican priory of San Esteban in the sixteenth century. Although Las Casas was not formed as a Dominican in Salamanca, the confessors and preachers who won his heart certainly were. Among these first Dominicans from San Esteban were Pedro de Cordoba, Bernardo de Santo Domingo, and of course, Antonio de Montesinos. Vitoria and his student, Domingo de Soto, belonged to this same original community. More than that, these theologian-pastors were responsible for selecting the best and brighest from San Esteban to be missionaries in the New World. So much did Las Casas value this judgment that when he was asked to return to the Americas after being chosen as bishop of Chiapas in the 1540s, he brought back dozens of San Esteban friars with him. Friars who were taught by their master, Vitoria.

Padre Ramón informed me of the chronicle of Tomás de la Torre, O.P. He was one of the friars sent back with Las Casas. His chronicle has been published in Spanish as Diario de viaje de Salamanca  Ciudad Real de Chiapa, 1544-1545. Ramón, who appreciates good films from what I gathered, suggested that this journey would make an incredible biopic. He also mentioned that he was recently asked to see one of the Spanish movies entered into the “Best Foreign Film” category for the Oscars entitled: “Y Tambien la lluvia” (Even the Rain). The film, which I have not seen as of yet and stars Gael Garcia Bernal, is the story of a film director who travels to Bolivia where there is a social crisis unfolding regarding the privatization of water. What is compelling is that the film they are making is about the Spanish conquest of America and two of their key characters are Las Casas and Montesinos. Juxtaposing real historical characters with an ongoing struggle in Latin American politics surely makes for effective storytelling. Padre Ramón said he was moved to tears by the film. I say no more.

Yet there is so much more to say about our meeting that no mere post could suffice. What I received from Ramón was so much more than I could ever return. I was happy that I did point him to a couple of sources he had yet to read. One of which (an English-speaking author, obviously) is David Lupher’s Romans in a New World: Classical Models in Sixteeenth-Century Spanish America. This much under-appreciated work among Christian ethicists examines the role that the model of the Roman Empire had on theologians and lawyers in the debates over conquest. In line with Ramón’s project, Lupher shows how some of the most notable voices from the School of Salamanca along with Las Casas contributed to a strong critique of Spanish crown policy by using the example of pagan Rome as precedent.

I left Padre Ramón at San Esteban with the hope and expectation of meeting again and again. I was humbly reminded of his intellectual stature when he pulled out his notepad, which was about the size of his palm. Less notes for someone who learns little from neophytes. The phrase that has been haunting me ever since our meeting was one he shared with me during our conversation. It only proves his status as a provocateur: “Vitoria es mas lascasiano que el vivo Las Casas.” As I ponder this, do you have any thoughts? If you read Spanish and are interested in his work, I point you to the following website, http://www.freewebtown.com/oprhernandez/.

Comments are closed.