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Anthropologists have Tylor and Frazer. But are there armchair theologians? This term very often has a bad connotation in an academy that constantly strives to be relevant to the public. When considering the sixteenth-century School of Salamanca and theologians such as Vitoria, Cano, and Peña, armchair theology seems to be applicable. They have received criticism from some for being so removed from the reality and praxis regarding how to deal with the actual conditions of the Amerindians in the New World.  These Dominicans never set foot on tierra firme like Las Casas or Pedro de Córdoba did so they had to rely entirely on chronicles and eye-witness testimony for their theological and political judgments regarding the affairs of the Americas. Furthermore, their relectiones, which were a series of lectures given for a few weeks or months on a pressing social or religious problem facing the Church in Spain, demanded it.

Of course, there was no shortage of reports for these theologians as they had everyone from Cristobal Colón to their very own friar from San Esteban, Tomás de la Torre, and his chronicle of the journey along with fifteen other Dominicans to the Americas with Bishop Las Casas. But with all the reports, often contrasting, coming into the Peninsula from missionaries, emissaries, conquistadores, and travelers who had all experienced different Amerindian cultures in distinct locales, whose account should be trusted? We know that Vitoria based his judgment and subsequent opposition to Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca Atahaulpa in Peru from the report of the missionary Vicente de Valverde who came back to Spain in 1534. But it is especially interesting to consider how Las Casas specifically advised his close friend Domingo de Soto on this matter.

From his first relectio De Dominio given in the aulas of the Univeristy of Salamanca in 1535, Soto remained deeply suspicious of the entire Spanish imperial enterprise in the New World. In that relectio Soto claimed he did not know by what title Spain waged its expansionary program. He says quite bluntly, “Re vera ego nescio.” The only thing he did claim to know and continued to maintain the rest of his intellectual life was that there was both a right of preaching (ius praedicandi) given by Christ and a right of defense (ius defendi) intrinsic to nature that could serve as the principles of judgment over the controversy.  Nevertheless, one still needs empirical evidence and expert testimony to apply these basic freedoms to properly assess a concrete situation.

It is here that Las Casas enters the discussion to advise his friend. The following analysis is indebted to Padre Ramón Hernández. More than ten years after De dominio, Las Casas writes a letter to Soto who is troubled by all the conflicting accounts of what is actually going on across the Atlantic. Las Casas proposes a criterion for discerning the truth that is as brilliant as it is deceptively simple: the interest or disinterest of the informers. This is not far from what Gustavo Gutiérrez refers to as “la perspectiva del poder.” Those who profit from the conquest and stealing support the encomienda system whereas those who defend the Amerindians are critical of it. The latter, according to Las Casas, were typically those under religious vows since they were less prone to the things of this world.

The encomienda and all its real, oppressive structural features was “intrinsically evil” in the eyes of Las Casas. Nearing the end of his life in Spain, Las Casas wrote to his Dominican brothers back in Chiapas that he still considered it as such. The category of evil ultimately served as his criterion for gauging interest-disinterest or power-oppression relations. Theologians, especially those belonging to the Catholic moral tradition, know all to well the rhetorical force of intrinsic evil in ethical debates. Often, when it is employed it becomes a conversation-stopper for not only the addressee but also the speaker. “I’m right and you’re wrong.” But here is why Las Casas’ criterion is deceptively simple. Although he thought the encomienda was evil semper et ad semper and most certainly thought he was speaking the truth, his application of this criterion compelled him to debate and engage his opponents rather than turn away and dismiss them.

If one examines his moral analysis closely it is evident how much he depends on an Aristotelian account of practical reason and induction derived from Book VI of the Ethics. This is not the place to delve into these matters except to say that Las Casas had no interest in drawing self-evident conclusions about pre-existing terms denoting evil from an abstract metaphysical account of nature. Of course, a thoroughly modern natural law thinker might respond that his world was different than ours. He didn’t have to appeal to abstract nature because he lived in a world that already shared a conception of nature. This ignores the fact, however, that Las Casas’ opponents fundamentally challenged  his basic descriptions  about what constitutes freedom and what is true faith. Perhaps it was not all that different from us today.

The bottom line to his moral inquiry is that he arrived at his conclusions about intrinsic evil through a thick engagement with the reality of Amerindian suffering under the encomienda and its relationship to the explicit ends defined by the institution and the people who supported it. He concluded, following a letter he wrote to Bartolomé de Carranza, that the three root evils perpetuated by the encomienda here and everywhere were: loss of natural freedom, loss of dominium and jurisdiction, and obstruction of faith. Unlike most who invoke the language of intrinsic evil, Las Casas dealt with such a troubling reality prophetically, pastorally, and penitentially. He recognized it was an evil and never feared debating his opponents by using their analytic tools and concpetual frameworks (his mostly self-educated canon law arguments attest to this). As a bishop and pastor, he cared deeply about preserving genuine faith and sought the salvation of those in his flock who mistreated the Amerindians (this is evident in his withholding absolution to self-professed slaveowners until restitution was made). Lastly, Las Casas never forgot his roots and that his penance and conversion was a gift that opened his eyes to the reality of suffering among the conquered.

All in all, Las Casas’ advice to Soto should be considered a serious contribution to moral analysis for theologians for its ability to complicate and clarify simultaneously. His conversation with Soto testifies to the nonnegotiable importance that theologians today must place on accurate sources derived from the natural and social sciences. But what of Soto? Is there such a thing as armchair theology? Sadly, there is, yet Soto was far from guilty of this. As a prior of San Esteban in charge of administering souls, he never failed to care for those under him. He never forgot the poor in his community and around Spain. In an age where poor laws were being advanced by humanists (e.g. Juan Luis Vives) and aristocrats alike prohibiting begging and restricting social charity, Soto challenged them head on by fighting for the rights of the poor to beg and travel freely (just like mendicants) both academically (see his relección Deliberación en la causa de los pobres) and socially. Not unlike Las Casas, it was his religious vows and commitment to God that enabled him to be in solidarity with the victims rather than their oppressor. An armchair theologian doesn’t recognize this difference.

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