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Ever since Pope John Paul II’s 1987 social encyclical, Sollicitudo rei socialis (On Social Concern), the term “solidarity” has become a key principle of Catholic social doctrine. In paragraph 40, the pope writes:

“Solidarity is undoubtedly a Christian virtue… In light of faith, solidarity seeks to go beyond itself, to take on the specifically Christian dimension of total gratuity, forgiveness, and reconciliation. One’s neighbor is then not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else, but becomes the living image of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and placed under the permanent action of the Holy Spirit. One’s neighbor must therefore be loved, even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her; and for that person’s sake one must be ready for sacrifice, even the ultimate one: to lay down one’s life for the brethren (cf. 1 John 3:16).”

There is nothing new to the pope’s teaching on solidarity whereby one offers his or her life for the sake of another or for one’s community. When the Babylonian Jews turned to the God of Israel, they were told: “Promote the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the LORD, for upon its welfare depends your own.” (Jeremiah 29:7) Jesus makes it a central message of his preaching and passion to extend this desire especially towards his enemies. St. Paul beautifully highlights the continuity and difference between the old and the new, the God of the philosophers and the God of Israel, when he teaches: “Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find the courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:7-8)

In the context of modern human rights discussions, this teaching provides a theological vision of rights that goes beyond mere restitution and justice as the guiding principles for securing rights for everyone to include the higher principles and virtues of solidarity and love. Much of the literature on rights, when it is not overly abstract, focuses on addressing the structural and institutional dimensions of the question. This is certainly a necessary component. John Paul II speaks about this in terms of “structures of sin” and “evil mechanisms.” However, the personal or individual dimension of the question should not be overlooked in the effort to rectify political and social arrangements. In fact, the personal dimension is the foundation to the discussion from a Christian perspective because it begins with the real event of conversion from sin. This is why the attitude or virtue of solidarity is so important to the discussion; it is indicative of a heart being turned from stone to flesh that “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortuntes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and preserving determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we really are all really responsible for all.” (par. 38)

The conversion leading to solidarity turns away from the desire for profit and power by seeking “the good of one’s neighbor with the readiness, in the gospel sense, to “lose oneself” for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to “serve him” instead of oppressing him for one’s own advantage.” The late pope goes so far as to say that the influential and wealthy have a duty to the weaker in society in that they should “be ready to share with them all they possess.” This last claim is clearly an illustration of what a Christian vision of human rights looks like. It entails sacrifice.

"It is better to renounce one's own right than to violate another."

It is no surprise then that this same teaching appears on the walls of the cloister at the Dominican priory of San Esteban in Salamanca.  The great theologians who first began a serious discussion of natural rights for all persons, regardless of creed, did so from a thoroughly Christian perspective. In the case of those engaged in a licit war, which should always be constrained by Christian values, Vitoria writes: “They must always be prepared to forego some part of their rights rather than risk trespassing on some unlawful thing, and always direct their plans to the benefit of the barbarians rather than their own profit, bearing constantly in mind the saying of St. Paul: ‘all things are lawful  unto me, but all things are not expedient’ (1 Cor. 6:12).” (Relectio de Indis q.3, 2)

Vitoria presents this teaching under his second possible legitimate title for waging war–the spreading of the Christian religion. What is significant is that he departs here from a long-standing tradition within Latin Christendom that legitimated the right of preaching over and against that which obstructed it; namely, the idolatry and rites of unbelievers. In a reflexive move, Vitoria turns the issue back to Christians by stating that “it may happen that the resulting war, with its massacres and pillage, obstructs the conversion of the barbarians instead of encouraging it.” There is no doubt that Francisco Pizzaro’s conquest of Peru would have been fresh on his mind here as an example of such an obstruction.

Unfortunately, Vitoria did not go far enough in his implementation of the solidarity principle with regard to the right of preaching. His recognition of the rights of natives to receive the Gospel freely was not absolute but conditional. Earlier in that same discussion, he says that the Spaniards “may preach and work for the conversion of that people even against their will.” On this point, disciples of Vitoria such as Domingo de Soto, Melchor Cano, and Bartolomé de Carranza were not in agreement. Instead, they followed Las Casas in recognizing that every single right of Christians, even the most important one given by Christ to preach, should be renounced if it entails violating the rights of another. Of course, this teaching came from Christ himself when he commissioned the twelve: “Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words–go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet.” (Matt. 10:14) Who better to teach perfect solidarity than the Lord himself by showing his disciples in word and deed that the greatest right of all may need to be renounced, even for the sake of one’s enemies.

The other day in Madrid I had the chance to drop by the bookstore of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas near the Prado museum. A division of Spain’s government, the CSIC has an excellent record of publishing Spanish translations of original Latin works pertaining to Spanish debates concerning the New World. Among the older generation of titles, some of which are still in publication, are the books belonging to the Corpus Hispanorum de Pace series. Important writings of Vitoria, Las Casas, Peña, José de Acosta, and Alonso de la Vera Cruz on the questions of just war, evangelization, political authority, and Amerindian religion all belong to this series. Each of these books contains helpful essays authored by late scholars such as Luciano Pereña Vicente and Vidal Abril Castelló, who situate these writings in the sixteenth-century historical context and official crown policy.

The CSIC also publishes stand-alone works written by contemporary scholars on this period. One that immediately grabbed my attention was Llamado a la misión pacífica: la dimensión religiosa de la libertad en Bartolomé de las Casas (Called to Peaceful Evanglization: The Religious Dimension of Freedom in Bartolomé de las Casas) written by Ramón Valdivia Giménez. It was released in 2010 and is published in conjunction with the University of Sevilla. The author is a priest from Sevilla who wrote this work as an extension of his dissertation. As far as I know, it is the first major Spanish publication on Las Casas to make full use of the release of his Obras completas published by Alianza Editorial. The book follows in the footsteps of two previous studies on Las Casas, Ramón Queraltó Moreno’s El pensamiento filosófico-politico en Bartolomé de las Casas and Gustavo Gutiérrez’s En busca de los pobres de Jesucristo, by focusing on the philosophical and theological arguments of both his defense of the Amerindians and the religious right of Christians to proselytize while remaining distinct and novel in its analysis.

The book has nine chapters that are organized into three different sections. I have provided an outline of the book below:

Part One – Foundations of the Religious Dimension of Freedom in Las Casas                         

Chapter One. Basic Principles (This chapter offers a brief bio of Las Casas’ life and highlights the philosophical, theological, and juristic genres of discourse he employs in his writings. It concludes with  an overview of the trends of twentieth-century Las Casas scholarship)             

Chapter Two. Philosophical and theological sources (This chapter considers the major philosophical and theological sources of Las Casas’ thought that includes Aristotle, Cicero, Scripture, Augustine, Aquinas, Renaissance humanism, and the School of Salamanca)

Chapter Three. Legal sources (This chapter, which is far too brief, considers some of the legal terminology that Las Casas employs in his articulation of the religious dimension of freedom)                      

Part Two – The Heretical Violation of Christian Freedom

Chapter Four. From fantasy to the human person: Lascasian anthropology (This chapter situates Las Casas’ anthropology alongside that of his greatest opponent who rejected the political and religious freedom of the Amerindians, Sepúlveda. It also offers important reflection on John Mair’s discussion of enslavement and the question of African slavery in Las Casas)

Chapter Five. From oppression to self-government: Lascasian politics (This chapter is a deeper engagement and Las Casas’ critique of the secularization of power in Sepúlveda’s humanist politics that claims the Spanish authority of the Amerindians on the basis of moral and religious superiority)

Chapter Six. From coercion to freedom: the philosophy of mission in Las Casas (This chapter begins with the contrary methods of evangelization presented between Las Casas and the Franciscan Toribio Motolinía and later Sepúlveda. The primary aim of this chapter ties together the point of the second part of the book: that Las Casas’ ethic of evangelization and toleration of Amerindian religious practices is neither an argument for cultural relativism nor religious indifferentism, but a strong commitment to the necessity of preaching the Gospel)

Part Three – Conscience, Freedom, and Alterity: Trajectories of Lascasian Mission

Chapter Seven. The irruption of conscience (This chapter engages more of the contemporary scholarship on the historical question of Spanish conquest by examining to what extent histories, like Tzvetan Todorov’s, have been exaggerated to make the conquest appear as a genocide. The author seeks a more balanced approach that recognizes the Crown’s attempt to wrestle with its own conscience and the role of the Dominicans, beginning with Montesinos, in this process. One of the central issues of this call of conscience had to do with the freedom to accept baptism as a basis for peaceful evangelization. The author shows precisely how the position of the Spanish Dominicans informed, albeit in a limited way, both ecclesiastical and imperial policy)

Chapter Eight. The recognition of freedom (This chapter, similar to Gutiérrez’s book, presents a historical overview of the ecclesiastical position on freedom in religious matters by charting a development from the idea of freedom of the Church to religious toleration to religious freedom. Rather than working anachronistically, the author speaks of Las Casas’s position not in terms of religious freedom but as his thesis suggests–an advocate of the religious dimension of freedom. Nevertheless, the author places Las Casas in the context of twentieth-century discussions of religious freedom from both secular and Christian perspectives thereby highlighting his lasting contribution to this issue)

Chapter Nine. The acceptance of otherness (This chapter concludes the work by focusing on what is definitive of Las Casas’s approach to the issues of freedom and evangelization. That is, his ability to defend the freedom of Amerindians as well as the freedom to preach, all the while he performs a reflexive critique of violent religious practices of both the indigeneous and the Spanish. The chapter beautifully highlights the task of inculturation in Las Casas that is so often spoken of these days by showing what Enrique Dussel has referred to as the “trans-modern” dimension of his thinking and action)

That does it for the outline. This book, which needs to be translated into English eventually, marks the beginning of a new generation of Las Casas studies that, I believe, has learned from the past century to move beyond the Las Casas versus School of Salamanca impasse. On the eve of commemorating five hundred years since his conversion, the coming century looks bright for relating this hopeful story that belongs to all Christians as it does to all humanity.

Blaming Scotus for the origin of voluntarism, or the separation of morality from happiness, or the rejection of the moral precepts of the Decalogue (the second table) as permanent natural norms, are all reasons why moral theologians (often with Thomistic loyalties) have loved to hate him over the centuries. Some of these narratives are more interesting than others. But as Charles Taylor notes in the epilogue of A Secular Age, such narratives of “intellectual deviation” presume that the world is really driven by ideas among the elite more than it is shaped by social processes or what he calls social imaginaries. In considering the use of the Subtle Doctor in sixteenth-century debates regarding forcible baptism for my research, I have come across a real and palpable reason to blame Scotus, along with numerous other theologians, Church officials, and Christian rulers throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, who defended the religious coercion of unbelievers to effect conversion. I focus on Scotus here.

John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) lived in a period of Christendom marked by the crusades against both external enemies like the Saracens and internal ones such as Jews and heretics. The consensus among canon lawyers and scholastic theologians following the aftermath of the destruction of Jews at Mainz and elsewhere during the First Crusade and the Albigensian Crusade was that heretics were to be treated differently from non-baptized unbelievers. Coercive force such as imprisonment and even death could be used in the former case as a disciplinary measure to maintain the vow of the baptized but no punishment was to be extended to coerce baptism in the case of Jews or pagans under Christian rule, at least not in a direct way. The bottom line, according to the long-standing custom of the Church and the teachings of Augustine and Gregory the Great, was that faith can never be forced but is a gift accepted willingly and freely.

Scotus entered the theological discussion on this topic as did most commentators on Book Four of the Lombard’s Sentences. His innovation lies in the fact that he gave praise and justification to the anti-Jewish policies of the seventh-century Visigothic king Sisebut, who initiated a statewide policy of forcible baptism among adults and children for the sake of Catholic unity. Even though the Fourth Council of Toledo (633) praised Sisebut’s zeal, it rejected the manner in which he forced conversion. The council taught that force in conversion was contrary to the “form of justice.” Nevertheless, the council appeared to keep the door open to such a practice by recognizing that following a case of forced baptism, the “convert” must be required to keep the faith so as not to cause scandal.

The Subtle Doctor made opportune use of the Visigothic case. His argument in support of Sisebut was a kind of thought-experiment unrestrained by negative norms. If infidels remain in their unbelief within a Christian society, they are guilty of a greater sin than forcing them to convert. The primary reason Toledo and subsequent Church policy had rejected this practice, at least up until Aquinas made robust theological arguments from the natural form of justice, was that it would bring scandal to the faith due to the likely result of the forced convert’s apostasy. Scotus held that even if the convert apostasized, their children at least three or four generations down the line would accept the faith voluntarily and without question. Again, the greater sin was to let infidels remain in their unbelief. The ruler has the power and authority to compel his subjects toward what is good and nothing is better for them or their descendants than salvation. The right of the Christian ruler comes from God whereas the right of the parents to raise their children in unbelief is an abuse that merits punishment.

Although Scotus had his followers on this issue like Gabriel Biel in the following centuries, his arguments were mostly unconvincing to Christians. That is until the ‘affairs of the Indies’ surfaced in the sixteenth century. Although it is more than expected to find the Subtle Doctor’s arguments employed in Sepúlveda’s defense of war and conquest of the Amerindians, it is disheartening to see Vitoria flirt with his arguments as well. In the commentary on the Secunda secundae (see Appendix 2 of his Political Writings, ed. Lawrence and Pagden), Vitoria entertains Scotus, to a point, by arguing that it is not altogether untenable or unlawful for a Christian ruler to coerce his unbelieving citizens in religious matters, if it can be certain that no undesirable consequences like social disorder would follow. His reason came from a Thomistic principle of ordering all human affairs in a commonwealth to what is most beneficial for its citizens. While he did emphatically hold the traditional teaching that coercion in baptism is evil, Vitoria’s position ended up being too ambiguous because of its preoccupation with logical niceties characteristic of Scotus’ thought and yet weak and mute in the face of gross injustices against human dignity perpetrated by Christians.

When the generation of the School of Salamanca after Vitoria wrestled with this question (e.g. Peña, Luis de León, and Mancio de Corpus Christi), they turned to Domingo de Soto, whose arguments on this question depended on the commentaries of Cardinal Vio Cajetan. The first outright rejection of the Scotian position on forcible baptism in the context of New World debates was first put forward by this Superior General of the Dominicans who was responsible for sending the first prophetic missionaries of the order to Santo Domingo. Cajetan wrote that Scotus supported the Council’s praise of Sisebut, which meant for Scotus that they were not opposed to his intention. Scotus concluded then that even something good such as Catholic uniformity and orientation to the supernatural life can arise from a bad intention to coerce. Cajetan’s Pauline response, unlike the Subtle Doctor, was quite simple: one cannot bring about good from evil.

Subtlety is a good thing so long as it is not an excuse to evade a case of serious moral wrongdoing or even worse, to tacitly endorse one. Cajetan’s resolve for defending the freedom of unbelievers across the Atlantic was only matched by his commitment to preaching the Gospel. As superior, his message to the Dominican Vicar General of Spain in 1508 was clear:  send preachers at once to the New World “under threat of grave sin.” A resounding love to preach the Good News mixed with an uncompromising respect for the freedom of one’s interlocutor is a rare combination these days, as in any age. Thankfully, we have the living examples of Montesinos, Mendoza, and Córdoba from five hundred years ago.

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.

Movies that are about making movies aren’t that good normally. They are often distracting and self-absorbed (Charlie Kauffman’s “Adaptation,” for all its creativity, stands out here). So when a movie comes along and demonstrates the real potential of using this narrative style, it deserves special recognition.  “También la lluvia” (“Even the Rain”), directed by Icíar Bollaín, is such a movie. But it is so much more.

The movie revolves around a couple of Spanish filmmakers, Costa and Sebastián, played by Luis Tosar and Gael García Bernal, respectively. They arrive with their film crew to Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2000 during a moment of great social upheaval over the privatization of water. The poor, mostly indigenous population of Cochabamba struggle enough to survive by living on less than $2/day. When a company arrives under government permission to restrict their water access for the purpose of making a profit from them, it creates dramatic backdrop that emerges to the forefront as the film progresses.

The Spaniards who arrive are not making any ordinary film, but one about Columbus, the conquest of the Americas, and the first Dominicans who opposed the Crown’s policy. This is why the movie works so effectively as a film within a film. It juxtaposes a real historical crisis in Bolivia’s recent history with real historical characters (i.e., Bartolomé de las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos) that provide a continuous prophetic critique in the name of justice and holiness in the film crew and the movie viewer.

One of the local indigenous chosen by Costa and Sebastián to star in the movie is Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri). Chosen to play the great Taíno hero Hatuey because of his passion for justice and leadership, Daniel is also spearheading the local protest against water privatization. This allows the dramatic tension of the social context to become personal for Costa and the film crew.

The film works on so many levels. The cinematography is intimate and beautiful. The premise of a movie within a movie is not a source of distraction because when the scenes of the sixteenth century are being shown in the film, the camera and directors disappear allowing for a more seamless layering of time periods as the movie draws to its heart-pounding conclusion. The music is deeply soothing and yet tense when it needs to be due to its usage of string instruments. All of this creates a wonderful tapestry for a film that is really about solidarity and the cross in an age of deep regret, loneliness, and waywardness.

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) In the opening moments of the movie, a giant wooden cross is brought by helicopter to the set of the film. The viewer knows that this is not mere coincidence as the decision to take up the cross weighs on the conscience of the film crew more and more. The historical characters of Las Casas, Columbus, and Montesinos figure richly into the narrative. We hear the speech that Montesinos gave in Hispaniola in 1511 (during Advent December, not March, as the film incorrectly suggests). We also hear the speech of Hatuey given before his heroic death.

What makes this movie so exciting, at least for someone who studies or cares about this moment in early modern history, is that it presents the conflicted interpretations of contemporary Spaniards. In the actor who plays Christopher Columbus (a very humorous and brilliant performance by Karra Elejalde), we get a sense of the pride and doubt regarding the “bright side” of the New World conquest. There is an incredible dinner scene with excellent dialogue that provides an example of what I am talking about. The actors are gathered around talking about the movie and the social crisis. Antón or Columbus (Elejalde’s character) challenges the actor who plays Las Casas to defend his alter-ego. Antón, not unlike the clamorous historical Dominican counterpart, plays the role of prophet in the contemporary setting. But whereas the criticism of Montesinos arose from the Gospel imperative to love and a desire for God’s justice, Antón’s critique is rooted in cynicism and spiritual unrest. He asks: was Las Casas really just another face of empire as one author has recently suggested? Did he not, after all, defend the African slave trade as an alternative to Indian slavery? These are difficult questions that need to be treated carefully. Unfortunately, the film does not fully acknowledge that Las Casas deeply regretted thinking this way and why he did. Rolena Adorno has written authoritatively about the subject in The Polemics of Possession in Spanish American Narrative (see pp. 66-68). The challenging question that the film raises for Spaniards and everyone else, however, is: how much are they willing to defend by words the personality of someone like Las Casas when their lives and example do not?

Even though we can all sympathize with the voices of cynics and skeptics in our spiritually impoverished age, are we left with this as our only path? That the film provides an answer to this in the negative is truly its greatest contribution as both a Spanish and Latin American film for the rest of the world. Without giving away too much, I cite moments of dialogue that poetically capture the significance of water and rain in the movie that points us toward the way of justice, love, and truth. Costa at one point asks Antón why he drinks so much liquor. Antón responds that is it is because he is very, very, very thirsty. 

The translated movie title, “Even the Rain,” is, in my interpretation, not merely a reference to the material dilemma over water, but also a spiritual reference to Jesus’ teaching that God allows the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. The two characters in the movie that demonstrate this juxtaposition of righteousness and injustice–clearly evident early on in the movie–are Daniel and Costa. The beautiful fact that the movie points a way out of injustice by promoting solidarity and the call to holiness is suggested when Daniel says in defense of his social movement against the selfish Costa interested in finishing the movie, “Without water, you would understand.”

This last statement, in my opinion, captured the movie’s deep insight into the need, sometimes, for revolution as a matter of self-defense and survival. After all, this is what made Las Casas and his Salmantine counterparts so problematic to the Spanish Crown. They argued incessantly: the Indians have a right of self-defense against the aggressive Spaniards. When push comes to shove, and the context ripe, this is demanded especially of Christians who wish to take up the cross and deny themselves. But there is always a choice: martyrdom or just heroism. I think it would be a travesty to elide the fact that the cross and self-sacrifice appear in both instances even though there are important differences. The movie shows how this is so through solidarity. I heartily recommend it and the fact that it was not finally nominated for best foreign film at the Oscar’s gives me little hope, as always, for Hollywood.

One only needs to take a glance at Spanish political history to be aware of the famous debate over the (in)justice of conquest in the New World, which unfolded between the bishop from Chiapas, Las Casas, and his great rival, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, at Valladolid in August of 1550. Less known, however, was the intellectual dispute through letters that took place between  Sepúlveda  and Melchor Cano two years before the great debate at Valladolid. Cano became Prima chair in theology at Salamanca following the death of his teacher, Vitoria, in 1546. He contributed to the Amerindian debate through his De dominio Indorum (1546), and was chosen to participate in the Council of Trent. He organized support for the hungry in the city and he was also Prior at San Esteban.

Cano was in charge of commissioning the University of Salamanca to read and judge Sepúlveda’s Democrates secundus, a treatise justifying the use of force and war to civilize and Christianize the barbarians of the New World using Scriptural, theological, philosophical and juristic authorities. Although Cano was not responsible for the final decision to reject the publication of it due to its heretical doctrine, he certainly supported the decision of the committee.

Only four letters remain of the actual exchange from 1548 to 1549, but that does not  rule out the possibility that there could have been more, as has been noted in an excellent article by J.J. Valverde in the journal Florentia Iliberritana (2006). The main topic of the letters regards a dispute over how to interpret St. Paul’s anger toward the Sanhedrin in Acts 23 after being persecuted by them. Sepúlveda employs this passage at the beginning of Democrates to indicate the use of anger and vengeance within the New Testament and even in the life of Christ, who does not abolish the (natural) law, but fulfills it.  His larger aim, of course, is to make the case for war against the Amerindians on the basis of punishing and disciplining them to follow the natural law that is immutable and knowable to all.

Having read and opposed the imperialist-humanist doctrine of Sepúlveda’s Democrates, Cano patiently corresponded with him by arguing that even though justified anger is sometimes used in Scripture to denote painful recognition of injustice, it should not be confused with rage and hatred. Cano knows exactly where Sepúlveda is going with his sophistry and wants to cut it off at the root. If the rhetorician can show (as he tried to do in his Democrates primus) that Christian ethics are perfectly consistent with, and even demand, a warrior code, then the possibility of even questioning the conquest is off-limits.

Cano’s main point is that Sepúlveda’s political doctrine is contrary to that of Vitoria, who taught that sins against the natural law could never be a legitimate cause for war. Only deliberate wrongdoing against the innocent, and their defense, could provide such a ground. And this was anything but the case in the Spanish conquests as Vitoria himself knew. Likening theologians to barbarians stuck in their Neoscholastic guild, Sepúlveda replies that they can go on citing Vitoria and Cardinal Cajetan, while he employs the real masters for his aim of missionary-civilizing warfare: Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, and Aquinas. I wish this were mere rhetoric on Sepúlveda’s part but he makes a very persuasive case in the Democrates secundus for a violent evangelism that does not always equivocate but draws on traditional, Christian political doctrines.

Sepúlveda assures Cano that he has the support of the rest of Spain, even if the theologians are in disagreement. His book was even approved by two people very close to Cano’s master, Vitoria; that is, Francisco’s brother Diego de Vitoria and Dominican Miguel de Arcos, the one whom Vitoria wrote in 1534 when his blood froze at the hearing of Pizarro’s violent spoiling in Peru. Vitoria died never once supporting the actual conquest. Cano sided with his master in this early dispute and had the support of both Salamanca and the university where he first taught in Alcalá.

What is fascinating is that Cano, prior to this exchange, had already written on the Amerindian question and composed his treatise De dominio Indorum as a point by point refutation of Sepúlveda’s thesis (a keen observation by Luciano Pereña). In this concrete case, we can see what the real cost could be in not censoring such a volatile diatribe catering to the conceits of Spanish pride and glory. Sepúlveda finished his debate with Cano, for the moment, by applauding him for the modesty he exercised in his exchange. Such modesty was not received, Sepúlveda noted, by the likes of the bishop from Chiapas. This bishop, none other than Las Casas, would later represent Cano at the Valladolid debate. Sepúlveda complained that his responses were injurious to him and, ironically, more in accord with natural law. I guess there really is something to that saying, “truth hurts.”

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/.

Thanks to the efforts of the Latino/a Working Group at the Society of Christian Ethics, I had the benefit of listening to the reputed Latin American philosopher Enrique Dussel earlier this month at the annual meeting. Unfortunately, I was not in good health to attend the panel response the following night so this very brief overview of his thesis will have to suffice. Dussel captivated his listeners with an impassioned and remarkably succint history of “modernity” from a Latin American perspective and did so under two hours. His great merit was that he not only gave a historical introduction, but followed it with a serious reflection on the philosophical method that guides his critical historical analysis. I begin with his historical introduction.

Rather than starting with the Reformation or the Enlightenment in western Europe as starting points to modernity (a limit of Charles Taylor and Jürgen Habermas), Dussel compels us to reconsider the standard narrative by thinking close to the equator and farther west–i.e., the New World encounter with Amerindian others. Rejecting the rosy picture of Spanish discovery and conquest beginning with Columbus (à la Main Building at UND), Dussel refers to the “ego clamo” of the first Dominicans as an alternative subject to the monological Cartesian cogito. From this subject-in-relation-to the oppressed Amerindians, he locates the birth of a “modern, critical” Christian ethics. The figure selected as the embodiment of “ego clamo” is Bartolomé de las Casas who underwent a radical conversion in 1514 away from benefiting from Amerindian exploitation to defending their rights by attempting to abolish the encomienda system (Dussel refers to this as an anti-liturgical project) that perpetuated it. 

Dussel’s historical narrative, which I have offered a simple overview of, has the breadth and scope of a brilliant thinker drawing from many sources. My concern, however, was with his bifurcation of Western thought into two opposed traditions that was articulated during his theoretical analysis: the Mosaic/Semitic and the Hellenistic. As I understood him, the thrust of his point was to contrast the concrete ethics of the Hebrew tradition to the speculative thought of the Greek philosophical tradition. The case in point where these two traditions diverge most clearly is on the question of works of mercy. The Jewish and Christian centrality afforded to the practice of giving without recompense even to the point of giving up one’s life to be in solidarity with the needy (hence, mercy is not to be confused with Aristotelian magnanimity), has nothing to do with the Hellenistic focus on promoting one’s own polis or commonwealth or a community of leisure over and above the needs of the oppressed.

My issue is not with Dussel’s instructive point here (also made by Alasdair MacIntyre’s consideration of Cicero’s moral and political thought in contrast to Augustine’s own thought in Whose Justice?, but for a very different purpose) about differences between Jewish-Christian versus pagan understandings of the moral life. Rather, it has to do with the supposed incommensurability between the Semitic (yes, he even includes Egypt here) and the Hellenistic categories. Aside from being overly static and monolithic in his account of these opposed categories, Dussel wants to apply them as normative categories into his reading of history in order to demarcate Eurocentric approaches to ethics from liberationist views of ethics. This is a limit that I recognized first hand when I told him about my dissertation project after his lecture.

One of the aims of my project is to address the scholastic and canonistic influences on Las Casas’s theological and legal thought in an effort to show the confluence of the biblical and so-called “Hellenistic” traditions (e.g. Aristotelian and Stoic) in his effort to defend the rights and dominium of Amerindians. When I mentioned this in so many words, Dussel raised red flags. It appears to me that he wants to read Las Casas strictly through the lens of what he defines as non-Eurocentrism, which means that the “scholastic” dimensions of Las Casas’ thought are viewed as being mere rhetorical devices. However, reading Las Casas’s description of human sacrifice in the Apología as a religious act not contrary to natural law in certain cases is anything but rhetorical. Especially when one considers how he thinks through this problem by applying Aquinas’ virtue of religion and Aristotle’s conception of practical reason to show its coherence. Only somewhat surprisingly,  Dussel made a point pithily to say that in the discourse ethics of Habermas (perhaps the ideal speech situation) there appears to be a deeper congruity with Las Casas’s project to convert solely by means of gentle persuasion. A congruence that would seem to imply an incongruence with his Salamancan counterparts. As intriguing as this might be, I don’t see how it is any less “Eurocentric” (or his appraisal of Levinas for that matter) when there are clear liberal values enshrined in their political and ethical thought. One could very well argue that Las Casas’ capacity to understand certain Amerindian practices more sympathetically than mere abomination was elicited by his commitment to preaching Gospel love conjoined with a sharpened scholastic perspective.

Dussel, I suppose, would profit by taking more seriously the decision of Las Casas to be Dominican and not something else following his 1514 conversion. It strikes me as more than mere coincidence that the Dominicans who first preached against the encomenderos in the New World happened to be from the convent of San Esteban in Salamanca. More than this, their religious formation was shaped within the same ethos of rigorous scholastic inquiry and austere spiritual discipline that produced the likes of Vitoria and Soto. That fact has been notably recognized by two remarkable theologians: Gustavo Gutiérrez, but especially, Ramón Hernández Martín. Needless to say, they both belong to the Order of Preachers.

Overall, I was not entirely sure what Dussel was meaning when he took Las Casas to be “modern” during his lecture. Critical voices are present in every society. Surely, my ignorance is indicative of my absence at the response. His important essay, “Alterity and Modernity,” gets closer to an answer when he refers to Las Casas as a critic of “modernity” who challenged it as a world juridical system (Vitoria is the bad guy here) from the outside or the perspective of the Amerindian, which meant challenging his own Christian community as idolaters. I think this hints at what is positively “modern” in Las Casas. But there is a risk here of romanticizing the “other” as Tzvetan Todorov’s reading of Las Casas clearly illustrates. In Todorov’s effort to suspect all things hegemonic, the critical distance of foreign cultures can be lost, and relativism embraced. This loses sight of the historical reality that both Incan and Aztec civilizations were also conquerors themselves. I thank Gustavo Gutiérrez for this point. Dussel, to his credit, does not want to go that postmodern route but speaks instead of the “reason of the other” as a basis for a trans-modern ethics cognizant of the sacrificial myths of European modernity in the business of exporting “higher” cultures.

If there is a take-away point from Las Casas consistent with Dussel’s narrative, it would be in identifying that distinct aspect of his doctrine in comparison to early modern and modern European imperialist doctrines: the political autonomy and property rights he grants non-Christian societies. His unwavering defense of the rationality of infidels demonstrates a radical break with the missionary warfare legimated by medieval Christian political doctrine, the conquest over barbarians in Hellenistic (i.e.,  Alexander the Great) and Roman imperial doctrine, and later western European expansionist programs. In other words, the claim that political subjugation by the “higher” civilization is a prerequisite for a just society is rejected outright. That is because it is a thoroughly un-Christian claim. Of course, this insight was not restricted to Las Casas but one indebted to and shared with the School of Salamanca (esp. Cano and Soto), even Vitoria to a certain extent. Josef Cardinal Höffner made this point in an excellent work earlier last century.

Is Dussel willing to concede this much? In my opinion, the gain would be worthwhile in the following sense: by turning to the the School of Salamanca as a necessary counterpart to the thinking of Las Casas, a more thorough account of humanitarian intervention out of justice and charity toward one’s global neighbor in those extreme cases requiring force could be defended. Necessarily so, and as the Salamancans recognized, this doctrine would always be constrained by whether or not it became a source of scandal to the faith in the eyes of the other.

Bienvenidos to the School of Salamanca blog– a site dedicated to the intellectual heritage of the sixteenth-century theologians and jurists concerned with the Amerindian question in the New World. Stay posted for updates over the coming months.

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