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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.

One Response to “Called to peaceful evangelization: a new book on Las Casas”

  1. Peter Paul Fuchs says:

    Interesting idea for a website, indeed. One collateral matter would seem to be localizing these rather general, abstract Lascasian notions of freedom in the real historical context in which they eventually developed, and without which they would seem to have little real meaning. In this regard, surely the case of Archbishop Juan de Palafox y Mendoza will have to be brought in for consideration. To the extent that Lascasian ideas had any currency in New Spain, it was often surprisingly in engagement with royal interests. And many of the most controverted actors in relation to actually changing the social structures under which the natives were oppressed were religious orders. Yet, of course, some of the most stellar of these Orders are contrastingly also taken as exemplary. So, some sort of hermeneutic, then, is needed to really understand the very telling example of how Palafox was a force that fought corruption, which would be a very Lascasian goal, and yet was treated so shabbily by the Jesuits in particular. This would seem to call into some question the possible ambit for real Lascasian anti-corruption motives. What this case I think shows in bright colors is that to argue in the abstract about Lascasian goals –even today!! — cannot be removed from at least some historical context about what those goals’ actual chance of being fulfilled in the Catholic context were.