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18 July 1566

18 July 2011

“All of us, great and small, educated, uneducated, ruler and ruled, public or private individual, all of us are bound unconditionally to help the oppressed, to help those suffering under violence, injury, any evil, with whatever power we have, official or personal.”

John Donaghy sent me a little reminder that today is the anniversary of Bartolomé de las Casas’ death in 1566. Las Casas, who originally came to the Americas to conquer (and was for a time a encomiendaro in Cuba) became a Dominican priest and launched a career as a fierce advocate for the rights of Indigenous Americans.  And, in some sense, he was one of the “founding fathers” of the United States, being the first in the Americas to write:

“No state, king, or emperor can alienate territories, or change their political system, without the express approval of their inhabitants.”

Interestingly, he is considered a saint, not by the Roman Church, but by the Lutherans and Anglicans.  This is in good part because of the one serious blot on Las Casas’ record, his suggestion (which he later and bitterly regretted) that African slaves be imported to the Americas to do the dirty work that was killing the indigenous peoples.

His Brief Relations of the Things of the Indies was, in one sense, the world’s first actuary and industrial labor study, and — more importantly — his condemnation of the encomienda system was the start of a long, and often overlooked counter-current in the Catholic Church which sees the priest’s job as comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable.  As Bishop of Chiapas, Las Casas denied the sacraments to those who would abuse the indigenous people, the start of another American tradition, the activist Bishop on the side of the people.  The late Samuel Ruiz and his replacement, Raul Vega (later transfered to Satillo) were worthy heirs to Las Casas’ own position in Chiapas.

John works for yet another of Las Casas’ many spiritual heirs, Bishop Luis Santos Villeda of Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, as associate director of Caritas (Catholic Social Services) and a lay brother assisting with a rural parish.  I have long followed his website, Hermano Juancito, which gives a better “on the ground” report of conditions in his troubled country than one will find elsewhere.  He has also started writing on faith and justice at a second site, Walking the Way, from which I took the Las Casas quote at the head of this post.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 27 May 2013 11:51 pm

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