Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Journey to the Headwaters: Bartolomé De Las Casas in a Comparative Context

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Journey to the Headwaters: Bartolomé De Las Casas in a Comparative Context

Article excerpt

This essay compares the theological orientation of Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566) with those of two other notable colonial Latin American ecclesial figures: Toribio de Benavente Motolinía (1494/95-1565), and Juan Vasco de Quiroga (1477/78- 1565). An examination of the experiential and theoretical epistemological sources of their theological orientations reveals the influence of different temporal, social, and geographic experiences as well as of their common and distinctive intellectual formations. Their understandings of and activities in the New World reflect these epistemological influences. The data demonstrate that Las Casas's theological orientation was primarily prophetic in his quest for justice for the Indigenous and drew from Thomism and Scripture; Motolinía's was predominantly millenarian in his ardor to establish the New Jerusalem and mirrored the Franciscan Spirituals' tradition; Quiroga's was principally utopian in his approach to Christianize, civilize, and educate the Indigenous as well as employed Christian humanist ideas. A summary analysis argues that the prophetic dimension of Las Casas's theological orientation is further differentiated from that of his two contemporaries by its universalist character and its dynamic development during the course of his lifetime.

Keywords: Colonial period; Las Casas, Bartolomé de; missionary labor; Motolinía; Quiroga

"I have delved so deep into the waters of these matters that I have reached their source."

- Bartolomé de Las Casas, O.P., 1563(1)

During the Spanish American colonial period, many secular and religious clerics served as missionaries.2 A number of them became prominent historical figures because of their writings; some of their chronicles became enduring historical sources. Of these sixteenth-century clerics, Bartolomé de Las Casas became the most well known.Yet studies about Las Casas tend to examine his life and labor in isolation. For example, the important works of Helen Rand Parish extensively study Las Casas but do not systematically compare his life's work with those of his missionary contemporaries. Conversely, some studies about other colonial missionaries tend to avoid systematic consideration of Las Casas. Perhaps the best example of that tendency appears in Robert Ricard's seminal work, which denominated the enterprise of evangelization as the "spiritual conquest" of the Americas.3

This study compares the theological orientation of Bartolomé de Las Casas with those of two prominent missionary contemporaries: Toribio de Benavente Motolinía and Juan Vasco de Quiroga.4 Their theological orientations were distinctive: Las Casas's was predominantly prophetic, Motolinia's was primarily millenarian, and Quiroga's was principally Utopian. These distinctive theological orientations were shaped by various experiential and theoretical epistemologies.

Las Casas, Motolinía, and Quiroga embarked on their missionary labors at different stages of the conquest, colonization, and evangelization of the New World. In 1502, Las Casas (1484-1566) arrived in Hispaniola during the initial"pacification" of the Indigenous.5 In 1524, Motolinía (1494/95-1565) landed with Los Doce in New Spain after Cortés's conquest of Tenochtitlan.6 In 1530, Quiroga (1477/78-1565) reached Mexico City as the decade of Ñuño Beltrán de Guzman's tyranny was terminated.7

These missionaries exercised a variety of ecclesiastical roles in the emerging colonial Church. Las Casas first served the Church in Hispaniola as a doctrinero from 1502 to 1506.8 After ordination in Rome as a secular priest in 1507, he returned a second time to the New World, where he labored as chaplain in Hispaniola and Cuba.9 In 1522, Las Casas became a mendicant friar of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans). Motolinia was also a mendicant friar, but of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans). Both Las Casas and Motolinia served their religious orders in a variety of positions. …

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