When a Christian is caught between a political economy hostile to human flourishing and a Church all too often comfortable with the status quo, it is demoralizing to have recourse to an ugly, embattled public square. Who wants to have life-or-death debates in a cold professional setting? In what universe is pitting hostile voices against one another conducive to Christian fellowship?
But by the time Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda met at Valladolid, Spain in 1550 to debate the morality of the conquest of America, the question had already been settled along with the continent. The debate was convened by Carlos V, king of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor, who had not yet been born when Columbus arrived on Hispaniola nearly sixty years ago. The existence of America, and Spanish dominion over it, were facts of life for him. The Spanish were not seriously considering withdrawal from the Americas. There was no going back.
The debate was not about conquest, then, but colonization; it was not about the nature of indigenous people, but their treatment. Carlos V was not asking if he could conquer indigenous people, but if he could give them to his soldiers as slaves, along with their land, as a reward for their service to the crown. Sepúlveda argued that the conquest was a just war, so Carlos could keep the profits (land and people) and distribute them as he pleased. Las Casas argued that the conquest was unjust, so Carlos had to make restitution for it.
Neither man won the debate, and the issue was never resolved. The debate has mainly become famous in retrospect, metonymically standing in for the entire colonial project. At the time, though, it was politics. As such, the men’s writings have a curious dual nature as both catty interpersonal sniping from opposite sides of the political spectrum and incredibly high-stakes ethical discussions.
Regrettably, it is a rather familiar tone.
Bartolomé de las Casas became a planter and owner of indigenous slaves at the age of 18, when he immigrated with his father to the island of Hispaniola in 1502. After becoming a priest, he experienced a profound conversion while meditating upon the book of Sirach: “If one sacrifices ill-gotten goods, the offering is blemished; the gifts of the lawless are not acceptable.”
Abandoning his ill-gotten wealth, Las Casas returned to Spain as an anti-slavery activist. In the following years, he was granted a position as court adviser, given the title of Protector of the Indians, and testified before the legislature on the conquistadores’ abuses. (This testimony resulted in the abolition of indigenous enslavement, which was ignored by rioting colonists and repealed.) When Las Casas became Bishop of Chiapas, México, he attempted to enforce abolition by refusing the sacraments to slave owners. This proved so unpopular that he was forced to return permanently to Spain, where he continued his activism.
Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda was Carlos V’s royal chronicler and chaplain. His writings in this capacity were nominally historical, but functionally defensive, providing an official version of the Spanish empire’s expansion in the Americas and a justification for its policies there. Before he took on that office, his career was a long string of academic treatises (anti: Desiderius Erasmus, Henry VIII; pro: Aristotle, Machiavelli). His first major work was a panegyric in honor of the emperor. Theologians saw him as compromised—to say the least—but he had the vigorous support of the emperor’s advisers, who had invested a great deal in the colonies.
Las Casas’ activism was the political question of the day, and everyone had an opinion. Sepúlveda just happened to be the one who got the guy’s attention.
In 1550, Sepúlveda released Democrates alter, a fictitious dialogue arguing that the Spanish conquest of America was a just war. It invoked Aristotle’s concept of “natural slavery” at length:
…the Spanish have a perfect right to rule these barbarians of the New World and the adjacent islands, who in prudence, skill, virtues, and humanity are as inferior to the Spanish as children to adults, or women to men, for there exists between the two as great a difference as … between apes and men.1
Before Las Casas even read the book, he had already written a response to it—or at least to the Spanish summary of it that came across his desk. “What blood will they not shed?” Las Casas began his Apologia, describing the soldiers allegedly emboldened by Sepúlveda’s words.
What cruelty will they not commit, these brutal men who are hardened to seeing fields bathed in human blood, who make no distinction of sex or age, who do not spare infants at their mothers’ breasts, pregnant women, the great, the lowly, or even men of feeble and gray old age for whom the weight of years usually awakens reverence or mercy?2
Las Casas blatantly broke the rules of procedure here. One can almost hear the Twitter discourse: maybe read the book first before you get all wrapped up about it? Better yet: how about engaging the ideas instead of going immediately for the ad hominem? But then again, he was operating on the correct assumption that the urgency of combatting an attempt to justify indigenous enslavement outweighs intellectual politeness. Rejecting the time-honored temptation to make an idol of decorum, he put things plainly.
This exchange makes evident the clash of personality (let alone ideas) between the two men. Sepúlveda wrote a Socratic dialogue of Aristotelian ideas, branding himself the rational debater. He philosophizes. Las Casas wrote with strong language and evocative imagery, coming off as an impassioned firebrand. He preaches. Even though they both cited the Greek philosophers and the books of the Bible throughout their works, and even cited each other, they were fundamentally not having the same discussion. It’s a familiar disconnect today.
After observing this exchange, Carlos V invited Las Casas and Sepúlveda to debate one another on the matter at Valladolid. They met twice, in 1550 and 1551. They read from Democrates alter and the Apologia while various scholars and courtiers sat as judges.
Their approaches and priorities continued to be starkly different. Most crucially, Las Casas always framed the debate in terms of real-life consequences, not rhetorical soundness:
When Sepúlveda, by word or in his published works, teaches that campaigns against the Indians are lawful, what does he do except encourage oppressors and provide an opportunity for as many crimes and lamentable evils as these men commit, more than anyone would find it possible to believe?3
Sepúlveda saw this approach not as driven by urgency, but by pettiness. For him, this discussion was a matter of reputation, in the defense of which his good intentions were the only relevant evidence. He wrote of his frustrations with Las Casas’ personal attacks to a friend:
May those who would directly attack my virtue and religious sentiments take care, and be aware that perhaps with their same intentions, I direct all my energies toward the attainment of virtue and the defense of religion, without fraud or lie, making honest use of the freedom that God gave me.4
Even when they did leave the personal dimension out of it, the two men differed on their interpretations of the facts. Sepúlveda argued that Spain’s conquest was justified because it liberated would-be victims of human sacrifice and cannibalism. Las Casas doubted Spain’s moral credibility, as a practitioner of equal evils—like unprovoked war, robbery, and violence:
The Indians are under no obligation to believe the Spaniards, even if they force the truth on them a thousand times. Why will they believe such a proud, greedy, cruel, and rapacious nation? Why will they give up the religion of their ancestors, unanimously approved for so many centuries and supported by the authority of their teachers, on the basis of a warning from a people whose words work no miracles to confirm the faith or lessen vice?5
Neither human sacrifice nor cannibalism was an active problem in the 1550s (and the latter likely never had been), and Las Casas often pointed out that indigenous people were not the monsters that European chroniclers made them out to be. Nevertheless, instead of debunking indigenous cruelty, Las Casas reminded the Spaniards of their own. It is a move that makes no sense if you are a scholar trying to win a political argument with Spanish royal judges. It is, however, an effective moral argument if you are a preacher trying to appeal to conscience.
And so both men went home victorious, or defeated, or just riled up. The king never made a final decision.
The following year, Las Casas published a series of eight treatises in rapid succession. One was his earlier testimony on the conquistadores’ behavior, now known as the Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Another was his account of the debate at Valladolid.
Infuriated, Sepúlveda quickly published a response: The reckless, scandalous, and heretical propositions that Doctor Sepúlveda noted in the book about the conquest of the Indies that Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, former bishop of Chiapas, printed without license in Sevilla in the year 1552. Sepúlveda’s outrage at his opponent having published their debate “without license,” as if a public figure engaging in a public debate on public policy were entitled to keep his views private, reveals his anger to be more procedural than substantial. Even so, the far more serious charge of heresy in the title suggests that Sepúlveda was behind the denunciation of Las Casas to the Inquisition. (It is not known what became of these charges; Las Casas was evidently never prosecuted.)
“I thought I had done enough regarding the Bishop of Chiapas for him to leave me in peace,” Sepúlveda’s response began. Nevertheless, he reiterates their disagreement:
The Bishop of Chiapas, having read my work a thousand times, does not refute it but rather spends all his time recounting the cruelties and robberies that soldiers have committed (and even those they have not committed), saying falsely that I favor and approve of such evils, even while knowing—like everyone else who read my book, circulated among all Christendom—that I affirm the opposite. Such evils seem even worse to me than they do to him, and I denounce them as bitterly as one should in my book, though I do not spend as much time on it as he does, since that was never the issue at hand.6
Both men moved on from there. Las Casas returned to his activism, trying to help the indigenous leaders in Perú buy their land back from the Crown. He died fourteen years later, having battled accusations of treason and heresy for decades. The troubled conscience of the former slave owner was never quite put to rest.
Sepúlveda returned to his solid academic career, and died a few years after his rival, mildly well-respected to the end. He had accomplished what he planned for his own epigraph. “Here lies Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda,” he had written, “who sought to comport himself in such a fashion that his ways would merit the approval of upright and pious men, and that his doctrine and books written about Theology, Philosophy, and History would themselves merit the approval of learned and unbiased men.”7
These are the models we have for Christian discourse when the empire gets conflicted and wants our permission to proceed with atrocities.
We can be motivated by conscience, like Las Casas was, the words of Sirach reverberating in his mind. We can recognize, as Las Casas did, the ways in which our wealth is ill-gotten, and avoid both scrupulosity and complacency in our response to that recognition. We can be troubled by our own relationship to the status quo and use our position within it to advocate for those without. Or we can be motivated by the approval of others, like Sepúlveda was, more interested in intellectual accolades and social capital than the mandates of the Gospel.
We can focus on actual human lives and the lived consequences of our beliefs, like Las Casas did. We can have debates where emotion is welcome, rather than grounds for dismissal, because emotion is a perfectly rational response to injustice. We can prioritize the poor, not as a hypothetical class to collectively receive vassals’ benefits, but as an actual group of human beings to whom restitution is owed. We can have debates that talk about people, or we can have Sepúlveda’s debates where we talk about ideas and judge them purely by rhetorical criteria.
We can prioritize faithfulness to religious conviction, like Las Casas did, remembering that our society is well served by making it conform to Christ. We can be concerned for souls on both sides of injustice. We can be Christians, or we can prioritize loyalty to national identity. Sepúlveda, ever the good Spanish subject, thought treason was the worst accusation a Christian could face. We can share his fear, if we are afraid of a Savior who was called a traitor in his day.
It always sounds very high-stakes and dramatic to talk about our own moment in history this way. It is easier to feel isolated within tradition, facing unique challenges, too embattled and exhausted to do much of anything. That is why I study this moment in history; it reminds me of our own, and I am looking for inspiration.
Here’s where I find it. I look back five centuries at these men scoffing at one another in government reports and panel debates, taking swipes at each other’s religious sincerity and intellectual capabilities, and I swear it gives me hope. Valladolid tells me: we have always been like this. It is always hard to make your faith inform your politics in any real way, because it is always hard to do the right thing. This is what it is to be fallen. And yet this is not a particularly difficult time to be a decent human being, no more so than the sixteenth century. Our consciences are at work. God is at work.