Honor and caritas : Bartolomé de las Casas, soldiers of fortune, and the conquest of the Americas

Date of Award


Degree Name

Ph.D. in Theological Studies


Department of Religious Studies


Advisor: William L. Portier


This dissertation - a postcolonial re-examination of Bartolome de las Casas, the 16th century Spanish priest often called The Protector of the Indians" - is a conversation between three primary components: a biography of Las Casas, an interdisciplinary history of the conquest of the Americas and early Latin America, and an analysis of the Spanish debate over the morality of Spanish colonialism. The work adds two new theses to the scholarship of Las Casas: a reassessment of the process of Spanish expansion and the nature of Las Casas's opposition to it. The first thesis challenges the dominant paradigm of 16th century Spanish colonialism, which tends to explain conquest as the result of perceived religious and racial difference; that is, Spanish conquistadors turned to military force as a means of imposing Spanish civilization and Christianity on heathen Indians. In contrast, this work emphasizes the continuity of the conquest of the Americas with longstanding internal conflict over limited Iberian resources, particularly the century and a half crisis preceding 1492. Iberian warriors fought each other and the crown for control over feudal offices, tribute paying peasants, and prestigious titles. This civil conflict spilled over into the Americas as de-centralized entrepreneurial groups of Spaniards exercised similar military techniques for the same goals - economic and social power - with rather limited religious concerns. Theological rational and crusading zeal did not drive the conquest; rather, they are better seen as a gradual accretion to an already occurring process. Theological support for the conquest, exemplified by Juan Gines de Sepulveda, developed in response to the opposition of Las Casas and the Dominicans.The second thesis pertains to the opposition of Las Casas and the Dominicans. Traditionally, most commentators see opposition as a stage in intellectual history foreshadowing the coming modern idea of toleration, a perspective that is not entirely incorrect. This dissertation, however, argues that opposition should be seen primarily as an innovative reformulation of traditional Catholic theology. The Dominicans, a reformed order with an intense ascetical and liturgical life, opposed conquest on theological grounds - based on the supernatural virtue of caritas - and enforced it with ecclesial discipline. The thought and practices of Las Casas and the Dominicans stemmed from old world precedents of ecclesial opposition to internal aristocratic violence, exemplified by the Peace of God movement of the 11th century and St. Ignatius of Loyola of the 16th. Thus, opposition is best seen as an extension of traditional mendicant life and theological ferment into unprecedented terrain. In the end, this work has two intended conclusions. On the one hand, the conquest - often seen as an act of irrational barbarism - becomes more intelligible. The conquistadors, much like foreign predators released into an environment unaccustomed to their techniques of predation, devastate natives through what is their natural behavior. On the other, Las Casas and the Dominicans become more radical in their denial of what is a rather natural, if exceptionally tragic process of expansion. It is their quixotic faith that helped birth our ambivalence to conquest and servitude."


Casas, Bartolomé de las, 1484-1566, Dominicans Latin America 15th century, Conquerors Religious life Latin America, Spain Colonies Religious life and customs, America Discovery and exploration Spanish Religious aspects, Latin American history; medieval history; Native American studies; philosophy; religion; religious history; theology; Bartolomé de las Casas; conquest of the Americas; slavery; Native Americans

Rights Statement

Copyright 2013, author