Bartolomé de las Casas and Truth:
Toward a Spirituality of Solidarity

by Brian Pierce

Spring 1992, Vol. 44 No. 1, pp. 4-19

Brian Pierce OP, a member of the southern province of Dominicans. He is currently in Cahabon, Guatemala
to learn Q'ueqchi', as part of a small missionary team there.

Bartolomé de las Casas' search for the complete truth of the Gospel message impelled him to a life dedicated to liberating the people of the Americas.

THERE have been graced moments in the history of the world when certain persons of integrity have stood out as passionate searchers of truth and the meaning of life. These saints and sages usually began their lives in very ordinary ways, but at some point they broke through the shadowed realities, to touch upon the very essence of existence, beauty, goodness, and life. Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart were two such figures from the Middle Ages, while Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero stand out in the not-so-distant past. Not without their struggles and faults, these remarkable people walked their journeys with love and prophetic courage. They witnessed in the very ordinariness of life and in the simplicity of the poor and downtrodden a spark of light that the world longed to see but could not. Faithful to that light and constant in their search for truth, they left a legacy for many others to follow.

Bartolomé de las Casas, a sixteenth-century Dominican is another one of these remarkable truth-searchers. Las Casas' dedication to preaching the truth brought him into direct conflict with the atmosphere of the lie that masked the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Las Casas discovered a true freedom through his living among the poor, and that "discovery" led him into solidarity with the indigenous communities of the continent. The challenge of truth and solidarity for a contemporary world and church that still struggle to be free from the lie is particularly relevant for this Quincentenary.

Sometime around 1502, Bartolomé de las Casas, who at that time was an adventurous young Spanish youth about eighteen years old, sailed to the Spanish Empire's newly claimed Indies with his father. It is doubtful that the youthful Bartolomé was on a journey in search of God, or even Truth for that matter, but his restless spirit certainly was searching for something or someone whom he did not yet fully know. Like other aventureros of his day, Las Casas quickly got settled on the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti/Dominican Republic) as a merchant and encomendero (land and Indian slave owner).

Spain was in its heyday at the time of the conquest of the Americas. The Moors had been defeated on the domestic scene, and the newly claimed Indies offered unending possibilities for political and economic growth. It is no great surprise to most people that the Spanish, and later Portuguese, conquest was carried out with something less than altruistic motives. M. Giménez Fernández says very bluntly that for Columbus and the Spanish Crown the zeal to discover new lands was "purely and simply economical" (qtd in Gutiérrez 23).

It was at this time, in which Spain was fervently expanding its empire, that Las Casas came on the scene. It was an exciting time, a period of infinite possibility. For young Las Casas, being a slave owner and merchant was a lucrative position to have in the so-called "New World," but at the same time it was not an uncommon way of life for those who had ventured across the seas. Perhaps a unique characteristic of Las Casas was that he was somewhat of a benevolent, fatherly figure to his Indian slaves. He had seen his first Indians in 1493 during the Holy Week procession in Seville, Spain. He was only eight years old at the time, and years later he wrote about the event, "I saw them (Columbus and the Indians) in Seville where they stayed near the arch to St. Nicholas called the Arch of the Images" (I, 37). This "seeing" of a new people and a new world later became the basis for Las Casas' lifetime search for truth. He was fascinated by and loved the Indians from the time he had seen them that fateful day in 1493. Helen Rand Parish, one of the world's foremost Las Casas scholars, has carefully pieced together the development of Las Casas' prophetic vocation, and has noted in an interview that, "Las Casas did not see the Indians first as a European looking down on them with contempt, but as a child looking up at them with wonder, with admiration."

Not long after his coming to the Indies, Las Casas began preparations to become a diocesan priest. Little is known of these years, but there is record of his having returned to Europe to be ordained in Rome in 1507. Soon after his ordination, he returned to the island of Hispaniola to continue his profession as merchant, while adding to it his new mission as catechist to the Indians on the island.

The arrival of the Dominican friars on the Island in 1510 marked an important turning point in Las, Casas' life. During the ensuing years he would be questioned, challenged, and finally embraced by the Dominican community. Those years following 1510 were also the years in which his struggle for truth would lead him to his prophetic vocation in defense of the Indians. Las Casas would die an, old man, but his eyes never tired of seeing in the Indians the magnificent image of God, and his heart was forever in search of new ways to be in loving solidarity with the poor.


Las Casas' encounter with the Indians as an eight-year-old boy provided the fertile ground into which were sown the seeds of a vocation to truth and justice. The presence of an atmosphere of lie surrounding the conquest prompted God's calling of a prophet consecrated to speak the truth. In this section we will journey with Las Casas from the world of deceit, so prevalent in his day, to his commitment, in freedom and in truth, to true solidarity with the poor.


You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him . . . he is a liar and the father of lies. (Jn 8-44)

Spain's conquest of the Americas was justified by its close ties with the Catholic Church, under the guise of being a mission of evangelization for the "salvation of souls." Much of the "evangelization" effort in the Indies was based on lies and therefore carried out not in the name of the God of Life, but in the name of the Evil One.(1) The evil elements of the conquest and subsequent missionary endeavors, at least from a theological perspective, lie in the fact that, although words and sacraments of the Christian gospel were employed, they were only a mask for greed and destruction. A letter sent to Spain by a group of outraged Dominican and Franciscan friars points to the horror of the missionary efforts:

[Christians] go through the land like rabid wolves in the midst of gentle lambs . . .. Greedy and rabid for money and full of other filthy passions, they [have begun] to break and destroy the land . . . [leaving the few thousand surviving Indians] having more of a likeness to painted corpses than living persons. (qtd in Gutiérrez 44)

Las Casas wrote in his History of the Indies of an Indian's reply to the question as to whether he was a Christian. Answered the Indian, "Yes, Sir, I am a bit Christian because I have learned to lie a bit; another day I will lie big and I will be big Christian" (III, 280). This in no way negates the well-intentioned missionary fervor of certain individuals and communities, but regrettably, their influence did not outshine those whose mission was rooted in the gospel of gold and silver. As in ages past, however, God saw to it that a prophet be called forth to steer the people of faith back to the truth. The adventurous young merchant-priest, Bartolomé de las Casas, was the one God called.


Father, consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth. (Jn 17:17-19) .

Bartolomé de las Casas was a man consecrated in truth. Like Jeremiah and Jesus and countless other prophets, Las Casas' consecration, his being set apart in truth, would mean a life of fearless struggle in the face of opposition and even hatred.

It took Las Casas a few years to integrate his call to be a disciple consecrated to the truth. While still a young priest, he was radically challenged by a Dominican friar who refused him absolution because he owned Indians. When Las Casas tried to argue with the friar to justify his owning of the slaves, the friar interrupted him and said, "Enough, Father, truth has many disguises but so do lies" (de las Casas, III, 208). These events began in Bartolomé de las Casas a kind of dark night, a confusing time in which the nice, tidy world that he had known started to crumble. Las Casas loved the Indians, but God was asking him for more than kindness and fatherly love. God was calling him to justice, to be consecrated in truth, to be a preacher and a prophet. That would mean a spiritual death for the young priest. In his own words, aware of God's call, he spoke of the painful consequences of being a disciple of truth.

[I] knew (the) Indians were better off with me because [I] treated them with more compassion. [I] knew they would be redistributed to a master who would oppress them to death, which is what happened; but, even if [I] treated them as a father treats his sons, [I] could not preach the subject of my sermons with a clear conscience. Someone would inevitably blame [me] with, "In the last analysis, you too own Indians; why don't you renounce them since you accuse us of tyranny?" (III, 209) (2)

Thus was born the prophetic vocation of Bartolomé -- a vocation to the truth.

The truth that fueled Las Casas' prophetic vision was, in the long run, deeply theological and rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Las Casas had seen in the indigenous peoples the image of God, and more specifically, the presence of Jesus Christ. In perhaps his most powerful and insightful words on this point, in response to questions asked by a lawyer of the Inquisition, Las Casas passionately responded, "I left Christ in the Indies not once, but a thousand times beaten, afflicted, insulted and crucified by those Spaniards who destroy and ravage the Indians" (III, 264-65). For Las Casas the Indian was Jesus Christ. At another place in his writings, picking up the same theme, Las Casas quoted St. Augustine of Hippo's commentary on Matthew 25: If eternal fire is the reward of the one to whom Jesus said, "I was naked and you did not clothe me," then, "What place in the eternal fire will be had by the one to whom it was said, 'I was clothed and you left me naked?" (qtd in Gutiérrez 171). Las Casas' passion for truth was not an intellectual exercise in objectifying dogmas and truths. It was nothing less than the following of Jesus Christ, truth-made-flesh, in the lives and brutal deaths of the Indians.

This raises an important question about the very essence of truth. Without denying the existence of objective truth, are we not reminded through the example of Las Casas that Christian theology can easily be blinded by lots of "truths," while ultimately failing to follow the one who is truth? The theologians who defended the conquest were voluminous in their quoting of St. Thomas and the church fathers, but, according to Las Casas, they quoted truths, while being blinded to the fact that the Word, who is truth, had become flesh in the Indians. The gospels themselves are filled with examples of Jesus' bitter clashes with the scribes and pharisees, for although they were steeped in the truths of the Law, these devout Jewish leaders were blinded to God's mercy and presence among the very outcasts that the Law was creating.

In his recent book, Dios o el Oro en Las Indias ("God or Gold in the Indies"), Gustavo Gutiérrez has documented thoroughly the theological battles that were fought between Las Casas and the Spanish theologians loyal to the Crown. Gutiérrez shows clearly that the theologians of the Empire, while basing their arguments on a theology of saving the pagan Indians from their idolatrous beliefs, were really justifying a gospel in the service of gold and silver. Las Casas, on the other hand,

had the penetrating vision to see in the Indian, in the other of the western world, the poor of the gospel . . .. Without a doubt this is the key to the spirituality and theology of Las Casas. (Gutiérrez 175)


If you make my word your home you will indeed be my disciples, you will know the Truth and the Truth will set you free. (Jn 8:31-32)

Even though the breakthrough into prophetic truth is often accompanied by suffering, there is at the same time a tremendous amount of freedom that comes with such a breakthrough. Las Casas broke through the political and theological barriers in his pursuit of truth, and it freed him to preach fearlessly in defense of the Indians. (3) Having witnessed the slavery, destruction and death heaped upon the Indians by the conquest and so-called "evangelization," Las Casas was convinced that the theologians who were justifying such a horrid abuse of political and religious power, were doing so perhaps in the name of some god, but certainly not the God of Jesus Christ. The "truths" being preached by such theologians had nothing whatsoever to do with setting the Indians free. They were theologies written purely and simply to justify greed and murder.

One of those "theologians of the Empire," whom Las Casas spoke of in his History of the Indies, was Gonzalo Hernández de Oviedo. Las Casas writes:

He was one of the Indians' greatest foes. To slander one single person with a truth which can hurt him greatly . . . puts the slanderer under obligation to make amends to the person injured. What, then, is Oviedo's sin, and what amends must he make, having defamed with such horrendous sins such a multitude of . . . human beings he never saw or heard of? For his defamatory work he has caused Christendom to hate all Indians. (III,275)

"The truth will set you free," were the words Jesus offered to those who would become his disciples; truth and liberation, therefore, are inseparable. The slavery and death of the Indians, in Las Casas' eyes, could never be done in the name of truth, no matter how one chose to understand the much-abused concept of "saving souls." Souls belonged to human beings, and no gospel of truth could kill one while saving the other. Las Casas had seen and witnessed the beautiful truth and the profound human dignity of the Indians. He had not done his theology in a library in Spain, but among the poor of the Indies. He had seen the presence of Jesus in the suffering faces of the Indians. He had touched Christ and walked with Christ in his journey with the poor. The truth indeed had set him free, a freedom which he felt obliged to make accessible to the Indians, and a truth which he longed to proclaim to the world.


For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me . . .. (Mt 25:35)

Las Casas' experience of having been set free by truth led him into a deep solidarity with the indigenous poor of the conquered Americas. There are four dimensions to his vocation to solidarity: an incarnate nearness to the poor, a commitment to community, a constant openness to ongoing conversion, and the willingness to move beyond immediate solutions to problems in order to be true to the larger struggle for structural transformation.

Las Casas was so convinced of the necessity of doing theology alongside the indigenous poor and their daily struggle for life that he sharply criticized those who wrote about the Indians from afar:

I see that some have written of Indian things, not those they witnessed, but rather those they heard about, and not too well. . . . They write to the detriment of truth, preoccupied as they are with a sterile, unfruitful, and superficiality . . .. (I,5)

To live among the Indians was, for Las Casas, a way of living with truth. His incarnate nearness to them gifted him with an insight into their God-given dignity. It was living with them, eating with them, and celebrating God's love with them that Las Casas was able to glimpse the face of Christ in their midst. Las Casas' incarnate nearness to the poor truly became the basis for both his spirituality and his theology. Perhaps it was more comfortable writing theology in a library in Salamanca, but Las Casas knew that a theology rooted in truth meant an openness to standing with and suffering with the truth. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical, Solicitudo Rei Socialis, says:

The Church feels called to take her stand beside the poor . . . [this commitment to] solidarity demands a readiness to accept the sacrifices necessary for the good of the whole world community. (nos. 39,45)


Las Casas' stance in solidarity with the Indians was also strengthened by his increasing commitment to living a life of community witness. Truth is not something known by a person, but something discovered, received by a group. In his History of the Indies, Las Casas speaks of the profound impact that the Dominicans' communal preaching had on him in his early years on the island of Hispaniola. Of particular importance was the famous homily that Antonio de Montesino preached on the fourth Sunday of Advent in 1511, "a product of the whole community's reflection." Las Casas notes that the courageous Dominicans

prayed, fasted and kept vigils in order to receive enlightenment . . . and after mature reflection they decided to preach from the pulpit and in public that to oppress Indians was to go straight to Hell . . .. They all signed it (the sermon) to show that it represented common sentiment and not that of the preacher alone. (III, 182-83)

It was this commitment to communal witness for justice that deeply moved young Las Casas, opening up for him new dimensions of spirituality and solidarity. So taken was he by their fearless and communal defense of the Indians, that several years later Las Casas himself took the Dominican habit, thus fortifying his already keen love of truth as expressed in the Order's motto.

Las Casas' gradual response to the call to community life and witness was just one of a series of transformations in his long life. His love of truth was like a thorn in his side, always urging him on toward growth. There is perhaps no greater example of this openness to change than in his understanding of the oppression of the Africans who were being brought to the Americas as slaves. Although the Spanish Crown had legally authorized African slave trade even before Las Casas came to the Americas, Las Casas did, for a time, condone the use of African slaves as a step toward the freedom of the Indians. He thought that the Africans were better disposed for the harsh working conditions imposed on the indigenous people. By 1516, though, Las Casas realized the sinfulness of his well-meaning intentions. He who had seen up close the dehumanizing treatment of the Indians, finally got close enough to see in the enslaved Africans the very same image of the crucified Christ.

I soon repented and judged myself guilty of ignorance. I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery . . . and I was not sure that my ignorance and good faith would secure me in the eyes of God. (II, 257)

Las Casas' blindness to the oppression of the African slaves was certainly lamentable, but of far greater magnitude was his openness to seeing the truth. His commitment to solidarity led him into deeper conversion, and the conversion, in turn, intensified his solidarity.


Finally, Las Casas stands as a reminder that a true spirituality of solidarity means more than being nice to the poor. As Pope John Paul II says:

Solidarity . . . is not a feeling of vague compassion . . . it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common goal . . . in the love and service of the neighbor, especially of the poorest. (Sollicitudo, nos. 38, 46)

Solidarity is often confused with simply helping people, with no "firm and persevering determination to commit oneself" to structural change. As Brazilian Bishop Helder Camera has said, "If I give food to the poor they call me a saint. If I ask why the poor are hungry they call me a communist." Solidarity necessitates committing oneself to the larger struggle of the transformation of persons and social structures.

When Bartolomé de las Casas fully embraced his prophetic vocation and began his life-long defense of the Indians, he did so at great personal cost. Las Casas agonized over the freeing of his own Indians, knowing they would be oppressed and killed, but he did so because truth beckoned him beyond the immediate situation of kindness to the more difficult and prophetic role of fearlessly denouncing the structures of death. Like Jesus, Las Casas emptied himself of worldly power, prestige and wealth in order to critique the rampant abuse of the very same things by the Spanish Empire. The journey of non-violent truth was not one which led to quick, easy solutions for Las Casas, for by choosing to walk such a path he had chosen to walk with the poor. Saying "yes" to a life of solidarity pointed Las Casas down the mysterious path of personal suffering, but a suffering rooted in hope and resurrection. If his long life of faith in Christ had taught him anything, it was that one day the truth would indeed set him and his Indian sisters and brothers free.


The five hundredth anniversary of Columbus' stumbling onto a "new world" is here, and the smoldering embers are fanned into a hot, fiery debate. History does not march counterclockwise, though, and the cause of truth is not furthered by a romantic attempt to go back to a pre-conquest America. The conquest really happened, and the real tragedy is that it continues to happen today. A commitment to truth and solidarity is needed as never before. Pope John Paul Il has issued 4 in the Fifth Centenary with a call for a "new evangelization," (4) but it cannot be an evangelization based on historic triumphalism. In the spirit of Bartolomé de las Casas, a new evangelization must stem from a spirituality which finds its deepest roots in the paschal event, the death and resurrection of Christ. The Church must commit itself to unmasking the lies that continue to justify the death and destruction of the continent's impoverished majority, and in so doing, risk martyrdom. Life and resurrection are not a kind of vague future that will come when the world ceases to exist. They are the gratuitous gifts offered to those who take this risk of walking the path of paschal fidelity.

The life and example of Las Casas point to three dimensions that a new evangelization must encompass, if it is to be rooted in the gospel of Christ: 1) a willingness to name the lie, both within the Church and in the socio-political realm; 2) a commitment to live alongside the poor and oppressed; 3) a readiness for the long-term struggle, including the possibility of martyrdom. Taken as a whole, one might say that 1992 offers the Church a much-needed opportunity for radical paschal conversion.

To name the lie means more than the Church's willingness to include in all its official 1992 documents a statement of recognition of past abuses. To name the lie is to stand face-to-face with the Evil One, the "father of lies," and to begin living the truth, with all its implications. This truth-stance, if it is to be authentically "Christian," necessitates that the Church take sides. It is an option for truth over lies, justice over social sin, life over death.

To name the lie is to stand beside the empty tomb of Jesus, with our tears wiped dry, and to begin the painful, yet prophetic work of dismantling the dogmas and structures that deny full humanity to God's people. Las Casas saw Christ in the oppressed Indians, and then worked to bring an end to that oppression. How do we who profess faith in the gospel of truth continue today the evil of oppression by being blind to the presence of Christ in the poor? Have we worked to remove all barriers which condition the dignity and freedom of women, native peoples, persons of color, gay men and lesbian women, the elderly and the imprisoned, to name a few? Or do we continue to quote "half-truths" which, in fact, deny certain groups of human beings access to the fullness of life both within the Church and society? Only the full truth will set us free to know and experience the saving love of Jesus Christ. Half measures and lukewarm attempts at justice will only prolong our slavery to the lie. The Spirit beckons us to risk being consecrated to the truth as a new five hundred years dawns upon the eastern shores of the Americas.

Secondly, 1992 calls the Church to renew its commitment to a spirituality of incarnate nearness to the poor. Jesus lived among the social outcasts of his time, sharing table with them, hearing their stories, and finally, becoming one with them in their social marginalization. The resurrection, like the reign of God, is both lived reality and future hope. As a people whose paschal faith is rooted in the resurrection of Christ, it is an essential mandate of our faith that we incarnate Christ's gift of life in all areas where death stalks prematurely. The world's poor, that is, those who are prevented from enjoying the blessing of a full life here on earth, call out for the Church's presence. If the resurrection is not a vague future that will come when the world ceases to exist, then we must live the resurrection today as a sign of contradiction in those areas and among those peoples who know only poverty, oppression and death. Our spirituality must be enfleshed in the way we choose to live.

Are we, as Christ's Church, willing to " move to the other side of town," both literally and figuratively? We cannot, as Las Casas showed, speak of God's incarnation or Jesus' preferential love for the poor while remaining at a safe distance from their lived reality. Doing theology outside a context of incarnate nearness to the poor runs the risk of proclaiming a gospel that continues the precarious mission of saving souls while blindly assenting to the killing of human beings. Only a Church which lives among the poor and outcast can truly do Christian theology, for the poor offer the privileged context of God's revelation. (5) Like Las Casas, we, too, will see Christ and know his liberating love when we have pitched our tent in the midst of his people.

Finally, the paschal mystery invites those of us who are followers of Jesus to a gospel commitment of life and death. We live in a world where martyrs and messiahs alike have shed their blood, and experience tells us that five centuries of greed and destruction will not be dismantled with a few prophetic sermons about love of neighbor. The peoples of the conquered Americas will probably scoop up into their hands more blood soaked earth before this long Good Friday finally lets go of its deathly grip. A spirituality of solidarity is a new way of living; hence, it is also a way of dying. When we Christians can reclaim our true vocation of having been baptized into Christ, not as scattered individuals, but as communities of believers who risk losing their power, prestige, and even their very lives by standing in loving solidarity with those whose human dignity has been victimized, then we will experience the truth of the gospel and the liberating power of Christ's resurrection.

Easter is beginning to dawn as many of us join hands in solidarity and in hope, vowing to stand as witnesses to the new life being resurrected from the ashes of destruction.

We are standing on the edge of a new five hundred years, peering toward the reign of God which once again is in our midst. We are the disciples called to live this new word of truth and justice and peace. We walk hand-in-hand with our ancestors and our grandchildren toward the Promised Land. The journey has begun. Solidarity is being born.

It will soon be five hundred years, o seer, and today more than ever the continent roars like a volcano of wounds and burning coals. Come back and teach us how to evangelize, the seas swept free of caravels, Holy Father of the Americas, Las Casas! (Casaldáliga 15).


1. See M. Scott Peck, M.D., The People of the Lie (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1983). In this book, Peck treats the whole question of the lie and the power of evil.

2. Las Casas writes the autobiographical portion of the History in the third person. I have chosen to use the first person to grasp the depth of his own struggle with God's prophetic call.

3. In our own century, we have the example of Gandhi, whose commitment of Satyagraha, truth-force and non-violent love, has offered the modern world a hopeful path to freedom and world peace. "Satyagraha is a relentless search for Truth," wrote Gandhi in 1925. See M.K. Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi, ed. Louis Fischer (New York: Vintage Books, 1962) 256-257.

4. Pope John Paul II has called for a "new evangelization" on the eve of the Fifth Centenary, and this is the principle theme of the working documents for the Fourth Conference of Latin American bishops that meets in Santo Domingo in 1992.

5. Leonardo Boff, Eclesiogenesis: Las Comunidades de Base Reinventan la Iglesia (Santander, Spain: Editorial Sal Terrae, 1980). "The fact of being Poor and weak . . . in the eyes of faith constitutes a theological event; the poor person, according to the gospel, signifies an epiphany of the Lord" (64).

Works Cited

Boff, Leonardo. Eclesioginesis: Las Comunidades de Base Reinventan la Iglesia. Santander, Spain: Editorial Sal Terrae, 1980.

Casaldiliga, Pedro. In Pursuit of the Kingdom. Trans. and ed. Philip Berryman. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990.

De las Casas, Bartolomé, OP. History of the Indies. 3 vols. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Gandhi, M.K. The Essential Gandhi. Ed. Louis Fischer. New York: Vintage Books, 1962.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. Dios o el Oro en las Indias. Lima, Peru: Instituto Bartolomé de las Casas, CEP, 1989.

John Paul II, Sollicidudo Rei Sociales. Quebec: Editions Paulies, 1988.

Parish, Helen Rand. Taped interview. Berkeley, CA, 1987.