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Las Casas And Authority: Rulers, Church, And Freedom

1855 words - 7 pages

Bartolomé de Las Casas presents, for its time, an astounding claim human equality before God. Defending the native people of the New World from the violence executed by Spain and the claims to authority given voice by Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, Las Casas provides a precocious assertion of human rights and the limits on civil and church authority. In this paper I will argue that Las Casas makes a nuanced assessment of civil government, to which he gives a vital but limited authority. I further propose that Las Casas, even while holding to the traditional and scriptural authority of the church, ascribes a similarly circumscribed earthly authority. The effect of these positions is to afford to non-Christians rationality and the freedom of self-government. My assessment of Las Casas’ thought will begin with Las Casas’ view of civil authority and then move to his description of the church’s role in the world. I shall then turn to his defense of the rationality and freedom of the indigenous Americans.
Las Casas presents a nuanced view of the authority of civil government, upholding its validity while introducing a theological critique of its abuses. Las Casas’ very approach implicitly endorses the authority of the civil government within human, earthly order. Much of his intent in his Defense is to appeal to governing powers to use their authority as Las Casas’ believes God would have them. This priority is instantiated the opening summary of the Defense. Las Casas has made his arguments as a response to Emperor Charles’ call for the Valladolid Debates. In response to Las Casas’ thought, the initial summary of the Defense ascribes to Emperor Charles the pontifically decreed authority over the “Indians who live near the Ocean Sea.” Yet it further holds that the natives’ “natural rulers and lords should retain their power and jurisdiction.” These dual strands of authority stand in tension in Las Casas’ thought. On the one hand, Spain—with papal endorsement—has authority both over its own preexisting jurisdiction and over its “discoveries” in the New World. That power, though, is distinctly limited, both by what it has a rightful claim to compel and by the existence of legitimate indigenous civic authority. Las Casas holds that civic power established by violence is neither prudent nor lasting. In this vein he appeals to the example of Constantine. According to Las Casas, Constantine waged war on pagan threats not with the conversion of pagans as a goal per se but rather for reasons of imperial defense. Such motivations for state violence are a legitimate and compelling, Las Casas argues. Though Las Casas presents a questionably accurate picture of Constantine’s motivations for conquest, Las Casas’ basic point is heard: the power of civic government has limits, particularly when it comes to the use of violence in the name of Christianity.
This limitation on government authority may be further seen in Las Casas’ response to...

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