Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?
The reading list for the oral exam in Spanish language and literature was long and detailed, and I remember being delighted to find, in the library at Albertus Magnus College, an essential item: the only printed edition of Bartolome de las Casas History of the Indies – a 19th century edition in an oversize difficult-to-handle tone. I settled in to the drudgery of reading the difficult text. Then suddenly I read a section which still thrills me as I think about it today. It was the account of the sermon preached to the Spaniards on the island of Hispaniola by the Dominican friar Antonio de Montesinos in which he declared that they were all in mortal sin, and “live and die in it, because of the cruelty and tyranny you practice among these innocent peoples.” The text of the sermon was “written out and signed by the other friars,” and its most famous lines were: “Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?”
I continued reading and learned about the collaboration of Las Casas and the Spanish Dominican Francisco de Vitoria, holder of the chair of theology in Salamanca, as they tirelessly fought for laws to benefit the Indians.
Years later the Dominican Sisters of Peace devoted a year to study of this incident, the Dominican community whose common life, study and prayer produced the sermon, and the partnership between the intellectuals and missionaries of the Order, something the friars now call the Salamanca Process.
Congress on Human Rights
I was delighted to participate with our new Justice Promoter, Kelly Litt, in the Congress on Human Rights held in Salamanca as part of the celebration of the 800th Jubilee of the Order. The venue for the Congress was the Dominican monastery of San Esteban, parts of which date from the time of Vitoria.
In the beautiful renaissance church which replaced the original structure familiar to Vitoria and Las Casas, I was struck by the contrast between the magnificent simplicity of the structure itself and the splendidly ornate gold-covered altar piece. Had Las Casas’s pleas been listened to, Churriguera, the famous Spanish baroque artist, would never have been able to cover the altar with gold mined by enslaved natives in the Indies. Could this indicate that not all Dominicans were in agreement with Las Casas and Vitoria? Surely those who commissioned Churriguera and approved his work must have believed they were contributing to the glory of God by adorning His house with the greatest art of their time. I can imagine them having some of the same discussions that go on today when a cathedral is built.
“…social justice and human rights are not ‘extra’ elements of the Christian life – they are constitutive of it.”
An important concern of the Congress was to ensure “that all new brothers, sisters and lay Dominicans come to understand that the promotion and defense of human rights is integral to our preaching of the Gospel as Dominicans.” The final document of the working group on formation says “social justice and human rights are not ‘extra’ elements of the Christian life – they are constitutive of it.” The members of the group cautioned that “Dominicans can fall into the typical political camps of left and right, and compromise their embrace of the entirety of the Gospel.” The remedy for this, they suggested, is to go “deeper into the Gospel and into Church teaching, towards the goal of inward transformation.”
I believe this recommendation leads into a theme of the congress that harks back to the time of Las Casas: the spirituality of work for justice and human rights. Speakers acknowledged that the concept of human rights is modern and by and large secular, but they also insisted that the basis for it is the God-given inherent dignity of each human person. “Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?” Montesinos asked. In the reports from different groups we heard calls to develop the spirituality of defending and promoting human rights, and I was reminded of Gustavo Gutierrez’s insistence on the importance of the spirituality of Liberation Theology. Reports of actions by Dominican men and women throughout the world made clear to me that we continue to respond to the call to serve Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned (Matthew 25: 36-39) and to work to change the conditions that cause their suffering.