Discernment leads to shift in belief
What was Friar Montesino, OP, preaching that so enraged the encomenderos (holders of mining and plantation concessions)?
"You will go straight to hell for the way you exploit and mistreat the Indians!" he thundered. Furthermore, he would not absolve anyone in the confessional if he continued holding Indians in slavery.
We saw in last week's Dialogue how Montesino withheld absolution even from the priest, Bartolome de las Casas, because he would not give up his slaves.
"Friar Montesino was very understanding and compassionate in the confessional but on the subject of enslavement of Indians, he didn't give an inch," writes de las Casas. "I was kneeling, he was sitting -- and it was in my church! I argued that the Decree of Burgos (the Bishop of Burgos was the Spanish king's chief minister) forbade only mistreatment."
"But see," replied Montesino, "truth has ever had many enemies and lies many promoters, and in any case it's not the business of a confessor to judge by man's laws but by God's and according to God's law you may not enslave the Indians. Are you prepared to free them?"
"I follow the laws of their Catholic majesties," de las Casas answered.
"In that case, let them absolve you, for I can't," replied Montesino.
"He left the confessional with honour and I stayed there stunned," de las Casas added.
De Las Casas wrestled long and hard with his conscience following this aborted confession. He loved his fine home, his flourishing plantations, his silk brocades and fine porcelain, all imported from Spain. He had grown wealthy in Hispaniola and now even wealthier in Cuba. He was held in honour by generals and viceroys. He was a welcome guest in the houses of the Spanish overlords of the Caribbean islands. All this depended on his many slaves. He didn't, after all, mistreat his slaves as most other encomenderos did. But then, he had participated in many "wars of purification," even though most of these were trumped up and mere excuses to enslave Indians.
Montesino had definitely troubled the waters for de las Casas. But then de las Casas' anger dissolved and he began to see that Montesino had really made the waters transparent.
"I didn't want to leave my fine lifestyle," he writes, "but God wanted it. I began to look at the Indians with new eyes. They looked sad now in comparison with my first sight of them coming to Cuba," he wrote.
"I remembered a sweet Indian girl on Hispaniola when I was still little more than a boy. Apart from my mother, she was the only girl I ever loved. I remember her gentleness, her joy in life -- and so many Indians shared these qualities.
"While wrestling thus with my conscience I heard of an Indian girl who had hanged herself rather than bear the child of a black slave whom her master was using to breed mestizos in the hope of producing more willing and hardier slaves.
"I had baptized this girl myself. As soon as I heard of it I galloped over to his hacienda and took my riding whip to the fellow to the satisfaction of his slaves.
"It was my road to Damascus. The Lord was lifting me out of my gold mines and plantations. I saw then, as Paul did, that in persecuting these children of God we were persecuting Jesus himself.
"I wept bitter tears thinking of our wars of purification, our slaughter of Indians, how we exploited our slaves and neglected their necessities. Now I had to confront the challenge of the rich young man in the Gospel, the one who walked away from Jesus because he had many possessions."
Decided and done. De las Casas went to the governor, told him of his decision to give it all up and to live as a Christian. The governor, of course, thought the man had gone mad, but not only did de las Casas stick to his decision, he took the next boat back to Spain, hoping to get an audience with the king.
"His Catholic majesty," King Ferdinand, should become the protector of the Indians.