Peruvian theologian Victor Codina wrote in 1984: "Before proclaiming God's Word, they (ie, the 16th century episcopal defenders of the Indians) listened to God's voice, masticated in the mouths of the Indians. For them, the Indians were the privileged locus of theology. Beginning there, they read anew the Word of God and rethought their mission as church." In last week's column we saw that the group of bishops, great champions of the robbed and enslaved Indians, were denied access to the courts of their Catholic Majesties, and were not permitted to attend the Council of Trent. Their prophetic voices were stilled one by one. Las Casas died in exile. Torres was returned to Spain as a prisoner. Valdivieso was beaten by the plantation owners.
But cowardly, self-serving voices soon filled the vacuum. The first such "theological" voice raised to justify the conquest and enslavement was that of Gines de Sepulveda debating with Las Casas at the Spanish court. He declared that the situation in the Americas was in total conformity with human nature, and that the superior must naturally subdue the inferior. And that in any case, how else could one evangelize such savages! (Get in the real world, the opposition still says today.)
The Iberian crowned heads still tried, though feebly, to moderate the land seizures and enslavement, not out of moral considerations, but to keep these newly rich at least somewhat subordinated to the crown. At the beginning of the 17th century, no candidate for the episcopacy was approved who did not accept the legitimacy of the large land holdings and the servitude of the Indians.
The Jesuits were still allowed in the new world but they carried out their great work in the reductions of Paraguay far from the reach of the viceroys. And even here when the reductions bloomed and prospered, the colonials were allowed to overrun them, destroy them and enslave the population with impunity.
The prophetic word was so moribund in the church that in 1790 the pope would condemn the deceleration of human rights. Not until Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum in the late 19th century were church voices raised once more in defence of human rights.
Leo's opening to justice grew in the next 100 years and reached its high point in the Medellin and Puebla conferences a generation ago.
These voices too have become muted with Liberation Theology under attack for the past 20 years. But the spirit of Amos and Isaiah still lives; and de las Casas lives too; and Medellin and Puebla will likewise rise from the ashes of these years.