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The Ethics of Human Sacrifice – And a New Blog

One of the most fascinating moments in the long history of Bartolomé de las Casas’ defense of natives in the Americas on the question on human sacrifice (along with cannibalism).

Many reasons are given in the 16th century to justify the wars against and subsequent slavery and servitude of the natives: their idolatry, their inferior status, Aristotle’s notion of “natural slaves,” support for evangelization, the political rights of the Crown, etc. Las Casas, of course, argues powerfully against these justifications.  Throughout his life one of Las Casas’ most fundamental principles is that the purpose of the Spanish presence in the Americas is evangelization and this must be done without coercion or violence; indeed, Christian actions were seen as the fundamental impediment to evangelization. In one chilling passage he says “the name of Christian is so abhorrent that they would rather go to hell, reasoning that there will be no Christians to associate with there, than to paradise, where they would have to be with them” (Gutiérrez, Las Casas, 75). Thus, the best thing the Spanish could do to pursue this goal would be to leave (except for some preachers, of course).

The opponents of Las Casas, in addition to sheer political and economic power and social prejudice, had another argument against him: if we are to care for the victims of this world and love our neighbor, what about the many victims of human sacrifice? Don’t these religious practices among the natives violate natural law and offend God? Don’t Christians have the duty to care for their neighbor and extend their solidarity to these innocent victims? Taking the final step, many argued that love of neighbor made conquest a duty. Las Casas’ response to this line of questions is complex, appealing to various scholastic teachings (such as Aquinas on following an erroneous conscience) and to the concrete circumstances of his time. Las Casas is clear from the beginning on a couple of points: first, the elimination of human sacrifice was not the reasons for the Spanish conquest. This is simply an attempt to justify what has occurred in the Americas after the fact. Second, many more people have died due to the idolatrous actions of the Europeans than the in the sacrificial cults of natives (against the inflated numbers thrown about in Spain). Any fear of native return to these traditions does not outweigh the destruction caused by the continued presence of the Spanish and the system of encomienda.

Nevertheless, he pushes further and mounts a defense of the sacrificial traditions themselves. He cannot appeal to the idea of “invincible ignorance” since we are dealing, in part, with natural law (which is accessible to all). Thus, Las Casas makes a bold assertion that the sacrifice of human beings to a god is not contrary to the natural law. He argues first that by natural law all people are obliged to honor God as best they can and offer their best to God in sacrifice: “it is a duty in natural law to offer sacrifice to the true God or to the one regarded as such” (180). However, Las Casas says it is left to human or “positive” law to determine what is to be sacrificed to God. In the absence of a positive law to the contrary and in the presence of an authoritative religious tradition, he goes so far as to say that human sacrifice could be considered a “moral duty” for the natives since we are obliged to offer to God what is most precious. In all of this Las Casas sees a profound religious sense within the native religious traditions.

This short presentation of Las’ Casas defense does not do justice to his reasoning and his call for toleration; nor does it answer the many questions raised by such analysis. He does not argue that these practices are good. Indeed, he says quite explicitly that they are not. His point is that the religious customs of the natives are reasonable for those without revelation rather than a sign of moral and natural inferiority.

 *** A fellow Notre Dame doctoral student who is in Spain for the semester just started a blog which engages this material as part of his dissertation research into Las Casas and the School of Salamanca. For those interested in this period of Christian history, check it out!

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