Bartolomé de las Casas on the Naturalness of Evangelization

Bartolomé de las Casas on the Naturalness of Evangelization

Evangelization does not come naturally to most of us. You can sense this in the awkwardness you feel when you invite someone to come to Mass or talk to a non-believer about Eucharistic adoration. Then there is the deeper awkwardness of being evangelized: streetcorner preachers hollering, men with sandwich board signs about the end times, earnest Mormons on our front steps, or a fellow Catholic insisting on how a scapular worn the right way will save souls. Even the saints had a hard time. St. Paul struggled to find words in person (he was better by letter), and St. Dominic struggled for years to find one convert from Albigensian (his first was in a bar). For Catholics, there is the long history of evangelization being professionalized and distanced. It was so unnatural that we hired someone else to do it.

And yet, Ad Gentes teaches that “the Church by its very nature is missionary.” Pope Paul VI taught in Evangelii Nuntiandi that the church “exists in order to evangelize.” For Pope Francis, it is important to emphasize that each member of the Church is called to the missions. He writes in Evangelii Gaudium that “in all the baptized, from first to last, the sanctifying power of the Spirit is at work, impelling us to evangelization.” This unnatural activity, it turns out, is meant for all of us.

This poses a bit of a problem. On one level, there is the practical. How do we go about doing this “unnatural” activity without it feeling painfully forced? This practical level speaks to a deeper problem of nature and grace. Drawing on his confrere Thomas Aquinas, Bartolomé de las Casas writes in his Defense of the Indians that “the law of grace perfects the acts of nature.” Thus it should not impose something contrary to our nature. If evangelization is essential to the Church and is an essential aspect of baptismal life, it must be a perfection of our nature.

That evangelization is a graced perfection and restoration of what is natural to us, shapes the thought and advocacy of Bartolomé de las Casas. While he is rightly known for his defense of the Indigenous of the Americas and his opposition to slavery, he should also be remembered for his missiology. Of his many writings, his essential missiological text is The Only Way of Calling All Peoples to the True Religion (henceforth The Only Way). Where others were arguing for coercion as a necessary pre-evangelization, Fray Bartolomé insisted on “the one way, one way only, of teaching a living faith, to everyone, everywhere, always, set by Divine Providence; the way that wins the mind with reasons, that wins the will with gentleness, with invitation.” His argument against coercion helps us to understand evangelization as a perfection of our nature. Just as evangelization cannot be an imposition on others, it is not an imposition on our human nature.

To consider las Casas’s theology of evangelization is to see how it is the natural expression of God’s communication of goodness in creation and in the human person. Evangelization expresses the depth dimension of being, a restoration of nature obscured by original sin and worldly “realism.” As he writes in The Only Way, “in creation, there is a certain circularity: goodness going out, goodness coming back.” This metaphysical claim is an evangelical principle for evangelization itself is goodness going out and goodness coming back. Sent to bring the good news of the Kingdom of Christ, we are the good news and so are the good going out to draw others into the goodness of Christ’s kingdom. Las Casas’s only way is not just the only way for us to evangelize. It is the only way that God operates in His creative, redemptive, and sanctifying activity and so the norm for those who bear God’s images. To understand the depth dimension of existence and human nature is to see its evangelical character. Conversely, to rightly understand evangelization is to gain an insight into the fundamental nature of all things, especially humanity. For Las Casas, we understand this if we take Christ as the essential norm for our understanding. To see everything through Christ, the Incarnate Good News, is to see how evangelization is the perfection of our existence. To reject religious coercion, las Casas develops a theology of evangelization premised on the essential attraction of Divine Goodness, an anthropology centered on Christ, and a renewed emphasis on the universal human capacity for God. Coercion then is a violation of our true Christological naturalness whereas evangelical gentleness, modeled on Christ, is the only way of evangelization. In las Casas’s missiology, evangelizing turns out to be the most natural thing of all.

Start With Christ

Las Casas’s articulation of goodness going out and goodness going back is the grounding claim of his theology of evangelization. The principle is grounded in Thomas and the Christian Neoplatonic tradition. But like Friar Thomas, Fray Bartolomé comes to this understanding by always looking to Christ who is the Good news. We need, he insists, to keep Christ as our rule and measure for living, for thinking, and for evangelizing. “Christ’s normative behavior” is the disclosure and manifestation of God and his ordering principles for being. Christian ethics and philosophy must be normed by Christ’s actions and words because Christ is the “the exemplar at the origin of all created things.” The originary exemplar shapes all truth and so should shape all our claims about existence.

True ethics is the imitatio Christi. Christians are often look elsewhere for ethical guides, especially ones deemed more realistic. We will center cardinal virtues or social justice, we will elevate classical philosophers or postmodern theorists, we will talk about natural law or human rights. Las Casas would not reject these intellectual resources (especially natural law), but he insisted that we are only thinking rightly when Christ is the norm of our thinking. Any other source of reflection needs to measure up to the standard of Christ. We are never prudent if our prudence runs contrary to Christ. We are never abiding by natural law if our actions are not Christlike. We are never fulfilling social justice if we are not living out Christ’s justice.

Understanding Christ was particularly important for Fray Bartolomé’s approach to natural law. Natural law is Christological because Christ is “the eternal law of the Father, the art, the wisdom, the word cloaked in mortal flesh . . . . He is primordial truth incarnate.” No natural law theorizing can be correct if it does not conform to Christ words and actions. Christ was not just a teacher; he was the eternal law itself. Because He is the Law itself, His words taught it and His deeds directly expressed it. To understand Him is to be restored to the natural law itself.

Fray Bartolomé understood Christ as manifesting and communicating Goodness and so as essentially evangelical. He is the Word that God “spoke to the world.” To know Him is to know God because everything he expresses derives from the “most High Trinity.” That the Son manifests as the incarnate Christ and that Christ evangelizes is not incidental to the Word. “God the Father spoke to the world through Him” because the Word is the Father’s expression. Christ is the Good News spoken to humanity because the Word is the Expression of the Father.

That Christ is the incarnate eternal law and the enfleshed communication of God means that to fully comprehend Christ is to fully comprehend the entire order of the universe. Christ is the eternal law, which for Thomas, and so las Casas, is “nothing less than the type of Divine Wisdom, as directing all actions and movements.” The Son, the Logos of God, contains within him the eternal ideas that shape all beings. “He is the primordial model that every creature resembles.” How Christ operates thus discloses the fundamental meaning and nature of all things. When we understand Christ, we can see that:  

Divine Wisdom cares for all its creatures, not just by leading them to fulfill their natural purposes, but also by endowing them with inner powers, with potentialities which are the source of performance, so that they would be able to act on their own initiatives as well. Actions invited by God are actions native to creatures, consonant with them; they flow easily. Creatures possess the sources of response within themselves.

Fray Bartolomé writes this theology of creation within his missiology because the latter is normed by the former, and the former is disclosed in the latter. Because the Divine Wisdom is the Son through whom all things are created and through whom are all redeemed, we can understand creation in Christ and understand Christ in creation. To know Christ is to know that Creation is the original good news, the originary evangelization when “the things that are not” (1 Cor 1:28) were called to be. Called to be, God does not compel them back unto God; rather, they flow from God and flow back again to Him. The source of response to God is within them as gifted by God. To hear the good news of fulfillment from God is natural because the originary good news is the gift of nature.

This is the “goodness in God from which all natures flow . . . so every creature has in it a power to want goodness due to the imprint of its Creator upon it.” God does not act violently on natural things, be they rocks, trees, birds, or persons. He moves them gently, coaxingly, in a way that fulfills the nature he implanted in them. From the proclamation of the goodness of being at all, things flow graciously to their fulfilment in goodness. We can know this because this is how Christ, the incarnate Divine Wisdom, acts. He gently moves us from within to hear the good and to come back to it. He invites us to fulfill the natural potentiality in us already. There was no coercion in the actions of Christ or in his words. He is gracious in perfecting our nature. This fittingly parallels creation because it is in and through the Divine Wisdom that all things are made. Goodness is the natural fulfillment of the thing itself because it moves the thing from with it. Thus “we call something good and virtuous when it acts harmoniously with itself, and thus with the goal set for it by God, in God’s own way.” Therefore, creation has its circularity. God sends goodness out and within this goodness is its internal attraction back to goodness. It is all natural: flowing from the good to the good according to the good.

Fray Bartolomé sees this theology of creation as a proof for why evangelization must operate gently, coaxingly, and according to the natural yearning for goodness present in us. He arrives at this understanding because he always kept Christ as the norm of his thinking. To understand the evangelical nature and methods of Christ is to gain an insight into the nature of the Divine Wisdom and His creative methods. Conversely, to understand the nature and creative methods of the Divine Wisdom is to understand the evangelical nature and methods of Christ. To think rightly of anything and everything is to think of the good news. It is evangelical all the way down.

Norming Human Nature

Advocates for coercion fail to follow the norm of Christ. To believe that evangelization needs to be preceded, enabled, or defended by coercion is either to believe that the Gospel is not attractive or to believe that our nature is not attracted to the good. Las Casas was more concerned by the latter position because of his fellow Spaniards argued for the inferior humanity of the Indians, calling them little humans (homunculi). Because of their less capacity, they needed compulsion to pre-evangelize them.

Las Casas held that all humanity was one because of his theology of evangelization. Thus Las Casas argues in his The Defense of the Indians that the most essential trait of the human being is their capax dei and that this capacity for God is universal and equal in all. We know the oneness of humanity and our shared capacity for God because “Christ commanded: ‘Go everywhere, teach everyone.’ No one, no place privileged. So we are not to discriminate between place and person.” This non-discriminatory anti-racism is grounded in the reality that all persons are capable of being taught and so capable of being attracted to Christ. True teaching recognizes the attraction of truth (the object of what is taught) and the attraction to truth (the subjective desire for what is taught). Las Casas’s anthropology depends on his commitment to the maximal attraction of God and the universal human attraction to God.

The attraction to God is not unique to some people; it is our nature and so is universal. Las Casas followed Thomas in holding that “man has a natural inclination to know the truth about God,” and for Aquinas, it “is impossible for a natural desire to be empty and vain.” For Las Casas, our natural inclination to know God is an expression of our being in God’s image. God knows himself simply and fully; we image God by our desire to know God. Our desire for God is the defining feature of the human person as capable of God for “God made man in his own image by making him capable of himself.” Just as God exists for God so too do we exist for God. God made us image God by making us capable of God. We image God by our capacity for the infinite Good that is God. Because all have this equal capacity for God, all have an equal desire for and capacity to receive the good news of Christ.

Our goodness going out is our being in the image of God as our capax dei; our goodness going back is the graced fulfilment of that capacity. Fallen, we are no longer capable of realizing this capacity. Christ re-actualizes this potential. The good news is that we can fulfill our fundamental yearning, but we need to know how this is possible (through Christ’s death and Resurrection) and how to do it (by imitating Christ). That the way back to God has been restored by Christ is not enough; people need to know how to travel this way. Thus “it is useless to preach to people the kingdom of God. . . . people need both a map and directions to get there.” The good news is that God made all of us capable of God, that Christ restored our capacity for God in Himself, and that the imitation of Christ is the way to live out that capacity. This is what we are to preach.

This Thomistic and evangelical anthropology means that each of the faculties of the human soul is attracted to God in the mode appropriate to them. The rational faculty for Las Casas is “eager and starved for knowledge of truth,” which naturally directs it to the highest Truth, God. The concupiscible faculty “craves and seeks pleasure and goodness” which naturally orients it to the highest good, God. The irascible faculty yearns to offer its “allegiance and service” to the highest power, God. Our whole being, in each of its capacities, is shaped by the natural desire for God.

Because the capacity for God and our attraction to Him shape our existence, we are naturally religious. “All men are naturally led to the worship of God, or what they believe to be God.” When we do this to false gods, we fall into idolatria; when we do this to the one true God through the one true religion we rise to latria—the work of God in us. In both, the movement to worship and sacrifice arises in us because “every creature has in it a power to want goodness due to the imprint of its Creator upon it.” This imprinting means the desire for good operates naturally within us. The proclamation of Christ is the proclamation of the good we were already desiring. Without Christ, we fall into error and sin and cannot find our way. To preach Christ is not to impose a desire but direct people away from sin and idolatry to its natural orientation, God and His Kingdom.

The maximal attraction of God through Jesus Christ and our natural orientation to God in all three of our faculties means that there is sufficient attraction without need for coercion. The deer that longs for running streams does not need to be forced to drink from the stream. The deer longs; the running stream attracts. Las Casas beautifully writes:

Christ’s way was to draw people, to win them to Himself so they would flow to His side, to His teaching, freely, joyously . . . . To flow, to run quickly like a watercourse, means to say how willingly, how naturally, how greedily, bounding with joy they came to the mountain who is Christ.

Arguments for compulsion in evangelization are ugly because they fail to see the attraction of divine beauty and our attraction to divine beauty. Fray Bartolomé opposed coercion because he knew how attractive Christ was. He was a lover who knew the lovability of the One he loved. He also knew that each person was a potential lover like him. Each is called to love God who put the love of God in us in the first place. Evangelization does not impose a love for God; it redirects and rekindles it. It brings to the attention of the wayward lover the God whom they already loved when they were running around loving other things. This bringing to attention through preaching “presupposes divine grace” and cannot be effective without it. Trusting in God’s grace, we must “preach the gospel according to the command, form, and instruction by Christ.” Our job is to help people love the right God the right way.

Fray Bartolomé knew how hard evangelizing is. The obstinacy of the conquistadors showed him how much sin mars our attraction to God. Evangelization entails we “preach repentance and eternal life.” The former is a condition for the latter. Our natural orientation towards God is marred in both our reason (which should know the good) and our will (which should love the good). But for las Casas, the preacher must never forget this natural orientation and the graced perfection of it. If evangelization is the goodness going out, then our natural desire for God is our readiness for this goodness. Evangelization, as a goodness going out, enables people to direct their goodness going back to the Divine Goodness. Just as the whole of creation is evangelical—because the Word who made it is evangelical—so too is humanity fundamentally evangelical. To evangelize is to tell the good news to the people who yearn for some good news. You do not need to force it; it just comes naturally.

Living Evangelically

Working with the thought of las Casas, I have tried to develop an evangelical way of thinking through the norm of Christ and to discern the meaning of creation and human existence. The Church is evangelical because it is the graced community that restores and perfects what is already present in human nature. To understand what grace reveals about nature is to realize what my real nature is underneath all my sinning. In insisting that Christ is the true norm, Fray Bartolomé anticipates Gaudium et Spes’s teaching that “Christ is the perfect human.” Christ is the only person who has lived a natural human life and so the best place to understand human nature is to look to Christ. When we look elsewhere, we risk importing our sinful self-image into our understanding of man and so into our understanding of how we are to live.

And how are we to live and evangelize? Gently. Las Casas reiterates the word throughout The Only Way. We are “to win the mind with reasons, to win the will with motives, to attract it, because the form is peaceful, gentle, kind, full of the taste of charity.” God acts in a “gentle, coaxing, gracious way” because “a rational creature is born with a free will and therefore must be treated as free, must be drawn, led, moved towards what is good gently, gently, without pressure, delicately.” This gentleness was modeled on Christ who “never bruised a reed nor snuffed out a wick” (Isa 42:3), who healed with gentle hands, who welcomed sinners, who wept with Mary and Martha, who washed the feet of sinners and let sinners wash his feet, who looked with mercy on us, who refused the sword, and who laid down his very life.

Being gentle may not seem realistic, but that is only if we take the world as our model of realism. We too often confuse the natural with the worldly. Christ teaches the difference between graced nature and worldly power for “Christ wanted known the difference between His power and the power wielded by earthly princes.” Christ’s power works according to our nature. Christ, the true man, came to teach us what is natural. He acted graciously towards us so we could remember our natural yearning for God. The Christian way must always avoid the worldly way if we are to live out our graced nature. Christ’s way of graciousness perfects our marred nature and so reveals it again to us.

To live like Christ is to live a human life. To do this, in words and deeds, is the most attractive thing of all. Evangelization is first and foremost the imitatio Christi: “Let us imitate the examples and teachings of Christ and the Apostles and let his image shine forth in our conduct.” A Christian life is modeled on Christ; it is evangelical if it represents the Incarnate Good news. We evangelize when we publicly image Christ by acting and speaking as He did. The essence of the Church is this public imaging, so “let us represent our Teacher and Savior by our deeds, and then those who have foreordained to go from paganism to eternal life will hasten of their own free will to the sheepfold of Christ.” There is much to say to develop how we are do this, and Las Casas does provide some of this practical advice on this. But whatever methods we employ, we can never forget that we exist to image God, that the only reliable image is Christ, and so acting like Christ is the only way to live and the only way to evangelize.

 As an example, Fray Bartolomé could have pointed to the gentle methods of his contemporary in Latin America, our Lady of Guadalupe. She gently appeared as lowly Indigenous girl to a lowly Indigenous man to restart an evangelical effort that the coercive Spaniards had so badly botched. She did not evangelize with condemnations, swords, forced labor, or government power. She evangelized with roses because, as Las Casas put it, free people do “not make choices unless intrigued or excited or drawn by things which have an appeal—tasteful attractive things, things present in the mind with the look of goodness about them.” When we are tempted to be harsh, remember Mary’s roses and remember that we “we owe [others] the right which is theirs, that is, brotherly kindness and Christian love.”

So forego the culture wars, be gentle with the lapsed, do good deeds and preach with good words. Do not water down the message or substitute worldly “wisdom.” When you deliver the message of Christ and him crucified, have “a calm voice, a kind face, a modest bearing, and peaceable language.” Remember, learning takes time and evangelizing is about teaching. A good teacher knows the good news requires that we “explain it, break it down, recast it, reason to it, win assents, ask questions, exhort, invite, charm, even spoon-feed.” Be attractive through your prayer life, your liturgical life, your public testimony, and your works of mercy.

Above all, have the confidence that God is the most attractive Good and that people were made to be attracted to the Divine Good. The way of evangelization is the way of love that does not need force. Gentleness is the confidence that the message of the good news is good for all and that, as Thomas tells us, “Goodness is what all desire.” It will take work to help people see that good, to help them give up all their sinful attractions, to help them understand God so they will desire the true God and true religion. To do so, take no other model than that of Christ. Act as much like Him as you can. Evangelize as He did. Grace will make it natural for those who preach and for those who hear the good news in our preaching. As Las Casas insists “there is an art one must use in drawing people . . . to any goodness at all. It is the way of nature.” To evangelize is to be natural again by being like Christ. Grace makes possible what was natural all along, going out from the good to invite others to come back with us to the good.

Featured Image: Constantino Brumidi, Potrait of Barolomeo De Las Casas, 1876; Source: Flickr, US-Gov-PD.


Terence Sweeney

Terence Sweeney is Assistant Teaching Professor in the Honors Program and Humanities Department at Villanova University. His work centers on Augustine but extends to medieval thought, philosophical theology, and political theory.

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