Dominicans and International Human Rights

January 7, 2012

Statue of Antonio de Montesinos in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
This past fourth Sunday of Advent marked the 500th anniversary of the most famous homily ever given by one of the least known Dominicans in the New World. That Sunday 500 years ago, Fr. Antonio de Montesinos, O.P., proclaimed to his congregation, “you are in mortal sin, and live and die therein by reason of the cruelty and tyranny that you practice on these innocent people.” His congregation were the Spanish colonists of Hispaniola, and the people whom they were treating so cruelly were the native populations of the island, whom they had enslaved. Montesinos asked his congregants, “Why do you so greatly oppress and fatigue them, not giving them enough to eat or caring for them when they fall ill from excessive labors, so that they die or rather are slain by you, so that you may extract and acquire gold every day? And what care do you take that they receive religious instruction and come to know their God and creator, or that they be baptized, hear mass, or observe holidays and Sundays? Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?” This homily stirred up much controversy, beginning what some see as the first international debate on human rights. To honor the 500th anniversary of this momentous event, the Public Affairs Institute of in Alma Michigan organized a conference on human rights, which was held in Washington DC from December 2-4, 2011. Several Dominicans honored the memory of their brothers by presenting papers at this conference. Fr. David Orique, O.P., a professor at Providence College, presented a paper on Bartolomé de las Casas. Las Casas famously renounced his share of land and slaves in the New World and joined the Dominican Order. His is the only record we have of Montesinos’ famous homily. In his paper, Fr. Orique showed that Las Casas’ Brevisima Relación de la Destruición de las Indias not only narrates an account of the atrocities committed against the native peoples of the Americas, but also uses the juridical language of his time to defend them. Br. Cajetan Cuddy, O.P., a student brother at the Dominican House of Studies, delivered a paper tracing the historical reasons for the presence of the Dominicans in the New World. He observed that the Dominicans came to the New World to preach the Word of God to the newly discovered peoples. It was the discovery that the systematic enslavement of the Indians prevented the proclamation of the Word that partially incited the Dominicans to denounce the slaveholders publically. Br. Cuddy showed that Cardinal Cajetan, then Master of the Dominican Order, played an instrumental part in making sure that Dominicans were sent to preach the good news in the New World. Further, the foundation in the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas allowed the Dominicans to articulate why the slaveholders were in mortal sin. Br. Ambrose Mary Little, O.P., a student brother at the Dominican House of Studies, presented a paper on the foundation of human rights in natural universals. He showed that a proper understanding of human rights must be founded on a correct understanding of what the human person is. Quoting Montesinos saying, “Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls?” he showed that a proper understanding of human nature acknowledges the role of reason. It was the proper understanding of human nature as well as the need to preach the Gospel to the native peoples that allowed the Dominicans to transcend the mistaken views of their time and denounce slavery for what it was. Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P., from the Dominican Church of St. Gertrude in Cincinnati Ohio, presented a paper on the necessity of virtue for the promotion of human rights. Fr. Sullivan showed that not all cultures are worth preserving, the most notable being the culture of the Conquistadors. In order for cultures to promote human rights they must promote virtuous living. Only societies that form the desires of men and women to be properly ordered to human flourishing will be able to protect the human rights of all peoples. The Dominican papers show that the struggle for human rights began not simply as a call for economic equality and justice, but rather a call to recognize the inherent dignity of all people before God. The center of Dominican preaching concerning human rights was not directed simply at correcting the temporal economy, but rather at ordering all people, both colonists and Native Americans, to the divine economy and salvation.            

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