Every professor in the classroom has experienced the angst of deciding between a “B+” and an “A-”. Persons with a conscience may worry if they have let non-essential considerations become the major factor in deciding to lower a mark. I feel conflicted in much the same way in reviewing this book on Las Casas by Paul S. Vickery.
The book has several strengths. The author has gathered together details from important studies on Las Casas’ life and works and arranged them in a straightforward and readable book of 200 pages. The subtitle tells all: “Great Prophet of the Americas.” As have other scholars as notable as the theologian of Liberation Gustavo Gutiérrez and the indefatigable Helen Rand Parish, Vickery presents a very modern, liberationist, Las Casas. The Dominican friar is pictured in glowing terms as the 16th Century herald of ideas considered very progressive in the 21st Century. Matching historical events in Las Casas’ life with the theological content of his works, Vickery has done a service to those seeking a classroom text to introduce Las Casas to an undergraduate audience. Perhaps the general reader will also benefit, especially those searching for evidence that Iberian Catholicism was not always as black as painted by English-language historians. While Las Casas’ complaints had been used by Protestants from the 16th century to our own day as proof of Spanish Catholic barbarity towards the natives – the so-called “Black Legend” – this book connects Las Casas to the Catholic evangelism of his time. It demonstrates that while the negative experiences were part of the Catholic effort, they were only part: Las Casas’ positive approach towards the natives was also of Catholic invention. Thus, one is led to conclude, Las Casas was the prophetic voice of inculturation, respect for indigenous rights, and a liberationist voice against contaminating preaching of the Gospel by imperialistic aims.
Unfortunately, that is a portrait of Las Casas which does not account for the failures and the antagonisms he caused during his lifetime. Las Casas contemporaries viewed him as politicking cleric, more anxious to be cited at court than to make a difference at the grass-roots. He exaggerated virtually everything: from the number of natives who died during the colonization to the native receptiveness to the Gospel. While these exaggerations lent a dramatic impact to his polemics against colonial policy, they did little to suggest workable solutions to real problems. In fact, clerics who adopted a pragmatic course and steered away from pure polemics were the real heroes of the Iberian evangelism. While Las Casas had a role in advocacy for change, he was relatively ineffective in pastoral work.
Vicery’s book, then, is not so much of a biography as a hagiography of Las Casas. He is smart enough to show some distance from Helen Rand Parish’s outlandish assertion that Las Casas was the originator of the stance towards native rights from the Salamanca School of Theology (pp. 15-19, cf. note 36). However, in general, he repeats the highly favorable interpretations of Las Casas’ importance as seen by Gustavo Gutiérrez and Parish. Moreover, I am not entirely sure that Prof. Vickery, who teaches at Wheaton College, has consulted original sources. While his book reads as an introductory text for undergraduate students, more experienced scholarship would be more demanding. Take for instance, his confusion about Nicolás de Ovando. Vickery never mentions that Ovando had taken vows in the military Order of Alcántara, which was the reason the Queen entrusted Ovando with the task of settling a dispute between Franciscans and Dominicans. Then Vickery, citing Las Casas own work (pp. 36-37, ftn. 19) mistakes Ovando’s title as “Comendador de Lares” as describing a different person. In the general scheme of things, this is not a major error and doesn’t impact in any significant way on the book’s conclusions. However, it does suggest that the author’s knowledge is limited to secondary sources.
In a similar way, there are serious omissions in the book that tend to make Las Casas seem more prophetic than he actually was. Missing in action were references to the Miramar School of missionary training that stressed knowledge of native languages. There is no mention of Ramón Pané who wrote the first treatise on the Indians in 1496. The Council of Trent and its reforms are never mentioned, as if ecclesiastical events after 1545 were not influenced by forces greater than Las Casas’ bitter missives. Perhaps a review of the book is better focused by what is actually in it rather than by the omissions. However, it would seem that when the purpose of the book is to claim uniqueness as this one does for Las Casas, it is fair criticism to point out missing elements. While not without its merits, this book doesn’t make it to the “A” list.