500 years ago this Sunday, the Dominicans friars of the Spanish colony of Hispaniola called the Spanish colonists to repentance for their gross mistreatment of the native population. The stirring words of Antonio de Montesinos’ homily for Fourth Advent—which shocked the unsuspecting congregation—still echo:
And what care do you take over who teaches them the faith, that they know their God and creator? Are baptized? Hear mass? Keep festival days and Sundays? These [Indians], are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obligated to love them as you love yourselves? Do you not understand this? Do you not feel this? How is it that you are in such a deep, lethargic sleep? You can be sure that in your state you are no more able to be saved than the Moors or Turks, who lack and don’t even want the faith of Jesus Christ.
Many today remember de Montesinos as a precursor to secular human rights, but this is misguided. His greatest charge against the Spanish was not that they had neglected the bodies of the natives, but that they had ignored the fate of their souls. It was their human dignity—the care of their souls as well as the care of their bodies—that concerned the Dominican friars.
It was no accident that early champions of what we today would call human rights cared more for men’s souls than their bodies. It was the bold, some would say foolhardy, belief in a transcendent order that gave the friars ground to stand against the depredations of a fallen world.
This fact, and what it means for human rights today, is discussed by Andrew Wilson in our December issue, in an article available only to subscribers. If you haven’t yet subscribed, you can do so here.