What can the actions of a 15th century priest have to teach us about our modern Catholic quandary over refusing Communion to public champions of abortion? Plenty.
Bartolome de Las Casas was a Spaniard whose father reportedly sailed with Christopher Columbus. As a young man, Las Casas was a soldier. He served so well in various expeditions in the West Indies that he was granted an encomienda -a land grant. Along with the land came its native inhabitants. Far from treating them terribly, Las Casas took it upon himself to evangelize them. In fact, Las Casas shortly after, received holy orders. He may have in fact been the first person in America to receive holy orders.
But in the early 16th century, Las Casas took part in the conquest of Cuba and received an allotment of serfs. He’d always been someone who hadn’t questioned the system. But soon, his conscience was stirred.
A Dominican Friar denied Las Casas absolution. Las Casas had considered himself a good person who was kind to his serfs. Why would this Dominican refuse him absolution? Why single him out? He was a small cog in a giant wheel.
This troubled Las Casas deeply and he began thinking of his participation in the system of oppression. This came to be a life-changing moment for him.
Shortly after ,he announced in a sermon that he was returning his serfs to the governor. Then, he began publicly pleading for their better treatment throughout society. His strong defense of the indigenous people to the Spanish Parliament reached the ears of King Charles and persuaded him to accept his proposal of founding “towns of free Indians.”
Las Casas later joined the Dominican order and wrote many works including his masterpiece “The Historia de Las Indias” in which he revealed the oppression and injustices going on as well as his “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.”
As a result of Las Casas’ efforts, King Charles mandated that the owners of slaves had to set free their Indian serfs after one generation. Las Casas was named bishop of Chiapas and immediately issued a command that forbade absolution to be given those who held Indian serfs. While this met a great deal of resistance, it did have some impact. It was also. successful in that it made clear where the Church stood and moved many hearts and souls to Christ.
To be clear, all of this came about because one priest refused absolution to a man who owned serfs.
I believe this has a great deal to teach us about the issue of refusing the sacrament to politicians and those who publicly advocate abortion. Las Casas’ confessor did him the greatest favor of showing him how strongly the Church believes in the sacredness of each and every human being and that God created us all with free will. This moment, as difficult as it was for him to experience, elevated Las Casas’ thinking. It brought him closer to God and he went on to instruct so many others and change the culture, even a little bit.
What good is a Church that leaves us where we are? We don’t want the Church to merely affirm, we need the Church to elevate us. What good is a Church that walks with us if we’re walking straight to Hell?
The actions of this priest refusing absolution also let everyone understand that the Church defends the innocent. It stands for life and love. When we ignore persistent and widespread sin, others question how serious the Church really is about its teaching.