Taken from Servicios Koinonía: Pedro Trigo, "El sermón de Montesinos como acontecimiento: Condiciones de posibilidad y consecuencias" - Revista Latinoamericana de Teología (RELAT) 418. [http://servicioskoinonia.org/relat/418.htm#_ftn1]

On December 21st 1511, the fourth Sunday of Advent, in the church of Santo Domingo, Fr. Antón de Montesinos, a Dominican friar, pronounced a sermon before the Spaniards, convoked by the Dominican community. The most important points of the sermon are these:

Aborigines are human being. They are children of God. They are owners who live in peaceful possession of their lands. They cannot be enslaved neither used against their will, nor, of course, they can be mistreated or killed. We must preach them the Gospel and welcome them with mercy. Therefore, if the Spaniards persist in the distributions, which is the denial of all that they were obliged to do with the natives, they cannot be validly acquitted and condemned without remedy.

The three fundamental questions in the Montesinos’ sermon are, (1) Are not indigenous people human? (2) You, the Spaniards, are you not obliged to love them? (3) Do not you understand these two elemental questions?

The first question points to the different kind of people of the humanity and therefore to the dignity of the person. As true human persons, the indigenous people are also subjects to law. This comes from the People’s right, who were working in the University of Salamanca at that time, which was famous for initiating the systematic treatment of these issues. From this perspective, the People’s right is a response to the ethical questions that motivated the discovery and the colonization of immense unknown until then by Europe.

The sermon of Montesinos had influence by what he said but still had more influence by what he was about to say with regard to parresía. This Greek word means the personal frankness and freedom of a citizen in the assembly for the Greeks. Then, during the Hellenism, it becomes the attribute for a true human being who dares to say what he feels, even if it may contradict to the thinking of his society, and above all to those who have the power. Because his life is so intense that he is able to endure it, means, to incardinate it, which means, carry on in his shoulder, in order to accept and put up with the consequences of what he says. In the same perspective, Jesus says to Annas, who interrogates him as a prisoner, that he has always spoken with parresía and it is the same with the Apostles and Paul. It is the same thing with Fr. Montesinos and his Dominican community in whose name, he is giving the sermon.

Where does this power, freedom, confidence and courage come from? Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican and the most important apologists of American Indigenous, says, “All those who came here were appointed men. Those Dominican religious, knowing the situation, offered themselves for coming. They knew that they had to endure lot of hard works. They knew that they would not eat bread nor drink wine, neither taste meat nor to go here and there riding horses. They knew that they would not wear fine clothes nor sleep in comfortable bed, rather with majares and rigor of the Dominican order had to be in the first place even though they would lack of very many things. They were moved by a great zeal and they wished to endure everything for God, with joy and happiness. It is because of this that only very religious men came here” (Cf. Bartolomé de Las Casas, Historia de Las Indias, second book, chapter 4. Ayacucho Library, Caracas, vol. II, chapter 54, pg. 199).

The voluntary character, the enormous self-demand, the powerful imitation for the mortification and the freedom of the passions that motivates the voluntary mortification, the capacity to dedicate oneself to others, the personal excellence that Bartolomé de las Casas praises, were indispensable requirements for the sacrifices they were able to do. This renouncement was taken very seriously because of their parresía. The members of that community were able to uphold with their lives, with their personal presence, the terrible challenge of being sent to their fellow citizens because it was for their salvation.

It is necessary to remember that in Spain, the Reform does not begin with Luther but had already begun with the religious orders in the last decade of the XV Century. This implies that they had structurally detached themselves from the worldliness of the ecclesiastical institution and had not done so disciplinarily, as will happen later in the counter-reformation of Trent but it was done through personal encounter with the Gospel sources and the spirit that inspires them. In the case of the Dominicans, the Gospel sources are the same sources of the Dominican Order since the fundamental experience of St. Domingo de Guzmán, at the beginning, under the inspiration of his bishop, Diego de Osma, and later with his collaborators was to preach in poverty and to preach above all the Gospel.

The decisive milestone in his life takes place upon returning from Rome, when he accompanied his bishop. It is the encounter in the Languedoc with the papal legates who were about to renounce his mission of converting the Valdenses and Albigenes heretics because of its fruitlessness. The heretics and the people point out three reasons for not converting themselves, they are: the bad life of the clergy, the scandal of wealth and the power of the ecclesiastical institution. The legates cannot refute this objection nor dedicate themselves to this reform, which also surpasses them, without interrupting the mission. The bishop proposes to them to be themselves as committed Christians in order to proclaim the Good News as the first disciples sent by Jesus: barefooted, without money and with a truly evangelical life. He decides himself, with his episcopal authority in order to support this new way of exercising his legate affairs. And in fact, the four, the bishop and his companion Domingo, and the two legates, carry out their mission, based on a fervent apostolic prayer and an irreproachable and inflamed life of charity, seeking to revitalize the Christian life and at the same time to convince the heretics through arguments.

The proposal is not only to preach the gospel instead of doctrines but to preach it by living it, sacramentalizing it with his/her life, situating itself in that precise situation in a way that is equal as how Jesus did so in his life, which was principally, forming a group of brothers, of fellow disciples, united with the Father and with Jesus through deep prayer, who preached and lived in poverty and full of charity towards those who sought to get converted and who discerned together with regard to mission as it came. The Dominican community that is moved to the Indias relive with creative fidelity this founding beginning and in turn, it reedited in the same way the mission of Jesus. For this reason, when they saw the structural vices that they condemned in the Christianity of Spain, they reacted with evangelical freedom before them.

The reaction to the sermon is the scandal because it was a novelty never heard. What the friars demanded, involved ending up with the lordly mode of production. What they said coincided, for other reasons, with the position of the European bourgeoisie who were emancipating themselves from their lords: it was the passage from feudalism to the bourgeoisie. The way of the neighbours is to put the religious against the religious: the procurator sent to the court to defend their cause and get the conviction or expulsion of the Dominicans is a religious. These religious are flattered and, accepting this kind of treatment, they felt subjective complicity, but above all, they belonged structurally to the system for having responsibilities, even if they did not take advantage of them. There is a radical lack of discernment for admitting honours and accepting the responsibilities, which was causing the objective damage to the indigenous people, even if they were not in it neither take advantage of most of the exaction.

The Dominicans way of life is the testimony of the truth, which is reached through being against the system, maintained by prayer, penance, poverty and community discernment. That is why they send Montesinos to Spain to defend himself, who, when he arrives at the court is not received and has to wait for many hours because they deny him access to the monarch, until, after many days of waiting, upon seeing the door half-closed, he dared to enter and exposed the case to the old monarch. After having finished his chilling story, he asks the monarch: «‘Your Highness orders to do that? Well, I am certain that you do not ‘. Then said the King: ‘No, for God’s sake, I never commanded such a thing in my life.’  Then, Fernando, a Catholic got involved in order to calm the situation. «And so Father Fray Antonio got up, and kissed the King’s hands and he went out, despite having well negotiated the doorman».

Thus, half a century ago, the struggle for justice began in our New World.


The Day of the American Aboriginal is celebrated in commemoration of the Inter-American Aboriginal (Indian) Congress held in Patzquaro, Mexico, on April 19, 1940, convened by then Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas.