The Significance of Human Sacrifice
By nature, all nations know that God surpasses anything that can be imagined and that they have life and every possession from him. And by nature they understand that they owe God the greatest reverence and worship because of his incomparable excellence and majesty, and all agree that the principal act of lalria, which is owed to God alone, is sacrifice. It follows, then, that they are obliged by the natural law to offer sacrifice, by which men show, more than by any other external act, that they are grateful and subject to God. And so there has never been a nation so barbarous as not to judge by a natural impulse that sacrifice is owed to the true God or to him whom they mistakenly thought is the true God.
The second proof of the first statement is what Saint Thomas says: At all times and among all nations there has always been some offering of sacrifices. And the reason for this is that natural reason tells man that he is subject to a higher being, on account of the defects which he perceives in himself, and in which he needs help and direction from someone above him, and whatever this superior being may be, it is known to all under the name of God, and consequently the offering of sacrifice is a matter of the natural law.
. . .On the basis of these principles one can arrive at what we taught previously: within the limits of the natural light of reason (in other words, at the point at which divine or human positive law ceases and, one may add, where grace and doctrine are lacking), men should sacrifice human victims to the true God or the reputed god, if the latter is taken for the true God. We draw this conclusion: Just as men naturally know that God exists and think that there is nothing better or greater than he, since whatever we own, are, or are capable of is given to us by his boundless goodness, we do not adequately repay him even if we offer him all that is ours, even our life.
The greatest way to worship God is to offer him sacrifice. This is the unique act by which we show him to whom we offer the sacrifice that we are subject to him and grateful to him. Furthermore, nature teaches that it is just to offer God, whose debtors we admit we are for so many reasons, those things that are precious and excellent because of the surpassing excellence of his majesty. But, according to human judgment and truth, nothing in nature is greater or more valuable than the life of man or man himself. Therefore nature itself dictates and teaches those who do not have faith, grace, or doctrine, who live within the limitations of the light of nature, that in spite of every contrary positive law, they ought to sacrifice human victims to the true God or to the false god who is thought to be true, so that by offering a supremely precious thing they might be more grateful for the many favors they have received. For the natural law teaches gratitude in such a way that we not only do good to our benefactor but also try to repay him in an abundant manner for the benefits we have received, giving due consideration to the benefits, the benefactor, and the motive for which he confers the benefits on us.
The kindness by which the Lord created us, endowed us with so many gifts, and enriched us with so many good things comes from his immense charity and boundless goodness and gives birth in us to innumerable good things, and even life itself, and finally, whatever we are. However, since we cannot give adequate thanks for so many favors, we are obliged to present what seems to us to be the greatest and most valuable good, that is human life, and especially when the offering is made for the welfare of the state. For the pagans thought that through sacrifices of this type they could divert evils from their state and gain good will and prosperity for their kingdoms. Therefore whoever sacrifices men to God can be drawn to this action by natural reason, especially if he lacks Christian faith and instruction….
Possibly the idea of human sacrifice spread from here through the whole world. Yet someone will loudly protest that this idea must not be admitted, since innocent persons are sacrificed against their will. But I shall answer this objection as I have previously: Every man, no matter how innocent he may be, owes God more than his life; and so, although these persons do not will it by an explicit act, yet they perform an act that is owed, since all men are obliged to give their blood and their life whenever God’s honor demands it. We Christians, like all those who knew God during the early centuries, are obliged by divine law to do this. Now apparently there was a case in which God’s honor was involved when those upon whom the lot fell were offered as sacrifice by reason of a law in force in some kingdom. Therefore, even if they were otherwise innocent, no harm was done to them, at least in the judgment of those who did not have grace and doctrine. And this is bolstered by the fact that, according to the Philosopher, any outstanding citizen is obliged to give his life for the welfare of the state (this welfare, according to the erroneous opinion of the pagans, was thought to consist of the worship of the gods). Those who do not have the faith, then, have probable error concerning human sacrifice.
. . . But if the need of the state demands that a man do or undergo all that he is capable of, that is, that he expose his life to the danger of death for the welfare of the state, undoubtedly the legislator, by his command, can lawfully obliged by the natural law to obey the mandate. This is proved from what was established just a short while ago concerning the whole and the part. For, since the citizen is a part of the whole state and his happiness or welfare depends on the welfare and good of the state, he is obliged to love the common welfare and good more than his private welfare, and therefore, in order to preserve that common welfare, he is obliged by the natural law to do and suffer all he can, even by sacrificing his life.
Since, then, the pagans believe that the universal good and welfare of the whole state consists in sacrifices and immolations, that is, human victims, as we have proved elsewhere from Augustine, Chrysostom, and Valerius, it is not surprising that, when afflicted by needs, they sacrifice what in the judgment of all is most precious and pleasing to God, that is, men. This is evident from the previously cited examples. This is evident also from what Titus Livy writes: “When their city was in very great danger, the Romans placated Mars by sacrificing a man and woman of Gaul and a Greek man and woman.” Moreover, on the supposition that the error of the pagans is probable, a legislator can and should bind some of the people by his command when there is a great need involving the whole state, so that a sacrifice should be offered by killing them. And they can be obliged to will this by an explicit act, as is clear from what has been concluded.
You see, then, dear reader, that there is some probable natural reason by which men can be led to sacrifice human beings to God and, as a result, that it is not easy to persuade the Indians, within a short period or by a few words, to refrain from their traditional practice of human sacrifice…
. . .All of the preceding conclusions seem to be established, and therefore it can be persuasively argued, from the fact that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice to him his only son Isaac, that it is not altogether detestable to sacrifice human beings to God. . . .
. . .Thus it is clear that it is not possible, quickly and in a few words, to make clear to unbelievers, especially ours, that sacrificing men to God is unnatural. On that account, we are left with the evident conclusion that knowledge that the natives sacrifice men to their gods, or even eat human flesh, is not a just cause for waging war on any kingdom. And again, this long-standing practice of theirs cannot be suddenly uprooted. And so these entirely guiltless Indians are not to be blamed because they do not come to their senses at the first words of a preacher of the gospel. For they do not understand the preacher. Nor are they bound to abandon at once their ancestral religion, for they do not understand that it is better to do so. Nor is human sacrifice—even of the innocent, when it is done for the welfare of the entire state—so contrary to natural reason that it must be immediately detested as contrary to the dictates of nature. For this error can owe its origin to a plausible proof developed by human reasoning.
The preceding arguments prove that those who willingly allow themselves to be sacrificed, and all the common people in general, and the ministers who sacrifice them to the gods by command of their rulers and priests labor under an excusable, invincible ignorance and that their error should be judged leniently, even if we were to suppose that there is some judge with authority to punish these sins. If they offend God by these sacrifices, he alone will punish this sin of human sacrifice. . . .
[#5] “The Significance of Human Sacrifice.” Bartolomé de Las Casas, In Defense of the Indians. The Defense of the Most Reverend Lord, Don Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, of the Order of Preachers, Late Bishop of Chiapa, Against the Persecutors and Slanderers of the Peoples of the New World Discovered Across the Seas. Chapter 37. Ed. and Trans. Stafford Poole. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974, pp. 239-243.