In Quarto Abeunte Saeculo, Pope Leo XIII shows us why the voyage of Christopher Columbus stands in a class by itself. There is simply no way of comparing the Genoan’s landfall in the Americas with any other feat of discovery – the 1969 lunar landing, say. Capable and courageous as astronauts may be, and impressive a feat as it is to send a man to the Moon and return him safely to the Earth, it must be conceded that the Apollo program was the bureaucratically-directed and carefully managed exploration of an airless and lifeless desert. By contrast, Columbus’s very personal quest led to a multitude of tribes and peoples being brought into the Christian fold.
As the pope observes, one of the central objectives of Columbus’s expedition was to “open a way for the Gospel over new lands and seas,” to “extend the Christian name.” And so, concludes the pontiff,
Columbus is ours; since if a little consideration be given to the particular reason of his design in exploring the mare tenebrosum, and also the manner in which he endeavored to execute the design, it is indubitable that the Catholic faith was the strongest motive for the inception and prosecution of the design; so that for this reason also the whole human race owes not a little to the Church.
This is no wishful thinking on Leo XIII’s part. While Columbus was surely a man of burning ambition and what might be politely described as robust self-esteem, there is also little question that he was fervently committed to extending the boundaries of Christendom. In seeking the Indies he hoped to make his fortune, to be sure, but he just as surely hoped to go down in history as the trailblazer who had brought the light of Christ to an enormous pagan multitude.
As Columbus himself later reminisced in a note to Ferdinand and Isabella,
Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians and Princes who love the holy Christian faith, and the propagation of it, and who are enemies to the sect of Mahoma and to all idolatories and heresies, resolved to send me, Cristobal Colon, to the said parts of India to see the said princes, and the cities and lands, and their disposition, with a view that they might be converted to our holy faith […]
And lest the reader mistake the preceding missionary sentiments for mere persiflage or a passing whim, let it be noted that toward the end of his life Columbus dreamed of organizing an expedition for the liberation of Jerusalem.
This is not to canonize Columbus, a man whose weaknesses stood out all the more due to his unique strengths. It is, rather, to call attention to one of the subtler points of Leo XIII’s encyclical. “It is true,” says the pope, that the Church
reserves her special and greatest honours for virtues that most signally proclaim a high morality, for these are directly associated with the salvation of souls; but she does not, therefore, despise or lightly estimate virtues of other kinds. On the contrary, she has ever highly favoured and held in honour those who have deserved well of men in civil society, and have thus attained a lasting name among posterity. For God, indeed, is especially wonderful in his Saints – mirabilis in Sanctis suis – but the impress of His Divine virtue also appears in those who shine with excellent power of mind and spirit, since high intellect and greatness of spirit can be the property of men only through their parent and creator, God.
So while the martyr and the saint do and should take precedence, there is also room in the Catholic imagination for the hero, imperfect though he usually is. While they are not in themselves the very highest attributes of man, there is nonetheless much to be said for daring, resourcefulness, and vision. For that matter, even if Columbus did not always epitomize immaculate charity in this world, we could all surely learn something from his extraordinary example of hope and faith.