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“Columbus Is Ours”

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.

Detail from "Columbus and His Son at La Rábida" (1838) by Eugène Delacroix [WikiArt.org]

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.


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About Jerry Salyer 32 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor living in Franklin County, Kentucky.

6 Comments

  1. Apocalypto was a wonderful movie. I wish more of Amerindian descent appreciated the positives of colonialism, rather than lingering solely on the negatives. There’s a quote in “History of the Peloponnesian War” where, as I recall, an Athenian (defending Athens) argues the weak should be grateful when the strong show them mercy. In other words, colonialism could have been far worse, Amerindians were at times horrible to one another as well, and Amerindians would have acted similarly to Europe if given the power.

    In a sense, what I protest is making an enemy of the good due to an unrealistic expectation of the perfect. Much good resulted from colonialism in the Americas, when judging by the standards of fallen humans.

    Today we’re encouraged to condemn colonialism, focusing only on the negative, because the dominant powers want to destroy Western Civ, and indeed all traditions, to make way for a global order that lacks community.

  2. Thank you for publishing an article on Christopher Columbus for Columbus Day. I was glad to see another article written in First Things. It is good that we memorialize the faults, failures, and strengths of Columbus each year as a reminder of accurate and honest history much needed in our human society.

  3. “While I was in the boat, I captured a very beautiful woman, whom the Lord Admiral [Columbus] gave to me. When I had taken her to my cabin she was naked — as was their custom. I was filled with a desire to take my pleasure with her and attempted to satisfy my desire. She was unwilling, and so treated me with her nails that I wished I had never begun. I then took a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible screams that you would not have believed your ears. Eventually we came to such terms, I assure you, that you would have thought she had been brought up in a school for whores.”

    – Michele de Cuneo, one of Columbus’s men

    It’s funny that Columbus’s abuses of power are described in this article as “weaknesses.” Downright Orwellian, really. Try replacing “Columbus” with “Maciel” or “McCarrick” and see how this article reads. “He has his weaknesses, but he wrote a lot about helping the Church!”

    • Meredith, as a fellow woman I want to comment. The passage you gave is sickening to even read, never the less imagine. But I have sat here praying, and realizing the situation must of been horrible for the woman yet also confusing for the men. I was struck by the word “whore”. In the society of Spain, woman did not walk around naked, In fact they were quite clothed. It would be excessive clothing compared to today’s standards where woman now walk around in see though and tight clothing, no more than tights and tank tops. Even the whores at Columbus’s time would not of considered such a state of undress in public. There were also only 2 types of women in his day, those that had sex, and those that did not. This woman who entered Michele’s cabin, had no idea what signal she was giving to this man who came from a completely different culture. It was clearly confusing to them both. He was turned on after being without sex for many months, clearly expecting sex, and she was used to being allowed to give consent. His reaction was completely wrong, and abusive no doubt. But trying to understand both their cultures it shows the result, which is evil. It is unfortunate she was even on the boat at all without a chaperone, or even agreed to be alone with him. Michele clearly had no self control. This same reaction comes from some men from the middle east, that consider western women whores due to dress and other culture and religious differences. Again does not make it right, but helps us to understand. I have no idea whether Columbus was forcing this woman or not. I just know I wish we would go back to days when woman did not feel so pressured by society to have to give in to sexual activities like many young women feel today. Many young woman’s 1st sexual experiences rarely turn out how they wish today. And many young man take advantage of the pressure they can put on young girls. In this time of so called liberation, the female sex further into making themselves objects. Many of the Popes were certainly right in speaking out.

  4. Interesting that history is often looked upon as a morality play. Of course we can judge actions in the past by our standards but we can also separate the outright immoral from the mudane or even the heroic. Largely, Columbus did what his mission called for; explore. Everything that came after was on those who did whatever they were responsible for.

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