Friday, October 06, 2023

Catholics and Columbus Day

Columbus Taking Possession of the New Country, 1893, by L. Prang & Co. 

Columbus Day is not, nor should it be, on any liturgical calendar, but it is of interest to American Catholics because of their role in creating it. In the 1900s, the Knights of Columbus lobbied state legislatures throughout the country to make the anniversary of America’s discovery a holiday; not only did most states acquiesce, but the federal government eventually did as well, first as a national holiday in 1937 and then as a legal holiday (on which banks close) in 1971. Although they were instituted as a fraternal benefits organization, the Knights of Columbus were also keen to dispel anti-Catholic prejudice in the United States. One way to meet this goal was to emphasize America’s debt to Catholic figures, starting with its papist discoverer. Not coincidentally, this fraternity founded by an Irish priest was named not after St. Patrick but after the daring Italian who reached the shores of our hemisphere on a Spanish ship.

Dispelling Myths
The Knights’ strategy of claiming Columbus as a most Catholic of heroes was also a well-aimed counterattack. American historians had tried mightily to turn the famous seafarer into an Enlightenment figure, a secular saint championing scientific progress in the face of a superstitious Church still clinging to outdated ideas of a “flat earth.” As it turns out, Columbus had nothing to do with the flat-earth debate; the story was invented out of whole cloth by Washington Irving in 1828, and later used as anti-Catholic propaganda to “prove” that that clerical religion was inherently hostile to rational inquiry. Queen Isabella’s geographical advisers knew the globe was round; they rejected Columbus’ proposal because they had a much more accurate grasp of its massive circumference, rightly concluding that his plan to reach China via a western route in a matter of weeks was unsound.
Given the prevalence of the anti-Catholic flat-earth myth, it is not surprising that Pope Leo XIII celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ maiden voyage with these stirring (and perhaps overly generous) remarks:
But there is, besides, another reason, a unique one, why We consider that this immortal achievement should be recalled by Us with memorial words. For Columbus is ours; since if a little consideration be given to the particular reason of his design in exploring the mare tenebrosum... it is indubitable that the Catholic faith was [his] strongest motive… so that for this reason also the whole human race owes not a little to the Church.
Take that, Know Nothings! I recommend reading Leo’s encyclical on the topic in its entirety, for it not only understands Columbus’ accomplishments (and his flaws), but it also bespeaks an older, more sensitive appreciation of those who seek greatness even when they fall short of goodness.
Pope Leo XIII
Pall Over the Holiday
Ironically, after winning the battle for Columbus Day, many Catholics today would prefer not to be associated with either the man or his holiday. While most Latin American countries commemorate the date of Columbus’ discovery as the Día de la Raza (the Day of the Race, that is, the day the races met), Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela observes Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance). Similarly, Ward Churchill, the Colorado professor who made headlines for calling the victims of September 11 “little Eichmanns,” has led the American Indian Movement’s protests against the Columbus Day parade in Denver. In the United States, several locales celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, either as a replacement or a complement of Columbus Day.
What Chavez and Churchill are alluding to are the bleak events that followed Columbus’ discovery. Despite the friendliness of the natives, Columbus’ men initiated hostilities with them that culminated in a massacre, while Columbus himself enslaved a thousand Indians and instituted the repartimiento system that led to the serfdom of countless others for years to come. Combined with a wave of unintentionally imported diseases the local immune system had never encountered before, such treatment quickly decimated the Native American population.
Assessing Columbus
What, then, should we make of Columbus in light of his spotty record? I suggest five things.
First, it is clear that Columbus was not a good administrator on land, and his incompetence led to cruelty. In fairness, however, before his undisciplined men destroyed relations with the native Taino or Arawaks, his goal was to protect them from the cannibalistic Caribs (one of the most savage peoples in the Americas) who were fast advancing. Indeed, the Caribs remind us that the first step in assessing the Columban legacy is overcoming any assumption that either side in the conflict has a monopoly on evil.
Second, it is important to remember that many of Columbus’ contemporaries also deplored his deeds. Queen Isabel certainly did, which is why Columbus’ third return to Spain was in chains, and Spanish law, thanks in large part to the Church’s teaching about the full humanity of Native Americans, consistently condemned the actions of rapacious colonists. This is significant, for no other civilization has shown such a capacity for healthy self-criticism as the Christian. Indeed, the shrill condemnations of a Chavez or a Churchill are possible only because of the tradition of public self-examination first developed in Catholic societies.
Third, despite tragic costs, the benefits of European contact with the New World did far more good than harm. This is particularly true in the realm of evangelization. Columbus’ genuine zeal to convert all peoples to Christianity should be commended rather than condemned. To depict all New World conversions as forced and foreign is, ironically, to patronize people of color, who were and are every bit as capable of seeing the beauty, truth, and goodness of the Gospel as their unwashed invaders.
Fourth, despite his flaws Columbus was a devout Catholic who, as Pope Leo XIII noted, was motivated by his faith. His favorite prayer was “Jesus cum Maria sit nobis in via – may Jesus, along with Mary, be with us on the way.” A Third Order Franciscan, Columbus chose to depart into the unknown the morning after August 2, the feast of Our Lady of the Angels of the Portiuncula, so that his men could celebrate this Franciscan Marian feast with their families; he even made sure that they received confession and Holy Communion in order to obtain the plenary indulgence available that day. Columbus’ prayers were apparently answered: his tiny fleet reached land on October 12, the day after the Feast of the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Christopher Columbus about to embark on his ship, August 1492
Finally, Columbus Day praises not Columbus’ exploitations on land but his exploits on sea. We know that a single-minded man convinced the monarchs of Spain to fund an extremely hazardous journey with little likelihood of return, and that he pulled it off, not once but four times. We know that he was exceptionally courageous and resourceful, and we know that he was an outstanding seaman. There is nothing wrong with raising a glass to genuine courage and persistence, as long as one does not go on to use these to excuse other crimes and misdemeanors. I wonder if much of the animus against Columbus today really springs from a contemporary disdain for honor that would like to purge manhood of its chivalry and daring. As the historian Warren Carroll notes, “It is right to criticize the failings [of heroes], but wrong to deny their greatness and the inspiration they can give.”
And if there is any note of sorrow or regret to be struck on this otherwise celebratory occasion, it should not be for the exceptional evil of the white man or the Catholic faith, but for the universal darkness in man’s heart so aptly explained by the doctrine of original sin. Yet, thanks be to God, this spiritual blight is never allowed to dwarf the triumph of the Cross, which providentially uses both vessels of honor and dishonor to meet its goals.
What to Do
How should one celebrate Columbus Day? In 1892, Pope Leo decreed that the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ discovery should be marked with a Solemn High Mass of the Most Holy Trinity either on October 12 or on the following Sunday. (This was mandatory for Spain, Italy, and the two Americas, and recommended for the rest of the world, since “it is fitting that an event from which all have derived benefit should be piously and gratefully commemorated by all”). Certainly Mass would be a good idea today as well, along with a fervent prayer for the spiritual future of both the Old and New Worlds.
As for food, one could turn to any of the nationalities involved: American, Italian, Spanish, or Caribbean. And for the little ones, miniatures Niñas, Santa Marias, and Pintas can be made out of walnut-shell hulls, toothpick masts, and paper sails and used to adorn a cake or have a race in the bathtub.
Most of this essay appeared in “The Controversial Holidays of October,” The Latin Mass magazine 18:3 (Summer 2009), pp. 36-39. Many thanks to its editors for allowing its inclusion here.

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