Beneath the surface of several Catholic holidays in October are truths and memories that bring a maelstrom of protest from the modern world … so, let’s celebrate them!
Columbus Day, although a secular holiday, merits our attention for several reasons. First, the holiday owes its existence to the efforts of U.S. Catholic citizens, particularly the Knights of Columbus. Though the Knights were instituted as a fraternal benefits organization, they were very keen to dispel anti-Catholic prejudice in the U.S. and one way to meet this goal was to emphasize America’s debt to Catholic figures, starting with its papist discoverer.
Pope Leo XIII celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ maiden voyage with these stirring remarks:
“… But there is, besides, another reason, a unique one, why we consider that this immortal achieve-ment 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”.
Ironically, after winning the battle for Columbus Day, many Catholics today would prefer not to be associated with either the man or his holiday (most Latin American countries commemorate the date of Columbus’ discovery as the ‘Dia de la Raza’ – the day of the Race, that is, the day the races met) with a clear allusion to the bleak events that followed Columbus’ discovery.
What then should we make of Columbus in light of his spotty record? 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 des-troyed 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 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 Catholic.
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 favourite prayer was Jesus cum Maria sit nobis in via (May Jesus, along with Mary, be with us on the way) and he always made sure his men received confession and Holy Communion.
Finally, Columbus Day praises not Columbus’ exploitations on land but his exploits on sea. 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 honour 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 honour and dishonour to meet its goals.
I would like to wish you all a serene and enjoyable Columbus Day tomorrow.