We saw in a
recent post
how the Scholastic theologian Bartolomé de Las Casas vigorously
defended the rights and dignity of the American Indians against the cruelty of Spanish
conquistadors.  Las Casas in no way minimized
the extent of this cruelty.  On the
contrary, he is commonly accused of exaggeration and overzealousness.  So what did Las Casas think of Columbus?  Did he condemn him as an initiator of oppression?

Quite the
opposite.  As Anthony Pagden tells us in
his introduction to Las Casas’s
Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies

Las Casas’s understanding of the
historical and eschatological significance of the discovery and conquest of
America contrasted an early vision of peaceful
settlement with the
rapacious horrors of the conquests which followed.  Columbus, whose diary he preserved and
edited, had, in Las Casas’s view, been chosen by God for his learning and
virtue to bring the Gospel to the New World.
It was for this, he wrote, ‘that he
was called Christopher, that is to say
Christum ferens, which
means carrier or bearer of Christ’
.  It was the Spanish settlers… who had
transformed a trading and evangelizing mission… into genocidal colonization
(p. xv)

Like Las
Casas, some
contemporary historians
have rejected any suggestion that the attitudes and
actions of later settlers can justly be attributed to Columbus himself.  He does not fit the caricature painted by the
mobs of ignorant bigots pulling down his statues.

On the
four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage, Pope Leo XIII wrote:

For [Columbus’s] exploit is in itself
the highest and grandest which any age has ever seen accomplished by man; and
he who achieved it, for the greatness of his mind and heart, can be compared to
but few in the history of humanity.  By
his toil another world emerged from the unsearched bosom of the ocean: …
greatest of all, by the acquisition of those blessings of which Jesus Christ is
the author, they have been recalled from destruction to eternal life…

We consider that this immortal
achievement should be recalled by Us with memorial words.  For Columbus is ours… 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…

We say not that he was unmoved by
perfectly honourable aspirations after knowledge, and deserving well of human
society; nor did he despise glory, which is a most engrossing ideal to great
souls; nor did he altogether scorn a hope of advantages to himself; but to him
far before all these human considerations was the consideration of his ancient
faith… This view and aim is known to have possessed his mind above all; namely,
to open a way for the Gospel over new lands and seas…

It is fitting that we should confess
and celebrate in an especial manner the will and designs of the Eternal Wisdom,
under whose guidance the discoverer of the New World placed himself with a devotion
so touching.

In order, therefore, that the
commemoration of Columbus may be worthily observed, religion must give her
assistance to the secular ceremonies. 
And as at the time of the first news of the discovery public thanksgiving
was offered by the command of the Sovereign Pontiff to Almighty God, so now we
have resolved to act in like manner in celebrating the anniversary of this
auspicious event
.  (Leo XIII, Quarto
Abeunte Saeculo
1-3, 7-8)

On the
five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage, Pope St. John Paul II expressed
similar sentiments:

On October 12, exactly five centuries ago,
Admiral Christopher Columbus, with his three ships, arrived in these lands and
planted the cross of Christ,” John Paul said. 
“That is the beginning of the sowing of the precious seed of faith.  And how can we not give thanks for that?  [The Europeans] announced the love of God our
savior to people whose sacrifices to their gods included human sacrifice

 The Roman Catholic Church was at the
forefront of efforts to curb the abuses that followed, he said
. (“Pope
Lauds Church’s 1492 Role,”
The Washington
, October 13, 1992)

Notice what
the views of Las Casas, Leo XIII, and John Paul II have in common – the conviction
that the Catholic faith is true.  And if it is true, then the benefits of
Columbus’s bringing of Christianity to the New World outweigh everything else,
for they concern the eternal salvation of
.  Left-wingers are often
willing to overlook the racism of thinkers like Margaret
and Karl Marx,
because they believe that the ideas they are best known for are good and important.  In fact those ideas are vile, but it is
certainly reasonable to insist that a person ought to be evaluated in terms of
his whole life and thought, and not
merely his worst aspects.  How much more
so in the case of Columbus, a sincere Catholic who, though not a perfect man,
was not personally guilty of the wrongs falsely attributed to him? 

But one need
not believe in the salvation of souls in order to see the point.  For the irony is that it is in the name of
values that
the liberal, secular West inherited from Christianity
that Columbus’s
critics condemn him – values the critics wouldn’t have in the first place were
it not for the Christianization of the Americas that Columbus initiated.  If they were to undo what Columbus did, they
would undo themselves.

Addendum: Since it’s a holiday, some celebratory music might be appropriate.  So give a listen to the old swing tune “Christopher Columbus,” whether the classic Fletcher Henderson version, the Duke Ellington remake, or Dinah Washington’s vocals.

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