The 19th Century Movement to Canonize Columbus

Today, Christopher Columbus is calumniated as a harbinger of disease, death, and enslavement of indigenous peoples. In the riots of 2020, his statues were pulled down across the nation amidst increasing calls to “cancel” the federal holiday in his honor. Meanwhile, a petition circulated around Columbus, Ohio to rename the city “Flavortown” in honor of local celebrity chef Guy Fieri.

Given the current zeitgeist of hostility towards the great Admiral, you might be surprised to learn that Christopher Columbus was once proposed for canonization. The story goes back to the golden age of Italian immigration, between 1875 and 1914. Columbus was a powerful symbol of Italian-American identity, venerated as a Catholic Italian immigrant hero. It was during this era, in 1882, that Connecticut priest Fr. Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus to attend to the temporal needs of Catholic immigrants, many of them Italian.

In 1879, French historian Count Roselly de Lorgues published an exhaustive biography of Columbus that refuted various calumnies against his character, highlighting the evangelical motives of Columbus’s voyages. Lorgues’s book was instrumental in proposing Columbus as a role model of supernatural virtue. Drawing on primary sources, Lorgues’s work emphasized the personal virtue of Columbus as exercised in the various trials he underwent over the course of his life.

Recognition of Columbus’s personal virtue was not confined to Catholics. American Protestant historian William Prescott also spoke glowingly of Columbus’s personal virtues:

Whatever were the defects of his mental constitution, the finger of the historian will find it difficult to point to a single blemish in his moral character. His correspondence breathes the sentiment of devoted loyalty to his sovereigns. His conduct habitually displayed the utmost solicitude for the interests of his followers…His dealings were regulated by the nicest principles of honour and justice. His last communication to the sovereigns from the Indies remonstrates against the use of violent measures in order to extract gold from the natives as a thing equally scandalous and impolitic…

[His exploration], the grand object to which he dedicated himself, seemed to expand his whole soul and raised it above the petty shifts and artifices by which great ends are sometimes sought to be compassed. There are some men in whom rare virtues have been closely allied, if not to positive vice, to degrading weakness. Columbus’s character presented no such humiliating incongruity. Whether we contemplate it in its public or private relations, in all its features it wears the same noble aspect. It was in perfect harmony with the grandeur of his plans and their results, more stupendous than those which heaven has permitted any other mortal to achieve.[1]

Nineteenth century Catholics tended to view Columbus’s discovery as the work of God, and the Admiral’s life as guided by divine providence. His personal virtue was evident in the tale of his life. The patience Columbus exercised despite considerable trials, the forgiveness and generosity he extended to his enemies who were utterly unworthy of it, and the charity he demonstrated in the face of royal ingratitude are so astonishing as to be heroic. When we stop viewing Columbus as a representative of various -isms and start considering him as an individual, it is not difficult to appreciate the man’s strong character.

His personal virtues being clearly established and manifested to an exceptional degree, many Catholics began calling for Columbus’s beatification. Cardinal Donnet, the Archbishop of Bordeaux, wrote a letter to Pope Pius IX in 1876 speaking of general support amongst the episcopate for raising Columbus to the altars. Particularly noteworthy are Donnet’s comments that many bishops had signed a petition to open the cause of Columbus and would have presented it at the First Vatican Council had they not been prevented by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War:

…moved by these revelations of history, which invest the celebrated navigator with a supernatural splendour. The facts and documents on which the impartial historian has based his account are so numerous and so conclusive that they have carried conviction to the mind even of writers separated indeed from Catholic unity, but guided by the love of truth alone. This conviction, Holy Father, has become in a short time so strong, that a large number of the Fathers of the Vatican Council have voluntarily affixed their signatures to the petition for the introduction of the cause. The solemn expression of their desires would have been presented to the Council itself had not the grave events which have agitated Europe supervened to cause the suspension of the labours of that august assembly.[2]    

The Sacred Congregation of Rites made a thorough inquiry into the merits of Columbus’s cause. The year after the letter of Donnet, the Congregation issued a judgment against proceeding with the cause. The intelligentsia of the United States applauded the decision, as raising Columbus to the altars would complicate his status as a hero of rugged Protestant individualism. Columbus could be a Catholic saint, or a hero of America’s civic religion, but he could not be both. An article from the Sacramento Daily Union exemplified this attitude:

A dispatch [from Rome] states that “the Sacred Congregation of the Vatican has pronounced against the canonization of Columbus.” This is perhaps somewhat hard upon Columbus, but really we find it much easier to perceive why he should not be canonized than why he should be. It is even openly questioned, in these days of doubting, whether he is entitled to whatever credit may be due the man who “discovered” a country which had been settled for ages by highly civilized races; and if he did not discover America it would be hard to make out a claim for him. But at the best there seems no traceable connection between Columbus and Canonization, unless we are to accept as such the fact that they both begin with the same letter. We have no doubt that Columbus himself would have modestly declined any such posthumous honors, for he was not a saint, and he did not pretend to be one. We could understand the proposition better if he had been suggested for canonization in the scheme of August Comte’s Religion of Humanity, but with regard to Catholicism the case is different. It would have been awkward, too, to have had to call him Saint Christopher, because there is already a Saint Christopher, and supplications to either of them would have been in danger of going to the wrong address, and all sorts of confusion would have resulted. On the whole it is better as it is..[3]

In 1892, the quadricentennial of Columbus’s first voyage, American Catholics reopened the matter by petitioning Rome for canonization. That same year Pope Leo XIII issued the famous encyclical on the great navigator entitled Quarto Abeunte saeculo in commemoration of the anniversary. Therein Pope Leo called Columbus’s exploits “the highest and grandest which any age has ever seen accomplished by man.” [4] The pope also emphasized the fundamentally religious nature of Columbus’s voyages: “Since [Columbus’s] Catholic faith was the strongest motive for the inception and prosecution of the design, the whole human race owes not a little to the Church.” [5] The pope was not interested in reversing the 1877 decision of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, but he did offer some consolation in a special decree authorizing the clergy of Italy, Spain, and the American continents to celebrate a solemn Mass on October 12th of that year in commemoration of Columbus’s landing.

While historians continue to debate the long-term consequences of European colonization of the Americas, Catholics can and should honor the man whose voyages represented “the highest and grandest which any age ever seen accomplished by man,” to quote Pope Leo.

You can find this discussion and much more about the great Columbus in a fantastic book I was privileged to edit, Christopher Columbus by John O’Kane Murray, first in his series The Lives of Catholic Heroes and Heroines of America.

[1] William H. Prescott, The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic (Cambridge, U.K.: Folsom, Wells, and Thurston, 1838) III: 245

[2] Letter of Cardinal Ferdinand-François-​Auguste Donnet to Pope Pius IX, published in The Tablet, August 19th, 1876.

[3] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 3, Number 188, 4 October 1877 

[4] Pope Leo XIII, Quarto Abeunte saeculo, 1

[5] Ibid., 2

Image: The Departure of Columbus from Palos, Spain, in 1492 by Emanuel Leutze (public domain)

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Phillip Campbell is a history teacher for Homeschool Connections and the author of many books on Catholic history, most notably the Story of Civilization series from TAN Books. You can learn more about his books and classes on his website, Phillip resides in southern Michigan.

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