Why did we start venerating him anyway?

Most of the furious debate over the Columbus murals revolves around one question: “Was Columbus good or bad?” But to leave the discussion there neglects the question: “Why did we decide to celebrate Columbus in the first place?”

Why Columbus? The story here is rather simple. Italian immigrants to the United States, facing hostility because of their foreignness and their Catholicism, seized upon Columbus as a figure to which they could point to dispel the fears of other Americans. Columbus was an Italian and a Catholic like them who had made positive contributions to what would become the United States. Therefore, Columbus symbolized that Italian immigrants could be good and valuable citizens.  

The figure of Columbus meant that Italians were not swarthy spaghetti-slurping wops reeking of garlic and bent on anarchist violence: it also meant that they were not a fifth column seeking to undermine the republic and replace it with a papal tyranny on direct orders from Rome. Their Catholicism was no impediment to their Americanness.

The website of the Knights of Columbus is very explicit about this motivation: “As a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith, the organization’s members took as their patron Christopher Columbus.” Columbus is not just an Italian hero or an American hero, but a model for what Italian immigrants could be in the United States: valuable members of society whose Catholicism posed no threat.

While this seems reasonable at first glance, it is strange upon further inspection. Columbus is their patron, but Columbus is not canonized, and not even his most ardent defenders suggest that he should be raised to the dignity of the altars. Having a patron unable to intercede for you before the throne of God seems rather counterproductive, but something about Columbus made the Knights think it would be a good idea.

To select as a patron an American hero and not a canonized saint is to needlessly forsake one of the Church’s greatest treasures to make a rather unpersuasive political point. And this choice by the founders of the Knights is an example that indicates what all the veneration of Columbus meant—a desire to compromise, to sand off the rough edges of Catholicism, to make the true faith and its outward symbols palatable to a hostile America.

This attitude has remained in the Church in the United States for far longer than the initial push to glorify Columbus in the late 1800s. Its effects, while present everywhere, are most clearly seen in the political sphere. During the 1928 presidential campaign, Al Smith, the first serious Catholic candidate for that office, wrote an open letter attempting to assuage the fears of Protestants and convince them that his Catholicism was no threat. In it, he says that not only had there never been a conflict between the oaths he had sworn to defend and maintain the Constitution and his Catholicism, “no such conflict could exist.”

Al Smith might have thought that he was speaking the truth: he also says in that letter that “the law of the land is built upon the Commandments of God.” But, in light of any number of Supreme Court decisions—that is, decisions by the people whose interpretation of the Constitution matters—it seems ridiculous to assert that there could never be a conflict between the Constitution as it is actually interpreted and Catholicism, let alone that the laws of the United States are built upon the commandments of God.

The best-known example of this tendency is John F. Kennedy, who said prior to his election that “I believe in an America…where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act,” and that he would make decisions “in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.” He here attempts to divide Kennedy the Catholic from Kennedy the politician, which Gaudium et spes says “deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age…let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other.” In contrast, Kennedy thought his religion is something he can pick up when he wants it and discard when he doesn’t—as if the Catholic Church were just another one of his mistresses.

Kennedy’s ideas would come to completion in a 1984 speech by Mario Cuomo, who said that “the values derived from religious belief will not—and should not—be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus.” He used this principle to defend not acting on any religious beliefs that would prove to be politically inconvenient. What this principle means in practice, among other things, is that Andrew Cuomo can light up the World Trade Center in pink to celebrate a loosening of restrictions on abortion in New York that will lead to the murder of even more American children while laughing at the weak and ineffectual protests of Cardinal Dolan.

This fruit comes from the same tree as the veneration of Columbus: the fruit of indifference to the Church, her leaders, her teaching, and her treasures in the pursuit of being more acceptable to the average American. There was never a real reason to venerate Columbus anyway. If we want a Catholic hero who brought the faith to the Americas, we should consider St. Isaac Jogues—here I select one dear to my own heart, although there are many worthy others. A Jesuit priest who was one of the first Catholics to minister to the native people in what was then New France, he endured a year of brutal torture in captivity before being freed and returning to Europe. He then chose to head back to North America to minister despite, among other things, having lost one of his thumbs. Soon after he began his work again, he became a martyr. This is a true Catholic hero—one who helped bring the Faith to this continent, paid for it with his blood, and now intercedes for us before the throne of God.

Steve Larkin is a sophomore from Maine majoring in mathematics and classics. The only things he loves more than scratching out his opinion are St. Isaac Jogues and the rest of the Jesuits who died as martyrs evangelizing the North American continent. Steve can be contacted at slarkin@nd.edu.