The year 2020 has been a bad one for statues. We witnessed the tearing down of many in the South, originally hoisted in honor of former Confederate Army generals, and I was pretty okay with their removal.
But rage and darkness do not generally engender wisdom, and as protests became more violent, the toppling of statues became more indiscriminate. Protesters targeted statues of people such as Frederick Douglass and General Ulysses Grant, neither of whom are remembered for being friends of the Confederacy.
And here’s how we get to Christopher Columbus. One thing I miss about not living in East Coast metro areas (Boston, New York, Baltimore, even Washington D.C.) was how Columbus Day was an actual holiday, and in both Catholic and public schools, students learned about this man who is credited with discovering the New World for Spain.
These days, Christopher Columbus is in dire need of a public relations makeover. Several statues of Columbus fell, and city councils struggle with demands for more removals — think about poor Columbus, Ohio! After a statue of Columbus fell in Milwaukee, a video circulated of people — mostly young white women — taking turns stomping on it. This was presumably because they regarded Columbus as the source of the cruelty and killing of native peoples and subsequent slavery and racism in the Americas.
Such is the burden that Robert Royal starts under in “Columbus and the Crisis of the West.” Dr. Royal, founder and President of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing (www.thecatholicthing.org), has created a thorough and reasoned study of this misunderstood Venetian-turned-Spaniard explorer.
Royal rescues Columbus from either extreme in his assessment — the book is no hagiography of the past which airbrushes out the clearly visible failures of the man, but no ideological distortion of Columbus driven by an agenda of resentment, either. Royal reminds us that Columbus actually brought hope to communities ravaged by ritual human sacrifice and cruelties untouched by mercy. Archbishop Emeritus Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, himself a man of Native American descent, had this assessment of “Columbus and the Crisis of the West”:
“In a time marked by tearing down the good in Western civilization rather that building it up, Royal neither diminishes nor excuses the sins of the past; but he also catalogs the extraordinary moral and material achievements passed down to our common heritage by the generations that preceded us.”
Royal courageously cuts through the fashionable pieties of our time by boldly refuting the past popular indictments of Columbus and early America (as a university professor, I would probably be fired for just carrying this book on campus). Royal is a serious classical scholar, well suited to jousting effectively with revisionist historians who are leveraging the Native American conquest in an effort to defile, dishonor, and ultimately upend Western Civilization.
I did not have much information about Columbus’ Catholic faith, but Royal’s book was helpful in filling out those gaps. Royal is both accurate and measured in relating the New World that Columbus came to, observing that “it disturbs some people to learn that slavery, genocide, imperialism, and even ritual human sacrifice and cannibalism were present in the Americas long before any European or other outsider ever set foot there. But they were.” (p. 8)
He presents a mariner, admiral, explorer, terrible administrator who chose friends poorly — a full portrait of this man whom we still have reason to admire. Robert Royal also has some suggestions for the rage that is gripping those who are not thoughtful about their destruction of statues, observing “the pulling down of statues, as a form of symbolic murder, is congruent with the silencing of dissenting opinion, so prevalent a feature of campus life today. In history, it is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective.”
In this insightful, accurate, and well-written book, Robert Royal reminds us that “no one is without sin” (Romans 3:23) and that those who expect moral perfection of others can expect no mercy for themselves, either from their posterity or from the rebukes of their own inflamed consciences. Christopher Columbus was, as any historical figure, a mix of great triumphs and severe mistakes, but how we are treating his legacy in the West is a portent of a serious deficiency in our educational assessment of our continent’s European discoverers.
The second book selection for October is “Wandering and Welcome: Meditations for Finding Peace” (Franciscan Media) by Joseph Grant. This book was a welcome pause from my normal routine of scripture commentary, academic work, and jousting with the culture. Times are difficult; we have all lost loved ones (for me, my wife’s father, who lived for 12 years with us, and an aunt in a nursing home in New York City). Joseph Grant’s meditative delivery wraps his reader in hope, tenderness, and gratitude.
“Wandering and Welcome” is a beacon of poetic kindness rooted in honesty, scripture, and truth. His observations and openness reflect an immense gift of prayer and poetry, as if finding an oasis in a parched land. I drank it up in one sitting, and my heart was greatly encouraged — all I can say.
Imagine a book on finding (or reclaiming) inner peace that was written before the pandemic. Joseph Grant (himself a Catholic retreat master and missionary to inner-city Louisville, Kentucky) writes in a free-form prose that is structured like poetry, much like the original Comedia Divina by Dante. His concept of “retreat” does not entail “getting away from it all” but rather “leaning into it all.”
Insightful without becoming maudlin, honest without sentimentality, Grant shares his goal in the introduction: “Amid the tumult of these frenzied times, contemplative living does not propose an escape from our very real, practical, and sometimes intractable problems. On the contrary, it suggests a way of being still, while still being in the storms that rage all around and within us. Seasoned by tears of joy and lament, prayer-centered presence invites us to welcome the whole world by drawing it into our heart-center. Here theology mixes with theater and prophetic action with poetry, as walls come tumbling down, making way for wonder, woe, and well-being.”
If the tumult and uncertainty (not to mention grief and fear) find you struggling amid the storms of life, “Wandering and Welcome” is a peaceful port in the storms of life well worth the read.
(For comments, reactions or to suggest a book or resource that might be helpful for Catholics, contact Deacon Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org)