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The Popes and the Catholic Discovery of America

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Talk 5

This must be the strangest title for a lecture, "The Popes and the Catholic Discovery of America." What makes it strange is that for many people, the last terms they would associate are "Popes" and "America." Not only that, but the last ideas they even want to conceive is the "papacy" having anything to do with "independent" nations like the United States of America.

Yet the facts of history show that the Bishops of Rome had far more to do with the New World discovered by Columbus than most people realize.

My plan is to address myself to a series of topics, all bearing on the subject of "The Pope's and the Catholic Discovery of America."

  • Centuries of Spanish loyalty to the Pope in preparation for Columbus

  • Catholic evangelization of the New World with massive defection from the papacy in the Old World

  • Pontifical America, or papal direction and legislation for America in the sixteenth century

Papal Loyalty in Pre-Columbian Spain

There is more than academic value in at least briefly reviewing Spanish fidelity to the Bishop of Rome before Columbus left Spain to discover the Indies.

Why is this important? It is important because it helps to explain why, of all countries, Spain should have been the one to send Columbus to find the Indies.

All the evidence available indicates that what we have come to call the Western Hemisphere had been known to Europeans and Orientals long before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic in 1492. It must have been known. Why? Because the natives of North and South America were themselves immigrants from the Far and Near East.

Yet, in the mysterious designs of Providence it was not until the end of the fifteenth century that the so-called New World was "discovered." Equally mysterious is that it should have been Spain to make the discovery. Why Spain?

Many historical or sociological reasons could be given. But they pale into insignificance when compared with one profound theological reason: Spain, at the close of the fifteenth century, was the most "papist" country in the world. Her political rulers were dedicated to the Bishop of Rome. With all their human failings, they recognized the authority of the Pope even in matters that today would seem to be outside of papal jurisdiction.

It is not enough to say that this belonged to the Spanish temperament. Nor is it sufficient to say that seven-plus countries of resisting Moslem oppression had made the Spaniards psychologically conditioned to pontifical loyalty.

No doubt the Spaniards were supported in their conflict with the Moors by the strong encouragement of the Popes. But this encouragement would have been meaningless unless the Spaniards deeply believed in the Roman primacy.

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the teaching and writing of the Spaniard, St. Ignatius Loyola. He was born in 1491, the very year that Spain was finally liberated from the Moors. So devoted was Ignatius to the papacy that he prescribed on his followers in the Society of Jesus, unconditional obedience to the Bishop of Rome. To this end, he imposed on all professed members of the Society a fourth special vow of obedience to the Pope.

In his classic Letter on Obedience, Ignatius writes:

Divine Providence gently disposes all things, bringing to their appointed end the lowest by the middlemost and the middlemost by the highest. Even in the angels there is subordination of one hierarchy to another ...We see the same on earth in well-governed states, and in the hierarchy of the Church, the members of which render their obedience to the one universal Vicar of Christ our Lord.

This attitude of reliance on the Pope was built into the Spanish culture. Even when Spaniards failed in their obedience to the Pope, they still recognize it was a failure in faith.

The Papacy Abandoned and Discovered

Nothing ever happens by chance. It was therefore certainly providential that the massive rejection of the papacy in Europe was countered by a miraculous Catholicism in the New World.

Some dates here will be informative. Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, was born in 1483, just nine years before Columbus discovered America. Luther's break with the Catholic Church can be synthesized in his rejecting the divinely established authority of the Bishop of Rome.

Luther broke with Rome in 1517, and he spent the rest of his life in venting his hatred of the papacy. His last published work (1545), was also his bitterest attack on the very institution of supreme Roman authority in the Church founded by Christ. For Luther, the papacy was instituted by the devil.

In 1535, St. John Fisher was beheaded by Henry VIII because the king insisted that he, and not the Bishop of Rome, was the real head of the Church in England.

Again, not coincidentally, the Queen of England whom Henry VIII repudiated in favor of his mistress, was the daughter of Queen Isabella of Spain, who sent Columbus on his historic discovery of America. It was, in fact, Catherine of Aragon's appeal to the Pope in favor of her marriage to Henry VIII that precipitated the crisis which separated England from union with the Bishop of Rome.

By the end of the sixteenth century, six whole countries in Europe had separated from the Pope and therefore from the Catholic Church. Under coercion from their political leaders, all of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, England, Scotland and Wales broke with Rome. At the same time, large parts of Germany and Switzerland were either forced or seduced into rejecting "Babylon," which had become the Protestant synonym for the successor of St. Peter.

The Catholic Church in the sixteenth century had desperate need of reformation. Unlike the nations that made this into a rebellion against the papacy, Spain became the spearhead for an authentic Catholic Reform in union with the Pope.

The Catholic Reform Movement became a European movement when Catholic Spain placed all its resources at the service of the Church. The long struggle with Islam closed with the victory at Granada in 1491. Columbus' discovery in the next year opened the door to making Spain a world power that was of paramount importance in the history of the Catholic Church.

When the Protestant revolt in Germany was brought to a halt, this was due in large measure to Catholic Spain.

Spain was the cradle of the religious order which became the chief instrument of reform. The key to this reform was faith in the Roman Primacy. Pope Leo X who condemned Luther was not personally a very holy man. But the Catholic Church believes that papal authority finally rests on the supernatural grace provided by Jesus Christ. It is not conditioned by the sanctity of Peter's successors in the papacy.

As we cross the Atlantic, during the historic upheaval in Europe, we see nothing less than a series of miracles of conversion among the Indians of North and South America.

The number of these conversions to Catholic Christianity is staggering. By the middle of the sixteenth century, no less than ten million American Indians had been instructed, baptized and received into the Catholic Church. In 1552, the University of Mexico was opened with papal approval and with academic qualifications that soon compared favorably with the great Catholic universities of Spain and Portugal.

Pontifical America

In 1991, the Pontifical Committee of Historical Services published a two-volume work called America Pontifica. The English title would be Pontifical America. Its purpose was to bring to light what most people do not know, namely, how deeply and intimately the Bishops of Rome were associated with the founding of the New World.

By no means exhaustive, no less than 579 papal documents are given, in full quotation. These documents cover only the first one hundred years, from 1493 to 1592, after the discovery of America. They amount to some 700,000 words. Every reigning Roman Pontiff from Alexander VI to Clement VIII is included.

As you read these papal documents, all in Latin, you are struck by a number of facts. Taken together they not only justify the title, Pontifical America. They prove beyond doubt that, except for the Popes, there would not have been what we casually call the Discovery of America. Why not? Because it was the Roman Catholic faith of the first colonizers that laid the foundations for what is known as North and South America.

What are some of the main features of these papal documents?

1. Propagation of the True Faith. Beginning with Alexander VI, the Popes keep insisting on the importance of propagating the one true faith. It must be the faith revealed by Jesus Christ, committed to the Apostles, and preserved in its integrity by the successors of St. Peter.

This faith must be preserved in its integrity. This means that bishops, priests and lay missionaries are to make sure there is no compromise with the non-Christian religions which the natives had professed for centuries before they were evangelized.

Among the truths of the faith which the Popes stressed were:

  • Belief in only one true God, Creator of Heaven and earth.

  • Belief in the Incarnation. God became Man. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

  • Belief in the sacraments instituted by Christ. Specially emphasized was the sacrament of matrimony for the baptized and the indissolubility of sacramental marriage.

2. Emphasis on the Teachings of the Council of Trent. As we know, the Council of Trent was called in order to cope with the flood of errors propagated by the leaders of Protestantism. The Council lasted from 1546 to 1563, the longest in the Church's history.

This stress on Tridentine doctrine was providential. Before long, the European Catholics who had become Protestants – or their descendants – began to colonize on their own. Their colonization became Protestant, and therefore anti-papal, evangelization. The Protestants from England, Scandinavia and the Netherlands mainly settled in North America. Our own experience in the United States shows how deeply Protestant colonization had penetrated our culture, compared with what we still call Latin America.

3. Religious Countries. One of the remarkable aspects of the papal documents to the New World is the encouragement of what we now call consecrated life. By the end of the sixteenth century, no less than seventeen different religious orders were established under the direction of the Holy See.

4. Dioceses and Directives to Bishops. The Catholic faith spread throughout the Americas, the Popes created scores of dioceses, with resident bishops. The papal documents on this subject are extensive and detailed.

One thing stands out, however. The Roman Pontiffs made it clear that the Bishops were finally responsible to the Bishop of Rome. When we realize that this was the 16th century, with communications being so difficult, we are struck by the awareness on both sides – the papal and the episcopal – that the Catholic Church has only one central authority, namely the successors of St. Peter.

5. One of the surprises is that the Popes insisted on Ad Limina visits of the Bishops to Rome. The prelates were to report to the Pontiff on their dioceses, and make periodic trips to Rome. This could mean as much as two months sea travel, one way, between in crossing the Atlantic.

6. Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. One prominent theme that typifies the Pope's directives to the New World is the insistence on a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

No less than 14 distinct Marian associations were established by papal decree or pontifical directive. The focus of these associations, called Confraternities, was to help the people to depend on Our Lady to keep them faithful to her Divine Son.

This was especially true after the revelations of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego, the Aztec convert, in 1531.


What can we learn from our reflections on "The Popes and the Catholic Discovery of America." Many things, but especially one: that the future of both continents of the Western World is secure, provided we rely on the Mother of God to obtain the miraculous graces we need to remain true to our Catholic heritage.

Closing Prayer

"O Immaculate Virgin Mother of the true God and Mother of the Church! You, who from this place reveal your clemency and your pity to all those who ask for your protection; hear the prayer that we address to you with filial trust, and present it to your Son Jesus, our sole Redeemer. Mother of mercy, Teacher of hidden and silent sacrifice, to you, who come to meet us sinners, we dedicate on this day all our being and all our love. We also dedicate to you our life, our work, our joys, our infirmities and our sorrows. Grant peace, justice and prosperity to our peoples, for we entrust to your care, Our Lady and our Mother, all that we have and all that we are. We wish to be entirely yours and to walk with you along the way of complete faithfulness to Jesus Christ in His Church: hold us always with your loving hand."

"Virgin of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas, we pray to you for all the Bishops, that they may lead the faithful along the paths of intense Christian life, of love and humble service of God and souls. Contemplate this immense harvest, and intercede with the Lord that He may instill a hunger for holiness in the whole People of God, and grant abundant vocations of priests and religious, strong in the faith, and zealous dispensers of God's mysteries. Grant to our homes, the grace of loving and respecting life in its beginnings, with the same love with which you conceived in your womb the life of the Son of God."

"Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Fair Love, protect our families so that they may always be united, and bless the upbringing of our children. Our hope, look upon us with compassion, teach us to go continually to Jesus and, if we fall, help us to rise again, to return to Him, by means of the confession of our faults and sins in the Sacrament of Penance, which gives peace to the soul. We beg you to grant us a great love for all the holy Sacraments, which are, as it were, the signs that your Son left on earth. Thus, Most Holy Mother, with the peace of God in our conscience, with our hearts free from evil and hatred, we will be able to bring to all true joy and true peace, which come to us from your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen."

Copyright © 2003 Inter Mirifica

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