Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Just when we were convinced that Newsweek, like its counterpart Time, is an essentially superficial magazine for hurried people who want information without having to think, the mail brought the Fall/Winter 1991 Columbus Special Issue. Produced in collaboration with the “Seeds of Change” exhibit on display at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, the magazine provides over eighty pages of generally sound history and analysis of Columbus and of the vast changes in flora and fauna, diet, and cultural patterns that followed 1492. Whatever else may be said of Columbus, write the editors, he had consequences, and those consequences “hold the key to the meaning of Columbus’ voyages.”

In strictly philosophical terms, this argument may come dangerously close to the consequentialism favored by some suspect philosophers and theologians. Newsweek and the Smithsonian clearly feel ill-equipped to face the partisan firestorm over Columbus per se and have taken the prudent course of describing instead 1492’s consequences, good and bad. Whatever the shortcomings of this approach, it at least has the merit of examining closely and impartially a wide variety of facts about the last five hundred years in the Americas and the world.

By comparison, the National Council of Churches’ document “A Faithful Response to the 500th Anniversary of the Arrival of Christopher Columbus,” published in 1990 amidst much controversy, was a far less morally serious text. Newsweek amply demonstrates the wealth of interesting and morally relevant material on Columbus, Native Americans, the Spanish settlements, disease, slavery, and a host of other issues available to anyone who takes the trouble to look. The NCC, however, apparently thought a “faithful response” means moralistic denunciation on the basis of a few vague references to what we all, of course, recognize as the historical impartiality of Howard Zinn and the moral finality of “Black Elk Speaks.”

In December of 1990, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) issued a far better informed and reasoned pastoral letter, “Heritage and Hope: Evangelization in America.” In it, besides proper rejection of past atrocities and present neglect of Native Americans, a picture emerges of the complex interaction between European and native peoples that began after 1492. Yet even the Catholic bishops tread gingerly around various questions. They seem so concerned to show their solidarity with the current plight of Native Americans that they make blanket statements about pre-Columbian Indian cultures that do not accurately reflect historical reality. In the bishops’ reading, the hundreds of different Native American cultures all had a natural piety already. The missionaries had only the modest task of explaining “how Christianity complemented their beliefs and challenged those things in their culture that conflicted with Christ’s message.”

The high Indian civilizations of the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas in fact needed a far more vigorous spiritual liberation than that (see my “1492 and All That,” First Things, May 1991). And even some less-developed tribes were engaged in activities we would not speak about in the bishops’ measured tones were they still practiced today. For example, almost everyone deplores Columbus’ mistreatment of the gentle and peace-loving Arawaks he encountered in the Caribbean. But how many people are aware that one of the reasons the Arawaks welcomed the Europeans so warmly was their fear of the Carib Indians who were, as one modern historian puts it, “then expanding across the Lesser Antilles and literally eating the Arawaks up”?

A condescending noblesse oblige continues to cloud our discussions of European and Native cultures. Whether the issue is natives carrying out human sacrifice, torture, cannibalism, and environmental damage in the past, or Indians poised (in age-old custom) to burn tropical rain forests in the present, the tendency is to paint European sins all the blacker by whitewashing their native counterparts. Native spokesmen and their advocates in institutions like the NCC have a point, but fail at the morally important responsibility of identifying not only Europe’s sins, but those aspects of Native cultures that have been changed for the better by the encounter with Europe.

In fact, the very form of the typical moral argument against the European arrival presupposes some European principles that we have wrongly come to take for granted. European behavior in the New World is usually denounced for its cultural arrogance and its violation of universal human and political rights. Yet no other culture in the world conceived of universal respect for human persons and the embodiment of that principle in international law prior to European development of these doctrines—prodded in part by the encounter with American natives. We now blithely assume that all two-legged creatures who look like us are persons deserving human treatment, including a proper valuing of their cultures. But that realization was won by hard thinking in the face of some difficult circumstances.

China, for example, was a high ancient civilization that until the last century knew little about other cultures. It regarded itself as normative for the rest of the world and worried little about “rights.” Most other cultures felt more or less the same, particularly tribal societies, which were often at perpetual war with one another. Before 1492, Europe had had some contact with Jews, Muslims, and Asians, which forced it to develop some ideas about tolerance and pluralism in civic life. But the contact with America was the event that caused a profound rethinking of everything.

To begin with, there was a religious question. One of the controversies from the Middle Ages that Columbus’ voyage reignited was not whether the world was round (every educated person knew that), but whether people could exist at the antipodes (the ends of the Earth). Far from being the kind of idle speculation that some anti-medievalists associate with angels dancing on the heads of pins, this question had profound repercussions. Would God have created any people outside of all contact with the Old and New Testaments? One of the consequences of such a creation would be that the people would have been left without at least potential knowledge of what was needed for salvation. The problem arose, thus, not from ignorance, but from profound concern about the form of God’s universal charity.

This dispute had immediate importance for moral reflections on the Indians. Having lived separate from the Old World, they could not be held responsible for failure to accept the Gospel (as some thought Jews and Muslims could be held responsible). Bartolomea de las Casas, the widely acclaimed Dominican priest who defended the Indians, went so far as to argue that even human sacrifice and cannibalism among the natives should not be held against them because both practices showed deep reverence and a spirit of sacrifice towards the Almighty.

Las Casas’ defense was noble and in part effective, even though we may now think somewhat differently about the full moral and religious significance of these native practices. His work, however, forced Europe into unprecedented reflections on what constituted a rational being. Native religion and life were, whatever their shortcomings, clearly not the creation of irrational brutes. The Spanish crown was so sensitive to these moral arguments that in 1550 it ordered all military activity to cease in the Americas and created a royal commission at Valladolid to examine Spain’s behavior in the New World. No other growing empire in history has ever similarly interrupted itself to take up moral issues. Ultimately, greed and ineffective Spanish administration led to the abuses we know of, but the commission did bring about penalties for some of the worst offenders, as well as certain reforms in administration and policy.

At Valladolid, Las Casas argued against Juan Gineas de Sepulveda, another theologian, that Indians were human beings. Sepulveda rejected that argument, but to establish his case he had to try to prove that reason was so weak in the Indians that, left to themselves, they could not live according to reason. By commonly accepted Christian principles, only rational incapacity, not (as is often assumed) the mere assertion of European cultural superiority, could justify Spanish control of natives, and even then only for the good of the Indians. The judges of the debate did not reach a definite conclusion, but Valladolid represents a consolidation of Spanish and papal misgivings going back to 1500, and gross mistreatment of the Indians gradually lessened.

The second great moral result of the European arrival in the New World came in the area of international law. Again, we now take it for granted that even nations deeply alien to us have a right to their own territory and culture, but it is largely due to the reflections begun by Francisco de Vitoria, a Dominican theologian and friend of Las Casas, that we have such principles. Vitoria was highly respected by the Spanish king, who appointed him to several royal commissions (unfortunately, he died before the great debate at Valladolid). But Vitoria did not hesitate to tell the monarch that he had no right to lands occupied by Indians, nor could he make slaves out of rational beings. Furthermore, Vitoria went so far as to call the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, in which the Pope ceded lands to the Spanish and Portuguese, improper because the pontiff did not have temporal sovereignty over the earth, particularly over lands already occupied by natives.

In this, Vitoria was developing principles that were also coming to have an influence over Pope Pius III, who in response to reports from the New World proclaimed in his 1537 encyclical Sublimis Deus :

Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by the Christians are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen it shall be null and of no effect . . . . By virtue of our apostolic authority we declare . . . that the said Indians and other peoples should be converted to the faith of Jesus Christ by preaching the word of God and by the example of good and holy living. 

Christian sentiments like these led Vitoria to the elaboration of the beginnings of that system of global law that has borne fruit today.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the new moral reflection stimulated by contact with natives, however, is a little-known proposal by the first viceroy of New Spain, the shrewd and competent Antonio de Mendoza. In an attempt to deal with the various factions contending over the Indian question in the New World, Mendoza suggested a simple solution: “Treat the Indians like any other people and do not make special rules and regulations for them. There are few persons in these parts who are not motivated in their opinions of the Indians by some interest, good or bad.” In this early wisdom, the seeds of fair and impartial treatment for all, regardless of origin, begin to sprout—a strongly, almost uniquely, American trait necessitated by the rich mixture of various peoples on these shores.

When we are tallying up the moral accounts of the last five hundred years, a good practice periodically for any people, we should recall that ethical developments, too, are a consequence of Columbus. Newsweek and the Smithsonian might have treated more fully the significant stages in that story. Is it too much to hope that our churches, even in their current condition, will come to appreciate and to remind us how Christianity, in spite of a tortuous and tangled history, has contributed to the moral development of our still sadly underdeveloped humanity?

Robert Royal is vice president and John M. Olin Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which will publish his book 1492 and All That early this year.

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift