Why did Pope Leo XIII approve Christopher Columbus?

Here is an encyclical by Pope Leo XIII approving Christopher Columbus



But here is an encyclical by Pope Leo XIII condemning the slave trade.
(On the Abolition of Slavery) ewtn.com/library/encyc/l13abl.htm

And it must have been obvious that Christopher Columbus was involved in the slave trade. Barthelomew de Casas sailed on Columbus’s third voyage, and he advocated for Native Americans, and (at the very end of his life when he reversed course from promoting slavery) blacks as well.

With this radical ideology, Las Casas records, “They spared no one, erecting especially wide gibbets on which they could string their victims up with their feet just off the ground and then burned them alive thirteen at a time, in honour of our Saviour and the twelve Apostles.”

In Columbus’ journal, an entry of September 1498 reads: “From here one might send, in the name of the Holy Trinity, as many slaves as could be sold…”

So didn’t Pope Leo XIII know about this? If so, why didn’t he care?

From St. Bridget of Sweden

For God himself loves them because he created them; and to save all, he came into the world, taking flesh from me, and endured suffering and death on the cross. Know too that if anyone buys such pagans and infidels with the intention of making them Christians and wants to instruct and train them in the Christian faith and virtues and intends, during his life or at his death, to set these slaves at liberty so that the said slaves may not pass to his heirs, such a master of slaves merits much by this and is acceptable in the sight of God.** But know for very certain that those who do the contrary will be heavily punished by God**.

Shouldn’t the Pope have warned Columbus he would be punished by God?

Note: The Church now acknowledges that De Casas was in the right and Columbus in the wrong, as De Casas has been under consideration for sainthood since 2000. But why didn’t he see the logical inconsistency?

Leo was not pope at the time of Columbus.

This is something I was sent on Youtube.

The Papal Bull of 1493 which granted the ENTIRE New World and ALL its residents as the property of the Spanish and Portuguese and their descendants FOR EVER.

I can’t find anything on google to proove it.

This is a complicated and long post, and I will be happy to answer it for you. I work as a professor of Latin American history, and I get this question a lot. Give me an hour or so to look up my notes, and I’ll post the summary.

However, Leo XIII wrote that encyclical in 1888, WAY after Columbus.

The stated question needs to be more precise.

What does it mean to approve of someone? Approve of them as a person? Approve of ALL of their actions? Approve of SOME of their actions?

All saints were sinners (with the exception of Jesus’ mother). Could the same question be applied to each and every saint? Why does the Church ‘approve’ saints in spite of their personal sins?

Because their sins were relatively few and unimportant compared to their good qualities, and compared to their peers. They may not be perfect, but they should be 99% percentile of holiness and heroic virtue.

Thanks! :slight_smile:

As a person of Latin American descent from the Caribbean (ouch !), believe me I have a hard time reconciling the atrocities of the Encounter Era as a Catholic.

To facilitate the process, I shall copy, and paste them in order of the year they were issued.

Sicut dudum (1435)

“They have deprived the natives of their property or turned it to their own use, and have subjected some of the inhabitants of said islands to perpetual slavery (subdiderunt perpetuae servituti), sold them to other persons and committed other various illicit and evil deeds against them… Therefore We … exhort, through the sprinkling of the Blood of Jesus Christ shed for their sins, one and all, temporal princes, lords, captains, armed men, barons, soldiers, nobles, communities and all others of every kind among the Christian faithful of whatever state, grade or condition, that they themselves desist from the aforementioned deeds, cause those subject to them to desist from them, and restrain them rigorously. And no less do We order and command all and each of the faithful of each sex that, within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, that they restore to their pristine liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands … who have been made subject to slavery (servituti subicere). These people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of any money.”

Dum Diversas (1452):

“We grant you [Kings of Spain and Portugal] by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property …] and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.”

Romanus Pontifex (1455):

“The Roman pontiff, successor of the key-bearer of the heavenly kingdom and vicar of Jesus Christ, contemplating with a father’s mind all the several climes of the world and the characteristics of all the nations dwelling in them and seeking and desiring the salvation of all, wholesomely ordains and disposes upon careful deliberation those things which he sees will be agreeable to the Divine Majesty and by which he may bring the sheep entrusted to him by God into the single divine fold, and may acquire for them the reward of eternal felicity, and obtain pardon for their souls. This we believe will more certainly come to pass, through the aid of the Lord, if we bestow suitable favors and special graces on those Catholic kings and princes, who, like athletes and intrepid champions of the Christian faith, as we know by the evidence of facts, not only restrain the savage excesses of the Saracens and of other infidels, enemies of the Christian name, but also for the defense and increase of the faith vanquish them and their kingdoms and habitations, though situated in the remotest parts unknown to us, and subject them to their own temporal dominion, sparing no labor and expense, in order that those kings and princes, relieved of all obstacles, may be the more animated to the prosecution of so salutary and laudable a work…to conserve their right and possession, [the said king and infante] under certain most severe penalties then expressed, have prohibited and in general have ordained that none, unless with their sailors and ships and on payment of a certain tribute and with an express license previously obtained from the said king or infante, should presume to sail to the said provinces or to trade in their ports or to fish in the sea,
…since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso – to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit – by having secured the said faculty, the said King Alfonso, or, by his authority, the aforesaid infante, justly and lawfully has acquired and possessed, and doth possess, these islands, lands, harbors, and seas, and they do of right belong and pertain to the said King Alfonso and his successors, nor without special license from King Alfonso and his successors themselves has any other even of the faithful of Christ been entitled hitherto, nor is he by any means now entitled lawfully to meddle therewith.”

True these particular bulls were issued prior to the so called “discovery” of “The Americas”, but they later came to be applied to the newly “discovered” lands.

From Inter caetara (1493):

“Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and cherished of our heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself. …we (the Papacy) command you (Spain) … to instruct the aforesaid inhabitants and residents and dwellers therein in the Catholic faith, and train them in good morals.”

Sublimus Dei (1537):

“We define and declare by these Our letters …] the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by 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 that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved”.

In supremo (1839):

“There were to be found subsequently among the faithful some who, shamefully blinded by the desire of sordid gain, in lonely and distant countries did not hesitate to reduce to slavery (in servitutem redigere) Indians, Blacks and other unfortunate peoples, or else, by instituting or expanding the trade in those who had been made slaves by others, aided the crime of others. Certainly many Roman Pontiffs of glorious memory, Our Predecessors, did not fail, according to the duties of their office, to blame severely this way of acting as dangerous for the spiritual welfare of those who did such things and a shame to the Christian name.”"

Compare ‘Sicut dudum’ to the content, and message of ‘Sublimus Dei’. In like manner, read the context wherein ‘Dum Diversas’, and ‘Romanus Pontifex’ were issued, and for what reasons. Lastly, what happened in the 44 years between Inter caetara, and Sublimus Dei, whilst employing the context of the Valladoid Debates that would follow from 1550-1551 as well as Father Antonio de Montesinos sermon on August 15th, 1511. Futhermore take into account the encomienda system in place that spurred Las Casas in the period between 1511-1520 to seek a change in that particular system, and it’s ill treatment of The Natives. Furthermore in 1541 when he convinces Charles I to sign, and put into effect the “New Laws”, as well as publishing in 1544 “El Confesionario” after having become Bishop of Chiapas.

The Valladoid Debates in my opinion, actually pose a DRAMATIC shift in Christian civilization that in my opinion plants the seeds for the culture of death we live in. No longer is it based in the witchcraft, and the offerings made unto Moloch, but rather in open rebellion of the Incarnation.

Questioning the PERSONHOOD of a given group of people as exemplified within the Valladoid Debates (Based in Aristotle’s belief that some were born to be slaves. There were even questions as to whether or not they were humans in possession of rational souls !), is precisely the same discourse being employed to deny the PERSONHOOD of the unborn.

The fact remains, that period sets the stage for NUMEROUS other developments that follow thereafter. It all goes back to denying the VERY core dogma of our belief in the Incarnation of the Logos. That is to say, that Christ in taking upon Adam/adam united Himself to ALL mortal flesh, so that we might be divinized. Once a person/society rationalizes AGAINST affording an individual/group the EQUAL dignity that they deserve in being created in the image, and likeness of GOD, but rather reduces them to chattel, what we have in this age isn’t far behind. Chattel slavery may have been “condemned”, but what informed it didn’t die out. We still persist in dehumanizing our fellow man. We persist in death (Sin is death, period.), and in open rebellion against the Kingdom of GOD (Christ) who so came into the world to redeem it, and in turn sacramentalize Creation. That is to say, the Kingdom of GOD is here already (Via the Incarnation) , even if only in part until the fulfillment of the eschaton.

Again chattel slavery may have been “abolished”, yet the rationale informing it still persists unchallenged (eugenics (The casta system in some way shape or form DID in fact accomplish that particular end in so far as “pureza de sangre”., etc.). We so desire to build a “more perfect society” in a manner devoid of GOD, where one who does not fit the ideal mold is to be exterminated/shunned/dehumanized, as opposed to recuperated

Hmmm. ALL of them? Have you studied the lives of many saints? If some of the saints I have read about REALLY had lived 99% percent of their live with holiness and heroic virtue, I’m a shoo-in.

When I teach this subject in my class, it usually takes at least an entire class period to explain all the background properly. I will try to do it here as succinctly as possible, and then if you have additional questions or need clarifications, I will answer them.

First, you need to realize that slavery prior to 1400 was a very different institution compared to what it would become by 1600. Roman-style slavery had never completely died out in Europe. Roman slavery was very different than the race-based plantation style slavery that we’re used to reading about in the American Old South. In Roman-style slavery, slaves were acquired in two main ways. Either they were captured in a war, or they sold themselves into slavery to pay off a debt. It was not based on race. (In fact, the word “slave” comes from “Slav”, since the ancient Greeks used to capture and enslave Slavic peoples in the area north of Macedonia.) In both cases, the term of servitude was usually limited (5-10 years was common, although lifelong slavery did occur). Children of slaves were usually considered free persons. Slaves had the right to marry who they chose. Slaves also had the right to work outside the home after dark, so some of them could make money on the side. One guarantee that Roman slaves always had was that if they could earn their purchase price, they could automatically purchase their freedom. It was not uncommon for someone to start out as a slave, have the family work to buy the freedom of one person, and then they would work full time to free the rest. It was also frequent that someone would purchase their freedom and continue working for their master as a wage laborer. Manumission, or the granting of freedom to slaves, was also extremely common. Rarely was a slave actually a slave for life in ancient Rome. Slaves in Rome even had a few very limited legal protections. They could, with permission of the master, live outside of the home. They were also protected from the most extreme abuse, although beatings “with an empty hand” were allowed (in other words, they couldn’t be struck with an object). Obviously, abuse still occurred frequently, and Roman slavery was still a very cruel and terrible institution. However, most people considered slavery as a temporary condition, something more akin to a jail sentence with hard labor, than a permanent state of life.

Now, when the Roman Empire collapsed, there began to be new rules for the enslavement of people. First, slavery didn’t happen very often between 500-1400 AD, but when it did, Christians were no longer permitted to be enslaved. Only infidels, or those that had learned about Christianity and rejected it, were permitted to be enslaved, since it was believed they were doomed to hell anyway. By 700 AD, this primarily applied to Muslims, although a few black sub-Saharan Africans were enslaved as well.

So, what we have prior to 1400 is an institution that was seen as a temporary punishment that was regulated and was not based on race. It was seen as morally wrong, but was far more morally ambiguous than it would become.


The next big event occurred in 1453. This was the year that Constantinople fell, effectively destroying the Byzantine Empire, and replacing it with the Muslim Ottoman Empire. This also served to cut off the Silk Road to India and China. It also happened to coincide exactly with the Renaissance. The Portuguese decided to use a new technology, a vastly improved ship design called the caravel, to try and find a new route to Asia. If they could do so, they could potentially corner the market on trade with India and China and become a wealthy kingdom. It’s at this time that Prince Henry the Navigator opened his school, and they began exploration of the African coast in an attempt to sail east to India.

For a few brief moments when they rounded the bend in West Africa, they thought they had found the route to Asia. Unfortunately for them, they had only sailed south halfway, and they soon ran into the coast again. However, they realized that it was worth their time to take a break and set up some bases on the coast, since there was plenty to exploit there. Chief among the exports was ivory, gold, certain types of spices and wood, and of course, slaves.

Unfortunately, it was common practice for African tribes to enslave each other, although the rules of that enslavement was pretty similar to those of the Romans. In other words, it was usually temporary. Well, certain unscrupulous African tribes decided to try and improve their regional power by allying with the Portuguese. They would purchase weapons, which they would use to conquer new territory. They would then take the slaves that they captured, and sell them to the Portuguese. Once this happened, it completely upset the rules of involuntary servitude, because the slaves would be shipped back to Portugal, or to their other newly discovered colonies off of Africa, like the Azores or Madeira. Since they were “infidels” (since the kingdoms had heard of Christianity and rejected it), and since it was too expensive to ship the slaves back to West Africa once they had been taken, slavery increasingly became associated with black Africans and with being permanent. (As a side note, it should be pointed out that Europeans were NOT free to enslave all Africans. Ethiopia had long been a Christian kingdom, for example, and so Ethiopia could not be touched by European colonization or slave traders.)

Sadly, the African chiefdoms would only realize their mistake after it was too late. Had the African tribes all banded together upon the first Portuguese incursions, they might have stood a chance. Now, however, there were only a few broad kingdoms left with a population that was far more spread out. When the supply of slaves began to dwindle, the Portuguese turned on their former allies and began forcing them into slavery too.


So St Augustine’s two decades plus of sexual sin and heresy are unimportant? And don’t put him just a teeny bit outside the 99th percentile of holiness and heroic virtue?

What about St Paul’s vicious persecution of Christians? Or St Peter’s denial of Christ?

The next major date in the story is 1492. For hundreds of years, the Reconquista had been going on in the Iberian Peninsula. However, it was only with the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469 that the last phase of the Reconquest of Spain from Islamic empires began. This was the war against Andalucia, the southernmost territory of what is now Spain and the last caliphate on the peninsula. Ferdinand and Isabella’s forces won on January 2, 1492, and the Andalucian leader Boabdil was expelled into North Africa.

This was important for another reason. For hundreds of years, taxes had been collected at the beginning of the year to undertake the Reconquista. However, it was only January 2, and the war was already over, so Isabella decided to take a risk. Contrary to popular belief, most educated people and sailors knew that the world was round, and Christopher Columbus came to the monarchs requesting an expedition looking for a possible westward route to Asia. This was only proposed because Columbus vastly underestimated the circumference of the Earth. If successful, the Spanish could horn in on the Portuguese trade with Asia. By this time, Bartholomew Dias of Portugal had successfully rounded the tip of Africa, proving that a route east to Asia existed. It would be 1497, however, before the first voyage all the way to India by Vasco da Gama was attempted. Spain still had a chance to reach Asia first.

Of course, we know that Columbus made it to the Caribbean in October of 1492, and made three other subsequent voyages. One of his crewmembers (on his third voyage) was a young man by the name of Bartolome de las Casas, who took part in the conquest. (He would not become a priest until a number of years later.) When Columbus discovered the natives, he immediately began treating them as simple pagans that had rejected Christianity. As such, they would be subject to European rules regarding slavery. However, the Spanish realized very quickly (especially after the death of Columbus, when it was realized that he had discovered two entirely different continents) that there needed to be a debate about the status of Native Americans, for it seemed that they had NOT, in fact, ever heard of Christianity, and therefore, could not be legally enslaved. By the time this realization occurred, however, two things had happened. The first was that the early conquistadors had already enslaved many Native Americans. The second was that huge numbers of Native Americans were dying due to exposure to European diseases that they had never had contact with. Over 90% of the Native American population in the New World (and virtually 100% in the Caribbean) would die off by 1600.


So, now that the status of Native Americans was in doubt, a solution had to be found in the meantime. As a result, the Encomienda was created. This was a grant of the use of land by the Spanish crown to a caretaker called an Encomendero. They could exploit the land and utilize the natives for labor. However, the natives also had to be well-treated, Christianized, and provided for. It was NOT slavery, and nothing was technically owned. Nevertheless, in many, if not most circumstances, it became a situation akin to slavery without the title and with a few more restrictions. True Native American slavery still occurred, but it was dwindling rapidly simply because the Native Americans were dying off so quickly, they were not considered good candidates for forced labor. (This was one reason that African slaves were suggested. They seemed much hardier (since they had the same immunities that Europeans had), they were inexpensive and plentiful, and there weren’t any rules to worry about. However, this brought the Spanish and Portuguese into territorial conflict, and as a result, the infamous Pope Alexander VI issued the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the world into Spanish and Portuguese spheres. Everything west of the line (including what would later be discovered to be North and South America) would be controlled by Spain, and everything east of the line (including Africa, the Azores, and Madeira) would be controlled by Portugal. Interestingly, the existence of South America was not known yet, and when Pedro Cabral discovered the coast of Brazil in 1500, the Portuguese quickly realized that the tip of Brazil jutted over onto THEIR side of the line, forever making Brazil a Portuguese area, instead of Spanish.

It was around this time that Bartolome de las Casas began participating in slave raids, even becoming a slave owner and Encomendero himself. He did begin to take an interest in Christianity, and he became one of the very first priests ever ordained in the New World in 1510. He was also beginning to realize the horrors of slavery by this time, but he still believed in the Encomienda system for the time being. It wasn’t until the first major religious voice began to speak out against Spanish atrocities that anything changed. Father Antonio de Montesinos arrived with the Dominican order in 1510 and started preaching fiery sermons about the abuses against the Native Americans. Las Casas continued to support the idea of Encomienda, and was reproached by Montesinos, who even denied him confession. It wasn’t until 1513, when he participated in the conquest of Cuba, that he began to reject the Encomienda as legitimate. The horrors he witnessed during this event caused him to now partner with Montesinos in an effort to protect the Native Americans, and permanently ban both slavery and the Encomienda.


The laws regarding Native American slavery had also changed by 1510, but the solution was a farce. In 1510, in response to questions about whether Native Americans could be enslaved because they had never heard of Christianity, the Requermiento (the Requirement) was issued. This short document was to be read the first time the Spanish contacted any new Native American tribe for the first time. It informed them about the Catholic monarchs and the basics of Christianity. They were then asked to submit and become Christian. If not, they could be legally enslaved, because they had rejected both Christianity and the authority of the Spanish crown. Even if the document wasn’t already offensive, it was abused to an incredible extent. Often it was read in Spanish or Latin, so that the natives purposefully couldn’t understand it. When they then expressed their confusion or turned their backs, it was taken as a rejection. There were even instances of commanders reading the document in their camps in the morning before they left to go exploring, who then later said that it wasn’t their fault that the natives had such poor hearing that they missed the announcement. Las Casas once commented that the document was so ridiculous, that “he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry”.


It’s very late, so I’ll finish my post tomorrow, but here’s the short version:

There’s a huge debate about the nature of Native Americans back in Spain. Are they truly people? Las Casas argues that they are, and that they cannot be enslaved because they’ve never heard about Christianity. He wins his case, and reforms are instituted. The pope issues Sublimus Deus, which protects the rights of Native Americans, and is one of the first Catholic documents that argues the “invincibly ignorant” principle regarding non-Christians going to heaven. From this point on, he champions slavery as intrinsically wrong, as he begins to witness what slavery had become when it changed to African plantation-style slavery. He becomes one of the first people in the world to see and argue freedom as a human right.

I am surprised you are allowed to teach this because it doesn’t seem to support the modern narrative that Columbus was a genocidal maniac.

This is a known historical fact, but what does it have to do with the pope warning Columbus about God’s punishment?

First, St. Augustine repented completely while he had much of his life left to live. He lived a life of celibacy from then on. One’s sins are forgiven at confession at washed away. At that point, he had a brilliant mind that was utilized to build up both the Church and Western Civilization. Surely, out of all Church theologians, he takes the hardest line condemning his initial actions. Very few people can have the pleasure of contributing that much to the development of society. Not one other Christian (other than those who wrote Scripture) enjoys as much respect. Clearly, he is the 99% percentile in terms of his contribution to building up the faith as well as decision to continue as a celibate once he was converted.

St. Paul surpasses St. Augustine’s contributions, having given us Holy Spirit inspired Scripture to read and having transformed Roman civilization into Christian civilization. After he repented, he spread the faith relentlessly, and became a MARTYR. St. Peter also contributed Scriptures and became a martyr. Less than 99% of people are going to become martyrs. All martyrs are saints. There is nothing MORE to give up after you have given up your life.

Because sarcasm and denigrating others are saintly behaviors? :rolleyes:

First, St. Augustine repented completely while he had much of his life left to live. He lived a life of celibacy from then on. One’s sins are forgiven at confession at washed away. At that point, he had a brilliant mind that was utilized to build up both the Church and Western Civilization. Surely, out of all Church theologians, he takes the hardest line condemning his initial actions. Very few people can have the pleasure of contributing that much to the development of society. Not one other Christian (other than those who wrote Scripture) enjoys as much respect. Clearly, he is the 99% percentile in terms of his contribution to building up the faith as well as decision to continue as a celibate once he was converted.

St. Paul surpasses St. Augustine’s contributions, having given us Holy Spirit inspired Scripture to read and having transformed Roman civilization into Christian civilization. After he repented, he spread the faith relentlessly, and became a MARTYR. St. Peter also contributed Scriptures and became a martyr. Less than 99% of people are going to become martyrs. All martyrs are saints. There is nothing MORE to give up after you have given up your life.

Because sarcasm and denigrating others are saintly behaviors? :rolleyes: Have you read the lives of the saints? 99% of them were lifelong celibates, so if you want to take 1% of them and argue that they sinned in areas of chastity - they are the exception that proves the rule. :slight_smile:

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