Columbus' Queen a Saint?
by Andrew Walther, Register Correspondent

CHICAGO – Apparent miracles are the least of Isabella's accomplishments, say her devotees. The Church honored her with the title "the Catholic," by Papal Bull in 1496, and with the title "Servant of God," opening her cause for canonization in 1974. In the first issue of Isabella magazine, the International Committee on the Canonization of Queen Isabella noted: "Few figures in the history of mankind have left such a favorable and irreversible influence on the course of events and the lives of so many people." Her accomplishments include the creation of the democratic state, the reformation of the Church and the religious orders in Spain, the discovery and evangelization of the Americas, the prohibition of slavery and the kick-off of the long Spanish Golden Age in spirituality, literature, theology and painting.

In the United States, Isabella's legacy is often associated with the imperialist acquisition of Latin America, the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. That assessment is as at odds with the blunt statement of the canonization committee: "There was not found one single act, public or private, of Queen Isabella that was not inspired by Christian and evangelical criteria."

Claretian canon lawyer Father Anastasio Gutierrez, former postulator of Isabella's cause, says he carefully examined reams of published material that support the canonization committee's claim. Introducing her cause in papers which were provided to the Register, Father Gutierrez stated that there has been a "denigratory world campaign" against a holy woman. "In the Iberian American continent lives more than half of the Catholic world," he writes, "thanks to Isabella the Catholic."

The Inquisition

One of the main arguments made by Isabella's detractors is that she established the notorious Spanish Inquisition. But now even mainstream historians are calling its "notorious" nature a thing of myth.

"Historians are discovering that the common notion of the Spanish Inquisition [which Isabella established] as some horrible, fanatical, all encompassing bloodthirsty monster could not be further from the truth," reported The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition, a 1994 BBC documentary. "Their conclusions come from the first-time ever study of the actual cases taken from the archives of the Inquisition itself. Studying the archives of the Inquisition demolished the previous image that all of us had."

Professor Stephen Haliczer of Northern University of Illinois notes in the documentary, "The Inquisition compared to other tribunals in other countries has a virtually clean record in respect to torture." In fact, he said, "I found instances of prisoners in secular criminal courts blaspheming in order to get into the Inquisition prison."

Isabella and the Jews

The other major argument against the queen's character comes from her expulsion of Jews from Spain. Rabbi Leon Klenecki, responsible for interfaith affairs for the Jewish American Defamation League in New York, said that, when combined with the recent declaration Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus) and the beatification of Pope Pius IX, to promote Isabella's canonization would be "peculiar and negative." "Isabella was a disaster for Spain because she expelled the Jews and Muslims who had created an incredible moment for Spain, with all three groups living together in relative peace," he said.

Warren Carroll, chairman of the history department of Christendom College, disagreed that Dominus Iesus is offensive. It teaches nothing new beyond the basic Christian message of salvation, he said, and Blessed Pius IX had the walls of Rome's Jewish ghetto taken down. But Carroll, a strong proponent of Isabella's canonization and author of Isabella of Spain: The Catholic Queen, admits that her cause was not going forward because expelling the Jews from Spain in 1492 was a mistake.

"While some of the Jews were conspiring against her – though it is politically incorrect to say so, it is true – not all of them were," he said. "Certainly the women and children were not." Father Gutierrez, the former postulator, puts this incident under the heading of "Difficulties with the Cause" in his notes. But he is quick to note about the expulsion that "It was strictly political. ... It could even have been a political error, perfectly compatible with sanctity." And the Committee for Canonization insists "That Queen Isabella did not act out of any anti-Semitic, racial or religious hatred or bigotry can be firmly substantiated by her unequivocal condemnation of, and personal interventions to stop, riots and acts of violence against Spaniards of Jewish descent ... Sometimes at the loss of support of wealthy and influential partisans." It adds, "There were three killings of Jews between the years 1470 and 1478. One of the most powerful reasons Queen Isabella asked them to leave Spain was to avoid another massacre of Jews."

Modern Praise

Pope John Paul II has also publicly recognized the contributions of Queen Isabella in the areas of human rights and evangelization. In December 1992, in his address to the new Spanish ambassador to the Holy See, the Pope said: "How could I not recall with gratitude and admiration during this year of the fifth centenary, the impressive work of evangelization accomplished by so many of Spain's sons and daughters. ... Through these evangelizers, Spain opened the New World to the principles of rights of peoples expressed by the famous School of Salamanca, and put into effect a set of laws by which the crown sought to respond to the sincere desire of Queen Isabella of Castile that 'her children,' the Indios, as she called them, would be recognized and treated as human beings, with the dignity of the children of God and a free people, on a par with the other citizens of her realms."

Carroll remains hopeful that Isabella will be beatified "in the next 50 years." Miles Jesu Father Christopher Foeckler and the International Committee for the Canonization of Queen Isabella remain optimistic as well, pointing out that "getting the truth out about this great woman will prove very helpful to her cause."

Andrew Walther is based in Los Angeles

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