Notre Dame's Columbus murals: the bigger picture

Notre Dame's Columbus murals: the bigger picture

Oliver Cromwell reportedly paused over the body of Charles I – freshly liberated of its head – and muttered, “Cruel necessity.” No doubt he saw many of his cruelties as necessary: not only regicide, but also dismantling England’s rich liturgical heritage. Like the Crown, the Anglican Church’s ecclesiastical splendour stood as an impediment to his radically Protestant vision. Iconoclasts seldom hate art itself, but rather what particular artworks represent.

We saw this recently at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. On January 20 – Martin Luther King Jr. Day – CNN reported that the school had decided to cover a dozen 130-year-old murals depicting Christopher Columbus’s expedition to the New World.

The murals are prime examples of the American Catholic immigrant style: not exactly high art, but evocative of the Faith’s origins in the United States. All are done in the thin lines and beige tones one finds in pictures of saints hanging in inner-city parochial schools or decorating the inside of Latin missals.

Yet they have the bad luck of depicting a man who has, for some years now, been deemed one of history’s great villains. Notre Dame’s president Fr John Jenkins wrote a letter to the faculty saying that the murals were “blind to the consequences of Columbus’ voyage” – that they are, at their worst, “demeaning” to the indigenous peoples of the US. They’re certainly not all flattering: one depicts naked Native Americans sitting cross-legged on the ground, leaning on stone hammers and looking on in awe while Columbus and his men pray before a makeshift cross they have erected on the beachhead.

Since the 1990s, Notre Dame has tried to mitigate any offence the murals might give by handing out brochures, which, according to CNN, are “meant to give historic context to art many depict as affirming stereotypes”.

Now Fr Jenkins has determined that, because the hall which the murals decorate is so busy, students have little opportunity to “contemplate” the art. The only responsible course of action therefore is to cover them up.

Right-wing media would no doubt have a great deal to say about hyper-sensitive college students going out of their way to take offence at drawings on a wall, and about university administrators coddling them. No doubt they would bewail Catholic schools adopting the same politically correct attitudes as their secular counterparts. Catholics themselves, however, should be more concerned with Fr Jenkins’s comments on Columbus himself.

“For the native peoples of this ‘new’ land… Columbus’s arrival was nothing short of a catastrophe,” he wrote in his letter to the college community. “Whatever else Columbus’s arrival brought, for these peoples it led to exploitation, expropriation of land, repression of vibrant cultures, enslavement, and new diseases causing epidemics that killed millions.”

That’s true, and it’s deeply lamentable. But Columbus’s arrival also brought the Catholic faith and the sacraments. And the story was more morally complex than Fr Jenkins allows: Columbus’s men had, to varying degrees, an understanding of Catholic morality. Eventually came Western education, technology, medicine and political systems that Latin America ultimately benefited from.

Notre Dame is not the only university which faces this kind of dilemma. While Stanford University is not itself Catholic, it has decided to remove all references to St Junípero Serra, the 18th-century Franciscan who pioneered the mission to California. St Junípero is charged with, among other things, destroying the natives’ religion. That was, in fairness, part of his expressed goal: to win the West Coast for Christ. Can Catholics lament his astonishing success? Should we celebrate the variety of religious beliefs, or seek to bring all souls into the Catholic Church?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. It’s the debate that was sparked when Pope St John Paul II hosted an inter-religious prayer meeting at Assisi, and when Pope Francis commissioned Vatican stamps depicting Martin Luther to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It was repeated with a special bitterness last year when a prominent journal of religion published a defence of Pope Pius IX, who took custody of a six-year-old Jewish boy who had been secretly baptised by his family’s Christian servant and eventually became a priest. John Paul and Francis’s defenders cite the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate; Pius’s supporters, the dogma of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.

As with Cromwell’s radical Protestantism, critics of memorials to Columbus and St Junípero understand that such artworks and honours represent deeper theological and philosophical claims. The mural at Notre Dame represents a Catholicism that asserts its equal role in American history while also seeking the conversion of this land – just as the Church did some three centuries before the Revolutionary War. Those who would cover it up are more likely to see Catholicism as one of the many faiths that adorn the tapestry of American religious life. Scanning this country’s religious horizons, there do not seem to be any happy resolutions in sight.