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SIDIC Periodical XXV - 1992/2
Spain and the Jews 1492-1992 (Pages 08 - 11)

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Isabella of Spain - Beatification and 1992
John Edwards


The question asked by the demons in John Henry Newman's poem, the Dream of Gerontius has been reapplied in recent months to the case of Isabella, Queen of Castile from 1474 to 1504, who, with husband, Ferdinand of Aragon, received from the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, the title by which both are known to history, "the Catholic Monarchs".

Why 1992?

In the eyes of her advocates, 1992 would be an ideal year for her beatification, the first step towards sainthood. The ceremony would coincide with an exhibition in Seville to commemorate Columbus' first expedition to the New World, which took place under the patronage of Ferdinand and Isabella, after other monarchs had refused. It would also, of course, coincide with the Barcelona Olympics. However, such an event would have the effect of commemorating, with some degree of Christian approval, the five hundredth anniversary of the military conquest of the Muslim kingdom of Granada, and of the royal edict which offered the remaining members of what had once been the greatest Jewish community of medieval Europe the options of baptism or expulsion, within an interval of four months. Many people will certainly not, therefore, be celebrating the events of 1492, when these anniversaries come round. Among those who will not be at the feast will be Jews, Muslims and native Americans. The proposal to take Queen Isabella to the first stage of canonisation therefore raises historical questions, but it also focuses attention on the Catholic concept of sainthood, in both past and present.

First, though, it is necessary to look at the background of the recent moves in favour of the queen. When news began to emerge in the British press, towards the end of 1990, that certain circles in the Spanish Church, and elsewhere, were active in Isabella's cause, not much attention was paid to the fact as this was by no means a new initiative. Although the 1990 efforts were clearly directed at producing a result in the year of the Quincentenary, they were simply reviving a campaign which began, effectively, with General Francisco Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War.

Under Franco

During the 1940s and much of the 1950s, when Spain was largely treated as a pariah by the Western democracies, Franco's government developed what amounted to a political cult of Isabella and Ferdinand, which, in the case of the queen, had overtly religious connotations, as most of the Spanish Church, which had suffered deaths and damage during the Republican period, threw in its lot with the new dictatorship. It was out of these circumstances that moves to have Isabella canonised developed. Isabella and Ferdinand's coat of arms was placed on the Spanish flag, and their personal emblems, the yoke and arrows, became the badge of the "Movement", which was the only legal political party in Spain. For Franco's regime, the Catholic Monarchs'rule provided a model of unified Spanish government, under Castilian domination, which would legitimise the victorious rebels' attempts to crush the independence, languages and cultures of their defeated enemies, particularly in Catalonia and the Basque country. Although conditions in Spain eased, when Western, and particularly American, capital returned, in the late 1950s, Isabella still remained a symbol of the Franco regime.

On the eve of the Second Vatican Council, the then archbishop of Granada, Rafael Garcia y Garcia de Castro, in his book entitled Virtues of the Catholic Queen, praised Isabella for her four "crusades" "to defend the Catholic Faith", against the Muslim kingdom of Granada, against the Maghreb states in North Africa, against the Ottoman Turks in the Eastern Mediterranean, and against paganism in the New World. He also regarded the expulsion of Spain's Jews in 1492 as a necessary act, so as not to "infect (sic) the (Catholic) faithful with Hebrew proselytism" but was careful to preface his work, which was clearly intended to support the queen's cause, with the statement that "The author of this work declares, in conformity with the decree of Pope Urban VIII (on the making of saints), that the description "saint" and other similar terms applied to the protagonist of this book, in no way prejudices the judgement of Holy Mother Church".


During the 1970s, things changed very much in Spain. Although still undemocratic, the later years of Franco did not present, to most, an obviously tyrannical aspect, yet few, and least of all the Spaniards themselves, could have expected the rapid and almost entirely peaceful transition to democracy, which was largely ignored by Western European states at the time, but today provides a shining and often acknowledged example to Eastern European countries. Nonetheless, the new democratic government thought it necessary to remove Ferdinand and Isabella's arms from the national flag and replace them, somewhat paradoxically, with those of the Habsburg emperor Charles V. Today, the "old" flag is treasured by the opponents of democracy in Spain, and paraded by extreme right-wingers on the anniversary of Franco's death. Why, though, should Isabella have become a symbol for such people, and why, in these circumstances, should anyone have seriously suggested that she was, and is, a saint?

The History of the Catholic Queen

To begin with, it is necessary to look at the history of the Catholic queen and her reign. When Sir Sigmund Sternberg asked the Vatican to do more historical research into Isabella's life, he might better have urged the curialists to read what is already published. Partly as a result of the Franco regime's reverence for her, and its reluctance to allow scholars access to documentation of the recent history of the country, many of the brightest Spanish historians concentrated on the late medieval period, and created lively and creative departments in which scholars of varied political and academic persuasions have been able to do valuable and comprehensive work, in which their colleagues from outside Spain have fully participated. The result of this effort is that there is no excuse, now, for not knowing what Isabella, her husband and their government achieved.

Isabella came to the throne of Castile in a time of great instability. Her claim was disputed, and she and her husband, who did not succeed his father in the neighbouring kingdom of Aragon until 1479, spent several years fighting what amounted to a civil war. Probably as the result of their experience at this time, they both retained, for the rest of their days, an acute concern for their own security and for public order. The foundation, in 1478, of a new "Spanish" Inquisition, with the reluctant consent of the Papacy, may be set in this context. The "Catholic Monarchs' believed that Spain's Jews and Muslims were a threat to the unity of their kingdoms (although Castile and Aragon were legally independent throughout the joint reign), and certainly seem to have aimed at a country in which all were Christian, and one which would fight for the Gospel both spiritually and militarily, wherever such efforts were required. In that sense, Archbishop Garcia accurately represented the monarchs' self-image.

The 1492 "expulsion" edict, directed at Spain's Jews, led to the departure, in painful circumstances, of tens of thousands of people, but it was mainly aimed at bringing about conversions to Christianity. There were preaching campaigns during the expulsion period, and Jews were allowed to return and reclaim their property if they were baptised abroad. Many did so, and Castilian Muslims were treated in the same way. Aragonese Muslims, on the other hand, were left largely undisturbed, on royal orders. In Isabella's Castile, there was some reform of abuses in local government, and considerable effort to reform the Church. This involved attempts to raise the quality of the episcopate, to reintroduce a stricter monastic life, to improve the behaviour of the parish clergy, and to enforce laws on public morality. In these policies, Isabella played a leading part, even though control of the Spanish Church was sought for political and economic, as much as spiritual reasons, and the result of this "Catholic Reformation" was increased intolerance of minorities, including homosexuals and gypsies, as well as Jews and Muslims.

Clearly, then, there are questions to be asked of the ample documentation concerning Isabella's conduct in government. However, a saint shouldshow personal as well as public virtue, which might be described as "heroic" in terms of Urban VIII's procedures, established in 1642, to which Archbishop Garcia referred. The cult of the saints had, of course, developed and changed during the centuries before that date, and has cointinued to do so since. Indeed, the present Pope, John Paul II, has considerably increased the annual number of canonisations. Originally, it was necessary to be a martyr to be canonised. Later, local acclamation of holy souls included bishops, monks and (occasionally) nuns in that category. Only in the central Middle Ages did the Papacy begin to establish that control which it now exercises over such processes. A saint is a Christian who shows "heroic" virtue in his or her life, and whom the faithful ask for intercession, as a result of which at least one miracle can be attested. The question is whether a political ruler such as Isabella can fulfil the necessarily private, and in many cases secret, criteria of a holy Christian life.

Isabella's Private Life

In principle, Isabella's cause is no more difficult than many others that have vexed the Curia over the centuries, and continue to do so —though, historically, it is three times as hard for a woman to be canonised as for a man. Also, it may fairly be asked whether it is proper to judge Christians of past centuries by the standards that are fashionable today. Clearly, Isabella's frankly expressed concerns, to convert the "infidel" to the Catholic Faith, and to help "her" Inquisition to enforce orthodoxy, were fully in accord with the teachings of the Church of her day — even if she and her husband also quarrelled with several popes over the appointment of Spanish bishops, and largely achieved for the Spanish Church an independence from Rome which Henry VIII of England later had to create schism in order to secure. As far as her private devotion is concerned, too, Isabella was a Christian of her day. She attended Church and received the sacraments regularly, in accordance with contemporary practice, and even if her library contained a copy of Boccaccio's Decameron with lewd woodcuts (for bedtime reading?), it would be hard to argue that she is any worse a candidate for sainthood, by the standards of today, than many who now adorn our lectionaries. Indeed, it might on some counts be a positive and useful thing if the Church were to affirm, by beatification, the life of a Christian who was a married woman with children, who reformed nunneries but never became a nun, and who exercised considerable political power.

No Action Required

Nonetheless, there are reasons why it will be good if the current block on Isabella's cause continues. Of course, the Church has every right to choose its own saints, but is must be asked what message Catholics would give, in this case, not only to those of other faiths, but also to Christians ofother denominations, if the beatification were to go ahead. From the viewpoint of Jews and Muslims, who are those most likely to be offended by such an act, the whole Christian notion of sainthood is largely incomprehensible and deeply distrusted, as has been shown in the furore over the beatification of Edith Stein, a Carmelite and convert from Judaism. If this were all, dialogue between those offended and Christians who already have at least some credibility among them might, perhaps, avoid further unnecessary pain. There is, though, a Christian answer to the problem.

On November 1st each year, the Western Church celebrates the feast of "All Saints". On that day, the nameless faithful of God and Christ are honoured, and their prayers asked by those who seek them. Would it not be better, in every way, if Queen Isabella of Castile, a devout Christian and moderately successful ruler, remained in that communion and fellowship?

* Dr. John Edwards teaches History at Birmingham University, England, is a member of the Anglican Church and of the Council of Christians and Jews. The revised paperback edition of his book The Jews in Christian Europe, 1400-1700 was published by Routledge, London in 1991. This article first appeared in Common Ground, 1991 No. 4 and is printed here with kind permission.


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