Isabel the Catholic, Faithful Daughter of the Church

By Archduchess Alexandra von Habsburg

Servant of God, Queen Isabel the Catholic, a co-patron of Miles Jesu, is an incomparable example of what a Catholic layperson, parent, and leader can do in the service of the Church. The following is the text of a talk given at the 2007 International Path to Rome Conference in Mexico City by Her Imperial and Royal Highness, Alexandra von Habsburg, Archduchess of Austria and Princess of Hungary and Bohemia. She is a direct descendant of the Servant of God, Queen Isabel the Catholic.

In his summary of the life, virtue and deeds of Queen Isabel the Catholic, Most Rev. Anastasio Gutierrez, C.M.F., points to the same conclusions about the life of Queen Isabel expressed in this exposition by the Archduchess. Rev. Gutierrez based his summary on the thorough historical investigation of 100,000 documents reviewed concerning Queen Isabel’s life and deeds.

For this talk I am inspired to speak about a lady who was very much calumniated—not during her own times, but afterwards—and about what I have learned to love and admire about her through my research on her life, her work, and the context in which she lived, that is to say, the 15th century.

Her name was Isabel, she was a Spaniard—Spain at that time was made up of essentially Castile and Aragon—and she was the daughter of kings.

Isabel knew poverty. When her father, King Juan II of Castile died, and her mother, Isabel of Portugal, began to gradually lose her mind, Isabel’s half-brother, Enrique, ascended the throne. He sent the little Isabel with her mother to Arevalo, where they lived for years in an old palace and in bad conditions.

Isabel’s mother, however, was able to give her a good education. Isabel learned to pray with profound devotion, to place her life in the hands of God, to live with frugality and discipline. She learned how to ride a horse and was often seen galloping on the plains of Castile. Thanks to her long jaunts on horseback, Isabel was in constant contact with the people, getting to know their virtues, their defects, and their problems.

She was surrounded by a group made up of religious and laity who not only taught her truths of faith and morality, but gave her a broad foundation in culture, forging her virtues and her character, and speaking with her not only of the palace’s political problems, but of the real problems of the Kingdom, of the situation with the people, of the Church’s problems, of the lack of authority and public order, that not only made people’s life difficult, but gravely damaged the economy. They also spoke about the international dangers that threatened the Kingdom, overall, the danger of the Muslims.

When she turned twelve years old, Isabel was invited by her half-brother to complete her education at his court; there they taught her Latin, music, poetry, grammar, and embroidery, a hobby which she enjoyed right up until the end of her life. She always refused to participate in the corrupt celebrations at the court.

Such was her sense of justice that when a group of nobles, exasperated at her half-brother’s poor governance, offered her the crown, she refused it, alleging that she would never seek power through illegitimate means, in order to not lose the grace of God. However, her time had come. Her brother died, and Isabel, at age 23, was proclaimed queen in the year 1474, being the first woman to rule over the Iberian Peninsula.

Only five months afterward, the King of Portugal crossed the border with 20,000 men with the intention of taking Castile in the name of his granddaughter, known as “La Beltraneja” [the daughter of the nobleman Beltran]. Historian William Thomas Walsh describes Isabel’s reaction: “without tiring, giving the impression of being in all places at the same time, Isabel rode her horse from one side of the kingdom to the other exhorting her people…she rode between 100 and 200 miles per day, crossing frozen mountain passes in order to convince some lukewarm nobleman to send her 500 soldiers. Wherever she went, the people cheered…She always ended her rallying with a prayer like this: ‘Lord, in Your hands is the destiny of kingdoms, I humbly beg You to hear the plea of Your servant and to show the truth and manifest Your will by Your wonderful works, so that if my cause is not just, do not let me sin out of ignorance, and if it is just, give me wisdom and courage to sustain this kingdom with the help of Your arm; that by Your grace we may have peace in these kingdoms that up to this time have suffered so much evil and destruction.’”

When it came time for her to marry, Isabel asked light and help from the Lord. She decided upon her cousin, Ferdinand of Aragon, not only because of his personal merits, but also because this union would bring about Spain’s unity. Their marriage was a very happy one; they made a marvelous “team,” sharing responsibilities on an equal level. It was said of them that they were so similar that as much as Ferdinand was, Isabel was. The truth is that the young Queen inherited a country that was in very bad straits from all points of view: moral, political, cultural, military, and economic.

To begin with, Spain could not be united because the south of the peninsula had been occupied for the last 700 years by the Muslims. The Muslim Kingdom of Granada, a region that paid tribute money to the Castilian crown, had attempted to shake off its obligations, breaking its ties of vassalage. But in the year 1492, after nine years of combat [in Granada, and ending seven centuries of struggle in Spain], Isabel and Ferdinand were able to expel the invaders, protecting the kingdom against a possible Muslim invasion, and giving Spaniards a renewed spirit of enterprise and dignity.

Isabel created the first system of paper money, and reestablished order in cities, countryside, and roadways, which all gave a new impulse to the economy.

In the social field, she contracted with public lawyers so they could defend the poor, she created hospitals for the poor, sick, and mentally handicapped, she promoted the education of women, she established pensions for widows of war and insisted upon the humane treatment of prisoners.

Historian William Prescott says the following: “Isabel’s ideas were vast and executed in the same noble spirit in which they were conceived. There was not in her the least shadow of pride or of smallness of spirit. Her politics were direct and open. Artificiality and duplicity were completely foreign to her character.” He adds “that which gave a particular color to each mental characteristic was her piety. It radiated from the most profound part of her soul…it illuminated her entire character.” He also pointed out that “her religious practices took up a great part of Queen Isabel’s time.”

There are people to whom God entrusts especially important missions, through the interaction of His divine grace with our freedom.

The study of history gives us the necessary perspective to be able to appreciate from the 21st century, the providential role of some people, considering the fecundity of their action for the life of the Church, that is to say, for the salvation of souls. Like a true daughter of the Church, Queen Isabel suffered from the Church’s problems in her kingdom: ignorant and licentious clergy, worldly bishops, and lax religious orders. In agreement with the Holy See, she undertook, with great determination, a slow reform of the clergy, she opened new seminaries, restored churches, and helped many convents and parishes financially. She obtained from Rome the appointment of capable bishops, zealous for souls and diligent. She founded the University of Alcala de Henares, which became a brilliant center for Christian culture where the clergy received the highest education. Along with the University of Salamanca and the many other centers of study that began to flourish, it formed generations well-prepared for work in the Church and for the administration of the Kingdom. Under the impulse of Cardinal Cisneros, the Archbishop of Toledo, the Dominican, Augustine, and Franciscan Orders in Spain were rigorously reformed.

With respect to the Inquisition, for which Queen Isabel has been criticized so much, it should be noted that, the Jewish population in Spain included Jewish converts to Catholicism. Many of these conversions were sincere, but in the Spanish cities, such conversions actually lead to “civil wars”—already occurring from before Isabel became queen—between those who had always been Christian and the Jewish converts to Christianity. This brought other Jews to false conversions out of fear, but these [new converts] continued practicing Judaism, and some tried to draw the sincere converts back to Judaism, [an act] which appeared to the Christians something like sacrilege. Fernan Perez Guzman, a writer who sympathized with the converts, after studying the topic arrived at the conclusion that the solution would be to have learned and prudent men examine each case so as to be able to certify the sincerity of the conversion. This idea was one of the original foundations of the Inquisition in Spain, as were the innumerable letters sent from Andalusia to Rome protesting against the heresies and immoralities introduced into Christian doctrine by the false converts.

We should remember that the Talmud, the most important collection of rabbinical prescriptions, refers to Our Lord and the Virgin in very hard terms, and that the practice of Cabala, with its magic, invocation of spirits, astrology, etc, was widespread in Spain. For Queen Isabel, the Inquisition was her hope to resolve the problem without having to resort to the expulsion of the Jews. She attempted for two years to reason with those who were introducing false doctrines, preparing even a catechism with the intention that they would learn the faith better, but it was in vain. Because of this, Pope Sixtus IV finally gave the decree establishing the Inquisition in Spain in 1478, and it was applied in Spain.

The Tribunal of the Inquisition was a Church tribunal that could only judge those who were baptized, and had methods of procedure and judges much above the norm of that era. This was true to the extent that, when a criminal needed to be judged, many times he blasphemed so that the Tribunal of the Inquisition would try him instead of the ordinary courts.

During the reign of the Catholic Kings [as Isabel and Ferdinand are known], some 100,000 people were interrogated by the Inquisition, of which 80,000 were found innocent. 15,000 were found guilty, but after a public declaration of faith, they were freed. Approximately 2,000 people were executed in 20 years. We should remember that in 1794, during the French Revolution, more people were executed in 20 days than the Spanish Inquisition executed in 20 years.

As for the expulsion of the Jews from Spain for which Queen Isabel has been so much reproached, it wasn’t because of racism (some of the most appreciated and intimate collaborators of the queen were Jewish converts). It wasn’t a religious problem, either (many of these Jews later moved to papal lands). It had to do with a political problem: for one, she feared that the Jews could align themselves with Islam—at that time they were not enemies and there was more theological affinity between them than with Christians. Furthermore, massacres of Jews, who were mostly moneylenders or tax collectors in the cities, had begun to take place, for which the King and Queen saw no other solution than expulsion; also for the protection of these same Jews, they guaranteed their safety as they left Spain.

(We should remember that during those times, unlike today, kings didn’t have an anti-riot police, and that the regular troops were occupied in the war in Granada.)

Isabel’s renewed Spain would be also called to defend militarily the Church from Turkish invasions and also from the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, which was principally Lutheran and Calvinist. Why didn’t the Protestant Reformation affect Spain? Because, as we have just described, the Spanish clergy had undergone an authentic formation and true Catholic reform, returning to their initial fervor. It was noted that during the Council of Trent the Spanish theologians were the best prepared to defend the Faith against the new heretical teachings.

The Church was also just as much prepared for the huge task of conquering and evangelizing the New World. The discovery of America occurred the same year in which Queen Isabel re-conquered Granada, thus eliminating the risk of a Muslim attack from Northern Africa. It occurred just when Spain had united itself and was, in the words of Menendez Pelayo, ready to be the “evangelizer of half the globe, sword of Rome…light of Trent, cradle of St. Ignatius.”

Before the arrival of the Spanish in America, the situation of the natives was not always as ideal as has been said of it. You, yourselves (Conference participants in Mexico City) know better than anyone that the people of Mesoamerica, for example, although it was for religious reasons, practiced human sacrifices on a large scale, and that the Aztecs exercised a tough domination over the peoples subject to them. This explains why many of these people helped Hernan Cortes.

Historian Guillermo Lohmann showed how in Peru, the submission to the Inca and to those called the “orejones” was so extreme that the mere order of a superior sufficed for a vassal to submit himself immediately to the most cruel death that they would give him.

In 1992, when Pope John Paul II commemorated the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America, speaking of the evangelization of the continent he said: “As successor of St. Peter, I want to proclaim before all of you that history is guided by God. Because of this, certain events can turn themselves into salvific opportunities.” And the Holy Father added: “considering the new horizons opened on October 12th, 1492, the Church…felt the urgent need to plant the cross of Christ in these new territories and to preach the message of the Gospel to its inhabitants. This, far from being an option or a move of convenience, was the reason for the beginning of the evangelization of the New World.”

In fact, Queen Isabel placed so much importance on evangelization that she would testify: “our principle intention was…to procure…to send to the so-called islands and mainland, learned prelates and religious and other people, who possessed the fear of God…, in order to instruct the neighbors and inhabitants of these places in the Catholic Faith, and to teach and indoctrinate in them good customs, and to cultivate in them due diligence. To this end I sincerely beg the King, my lord…that they so do and complete [this task] and that this will be their primary goal…and that they would not allow the natives to…receive any injury to their person or goods, but they would be ordered to be well and justly treated.” These ideas were legislated and viceroys and governors were taught about their grave responsibility in these matters. And abuses were punished, because they occurred, just as they normally do in enterprises of such size and so far away territorially from the center of command; but they were not, not even remotely, the general rule.

Of these requests of the Queen would be born the admirable “Corpus de las Leyes Indias,” [Corpus of Indian Laws] for the protection and evangelization of the natives.

Five hundred years afterward, one can see the fruits of Queen Isabel’s tirelessness: a living and growing Spanish Church in America that represents a very significant portion of the actual Universal Church. Today, 400 million people and 60% of all Catholics speak Spanish, and this thanks to the Queen to whom the Pope gave the marvelous title of “Catholic Queen.”

One can say that it was a tremendous effort because, to begin with, the money spent on the work of evangelization was so much, that in historians’ opinions, it would have been enough to raise up a great army in Europe every ten years.

Besides the costs, missionaries had to be sent; during the whole period of the Indian [rule by Spain’s] monarchy some 15,600 missionaries came to America. Imagine that incredibly difficult journey. They had to sail from Spain then make their way through jungles, marshes, deserts, and mountain ranges, to enormous rivers, to go to evangelize aggressive tribes…for which there was not lacking an abundant harvest of martyrs. The evangelization was the work of all: of the state, of the religious, of the laity—including conquistadors and administrators—and of the native [converts] that accomplished such outstanding tasks even to the point of martyrdom, and of the children who served as interpreters to the missionaries.

The evangelization stretched from Colorado to the most southern point of the continent, including the Caribbean and Maldivian Islands, forcing the missionaries to explain themselves in an infinity of languages. In Mexico alone there were 51 languages and 70 dialects.

But God rewarded their zeal, and holiness blossomed rapidly: among others in Peru, we have St. Toribio de Mogrovejo, who produced a catechism in [the languages of] Quechua and Aymara, St. Rose of Lima, St. Juan Macias, St. Martin de Porres, and St. Francis Solano. In Ecuador, St. Mariana de Jesus Flores y Paredes, in Colombia St. Louis Beltran, in Venezuela St. Peter Claver—the apostle of the black slaves—and in Mexico the martyrs of Tlaxcala, St. Juan Diego, St. Philip of Jesus, and so many other Mexican martyrs, besides “Motolinia” and Vasco de Quiroga. At the very moment in which the evangelization seemed stagnant and in which the tension between Spaniards and natives was growing dangerously, a Lady “clothed with the sun” appeared to a native Mexican, Juan Diego; through this apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe everything changed, and conversions by the millions occurred. It was history’s biggest conversion!

Already by 1623, 70,000 churches and 500 convents in America had been erected. Hospitals were also founded, following the precise orders of Isabel the Catholic to the governors that “they would establish in the populations where they would judge most necessary hospitals, where the poor would be attended to, as many natives as Christians.” In Mexico alone, between the 16th and 18th centuries, 150 hospitals were founded, thanks to the generosity of the Spanish and native laity.

But in the second half of the 16th century there rises up a collection of false ideas and images about Spain’s action in America, to which is given the title of the “Black Legend,” which continues to produce its consequences even today.

In reality, if one only looked at university publications, he would see that they say the “Black Legend” rose from political and religious motives of that age. But if we consider our own great contemporary molders of images, ideas, and emotions, that are movies and television, the reasons are seen to be very different. Even today there is a systematic campaign to pervert what were the Church’s real actions. In the opinion of the French historian Pierre Chaunu, who was not Catholic but Calvinist, the “Black Legend” is nothing more than a cynical weapon of psychological warfare. The best plea in defense of Spain’s actions in America are the tens of millions of documents from the Indian Archive—one can look at them in Seville—and the “Corpus de las Leyes Indias,” which is an admirable work of human rights and an imperishable monument to Queen Isabel’s sense of justice and that of her successors.

It is not surprising, therefore, that she is on the way to being beatified. The judge of the Commission of Historians, named by the Holy See to investigate her life and sanctity, was completely positive, and he worked from an impressive compilation of 17 volumes of documentation collected over more than 20 years of investigation, using modern scientific methods. More than 100,000 documents were reviewed. Among them, not even one was found to contradict her sanctity. Miracles are attributed to her intercession.

Considering the theme of this Conference, “The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,” I believe that Queen Isabel was a worthy daughter and servant of the Universal Church, for she gave her life that the Church would be more united, more holy, always catholic—that is to say universal—and more apostolic—preoccupied with extending the Reign of Christ in the world.

Her work appears to us as something absolutely decisive. God entrusted to her not one, but many missions of overwhelming importance, and she completed them. It is good to think what could have been the Church’s situation, in Europe, in America, in our world if she had wanted to have a quiet reign instead of to attack with shrouded humility, courage, and wisdom the colossal works that God put before her. Thanks to her, praise from the Catholic faithful rises up from Spain to the Americas, and thanks to her, thousands of churches raised their peaks toward the sky, especially in Mexico, for the glory of God.

Archduchess Alexandra is the daughter of H.I.R.H. Archduke Carl-Ludwig of Austria (son of Blessed Emperor Charles I of Austria and Empress Zita). Her mother is H.I.R.H. Archduchess Yolande of Austria, born Princess de Ligne in Belgium. She is married to His Excellency, Hector Riesle, former Chilean Ambassador to the Holy See. They have three children.

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