Sunday, October 04, 2015

About Declaring Junipero Serra a Saint

The canonization (declaration of sainthood) of Father Junipero Serra has proven controversial. Many are pleased that a Hispanic was so honored, and that he was honored for his acts in what is now the USA. Moreover, Serra was so honored by the Pope during a mass said for the first time in the USA. Others are deeply offended by what they perceive is an honor accorded to a man who helped destroy Indian culture, who helped bring decimating diseases to the California Indians, and whose missions maltreated the very converts that they had made. Apparently, this latter group even desecrated the Carmel Mission where Serra is buried.

I am no expert on the subject, but perhaps I can bring some light to the controversy.  The History Book Club to which I belong recently discussed Father Serra's life after reading Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father by Steven W. Hackel; this relatively new book has gotten good reviews.

As a general principle, do not expect that the Roman Catholic Church, which is evangelical, will accept an argument that its missionaries did wrong in converting those of other faiths to Catholicism. A fundamental principle of the religion is that it was created by Jesus Christ who charged his apostles to go forth and convert people to the religion that he had founded. The church continues its evangelical efforts in response to that directive. That is how it came to have 1.2 billion members. Nor should you expect that California Indians and other  anti-colonialists will accept Serra, an agent of Spanish colonial power as hero or role model.

What Does It Mean When the Catholic Church Declares Someone a Saint?

Canonization is a declaration by the church that the newly declared saint led a life that was in important parts worthy of emulation by Catholics.

It does not mean that the person was without sin, nor that the person did not make mistakes in his/her lifetime. Human beings sin and make mistakes -- all of us do! Indeed, the Catholic Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is very important in church practice in that it provides a means for the forgiveness of sins.

How Serious is the Church Effort to Assure that a Person so Honored is Worthy of the Honor?

The process by which a person is declared a saint by the Catholic Church is long and arduous. Here are a couple of descriptions of that process:
Junipero Serra died in 1784 and was canonized a saint in 2015; this hardly seems precipitous.
Statue of Serra
in the Capitol
Compare this with the placement of a statue of Serra in the Capitol Building in 1931 on the motion of California, one of two allowing the state to identify founding fathers of its culture and civilization.

Of course, there were reasons that the canonization was done now. It served to recognize and enhance the importance of the Hispanic culture in the USA. It was a very beautiful event that Pope Francis could conduct before the greatest possible audience. It had special impact as the first time a mass was ever conducted in the USA to formally declare someone a saint, and it was focused on someone who had performed his most visible and important services in what is not the USA.

I suspect that Pope Francis did not take the step lightly. He is after all the head of a 2000 year old church, responsible to turn it over to the next pope in good condition. He had earlier formally apologized for the role of the Catholic Church in the mistreatment of American Indians, and must have been aware of the movement in the U.S. Indian community to oppose Serra's canonization as inappropriate. I suspect he personally considered the options (he is after all a Jesuit, with advanced training in theology) and decided that the canonization was merited. Of course, Pope Francis is human and could be wrong.

Why Did Serra Do What He Did?

For those who are not familiar with the Catholic Church, I will give a little background which I think helps one understand Serra's motivations for what he did. 

Serra probably had had a fairly comfortable life in Mallorca as a priest and professor, even having taken vows of poverty and obedience. However, he sought to become a missionary in Mexico, which he must have believed would lead him to live a more dangerous, difficult and uncomfortable life; one can only presume he did so because he believed the good he could do as a missionary outweighed the negatives of the new life as missionary that he was requesting. His service in Mexico eventually became similarly comfortable to his service to the church in Mallorca -- living in a Franciscan facility that one presumes to have been relatively comfortable and preaching to large groups of Mexican Catholics encouraging them to renew their faith. In Mexico, however, he had acquired a seriously ulcerated leg that would trouble him the rest of his life. When the Jesuits were expelled from Mexico, he accepted the responsibility of taking over supervision of their missions in Baja California, and then of beginning the creation of a chain of mission in southern Alta California. This later work would be especially dangerous, arduous and challenging.

There are seven sacraments in Catholic ritual. Baptism is only given once, usually soon after birth; it enters the recipient into the church. Repentance and Holy Eucharist are usually first given at about age 7, when children have learned about sin and have a basic potential for repentance of sins; these sacraments are given repeatedly through life for the forgiveness of sins and unity with the church. Confirmation is given usually about 13, when a young person is considered able to be fully responsible for his/her faith. Matrimony is the marriage sacrament. Holy Orders is the sacrament by which a man becomes a priest. Anointing of the Sick can be given to any really sick person, but is especially important at the end of a fatal illness. Serra would have believed that a baptized and confirmed person who died with sins forgiven (ideally after receiving the sacraments of Repentance, Holy Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick shortly before death) would enjoy eternal life in the presence of God. He would have believed that Indians who lived according to their native culture (not members of the Catholic Church, not have had the benefit of periodic forgiveness of sins, whose sexual relations were not sanctified by Catholic marriage) would not go to heaven, would not have eternal bliss. Thus he would have seen himself as providing the greatest service Baptizing Indians, instructing them in the Catholic faith, introducing them to the sacraments of Repentance and Holy Eucharist, and Confirming them. 

Apparently it was considered normal at the time for priests to use corporal punishment on members of their religious flock -- as it was normal for parents to physically punish their children to drive home lessons in comportment. Serra apparently whipped himself and beat his breast with a rock.

Indians who converted to Catholicism were expected to join the Mission community so that they could continue receiving instruction and the sacraments. Serra would have expected, probably correctly, that an Indian leaving the mission would fall away from the church; Serra would have believed that that Indian by leaving the mission would be endangering his/her immortal soul. Bringing such a person back to the mission would -- in Serra's opinion -- have justified draconian measures to save the person's soul for his/her own good!

What Actually Did Serra Do in California?

Serra went to California in 1769. He started nine missions before he died in 1784. They must have been pretty minimal in their first years since only one priest was assigned per mission during Serra's lifetime. The duties of the priests were to see to the building of the mission church, to convert Indians, to instruct the converted Indians in the Catholic religion, to build a dwelling for himself and for those Indians who would convert and live in the mission, and to establish an agricultural base so that the mission community could feed itself, with perhaps some surplus to provide the nearby military base.

Serra fought to separate the soldiers and the military posts from the missions. He protested against the military governors treatment of Indians, effectively. Here is a quote from The Economist:
Admirers call Serra a champion of the underdog, who denounced Spanish troops for raping Indian women (some were lassoed like animals, he recorded) and for killing native men who resisted. His writings include a successful appeal to spare an Indian who killed a missionary during a revolt in San Diego in 1775, so that he could be “saved” by conversion. “For that is the purpose of our coming here and its sole justification,” he wrote to the viceroy in Mexico City, far to the south. The present-day archbishop of Los Angeles, José Gómez, has called Serra’s appeal one of the earliest recorded pleas against the death penalty.
I find it difficult to believe that nine priests could decimate the Indian population of California in 15 years, especially since it was unlikely that having walked to their missions from Baja California they would have been infectious on arrival. Remember too that the missions were being established over the entire 15 years, with the last only being created in 1782. During Serra's lifetime the missions would have had only a light footprint on the land of Alta California.

Why is he then Controversial?

We Americans tend to think of church and state as separate entities. The 18th century Spanish, deep into the Counter Reformation, had no such idea. Father Serra was sent to start missions in Alta California as an agent of the Spanish government; those missions were missions of the government affiliated church.

Thus Father Serra was a co-leader of the Spanish government's effort to extend the reach of its power into Alta California. That was clearly the start of a process in which the Indian population was under attack, and was eventually decimated.

Moreover, it was a process in which California Indian culture was specifically targeted, It would seem that the government did not want a California inhabited by "wild Indians", but rather a California in which the remaining Indians produced goods and services that would enrich the crown. Not only were the Indians to become Roman Catholics, inhabiting missions in large numbers, but other aspects of their culture were also to be changed. It was noted that a number of huge land grants were made in California before the Mexican Revolution (and many more afterwards); the Indians were an obvious source of workers for the ranches that were created from those land grants (as indeed they were for the economic activity of the missions) -- but only if their culture was changes so that they became "tame" rather than "wild Indians".

For U.S. Indians, and especially for the current members of California tribes, Junipero Serra was the most famous of the first generation of "colonizers"; and it was the missionaries' followers if not they themselves who not only destroyed the California Indian way of life, their culture, and the Indian population itself but did so deliberately and without consulting their victims. Modern Indians and their allies see no reason to honor him.

The Positions of the Two Parties to the Controversy

I suggest that the Catholic Church position might be as follows: Serra was a man with deeply informed Catholic faith, who sacrificed much in order to strengthen the faith of thousands of Catholics and who brought thousands more to the "one true faith". He lived a life of great simplicity and underwent great risks to accomplish what he did for his religion. These aspects of his life can serve as models for the faithful and members of the church are encouraged to study his life and learn from his example.

While the counter position might be: Serra was a knowing agent of imperial colonialism -- an imperialism in which the Catholic Church was a willing partner and agent of the Spanish imperial government. Over centuries, Spanish colonialism (followed by Mexican colonialism, and indeed by something much like U.S. colonialism) resulted in subjugation of the California Indians, the virtually complete destruction of their culture, and indeed the deaths of a very large portion of the Indian population of Alta California. Thus Serra should not be honored, but rather his life and efforts in Alta California should be seen in the negative light as the beginning of an imperial, colonial process that dramatically injured the interest of the people it colonized. If anything, Serra's efforts in California should be seen as an example of what not to do.

Where do I Stand?

As I said in the start of this post, I see little likelihood that Father Serra will be abandoned by the Catholic Church, since he seems to have lived the prototypical life of an 18th century Catholic Church's saintly person.

Nor do I see any way that the California Indians are likely to accept Serra as a hero. He was the tip of the camel's nose entering the tent of their ancestors, and generations of those ancestors suffered hugely destructive impacts from imperial colonialism that he exemplified.

One option is to refrain from judging a historical figure based on today's values and on chains of events that he could not have foreseen. Another option is

  • to allow the Catholics to canonize the man highlighting aspects of his life to serve as a model for Catholics, 
  • and for those interested in social and economic development to see Serra as a man whose good intentions were ultimately tied to dysfunction -- a lesson for many of us who have fallen in the same trap or who may do so. 
At the least, we owe the historical parties to study the real history of their time and their acts, and not to judge on false evidence.

Junipero Serra

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