Feet of Clay
America’s Newest Saint: Missionary or Mass Murderer?
Junipero Serra will be canonized for converting Native Americans to Catholicism in 18th-century California, but he did so under a horrifically oppressive system.
Today in Washington, Pope Francis will canonize Junipero Serra, an 18th-century missionary. Critics, led by Native American groups in California, charge that Serra was a leader of Spanish colonialism and was responsible for genocide. Supporters in the Catholic Church describe him as a courageous missionary who dedicated his life to service, and protected Native Americans from Spanish exploitation.
Who’s right? Everyone—which is why Pope Francis should use today’s service as a “teachable moment” to rethink sainthood in general.
There is no doubt that Serra, dubbed the “Father of California” by some, did terrible things, made all the more terrible by their erasure from history. He came to America in 1749 with what would, at the time, have been regarded as a noble mission: to convert Native Americans to Christianity, and in so doing, to save their souls in the hereafter and civilize them in the here and now.
Yet that very mission is shot through with colonialist ideas that continue to oppress non-Christians today: that the “Indians” are not civilized already, that they are living in darkness and sin, that Christianity is the only path to salvation, and that, most of all, it’s the White Man’s Burden to save the savages.
And that’s just in theory. In practice, the missionary movement was brutal. As one tribal leader said of Serra, “his goal was to remove our culture. You have to beat ’em, torture ’em, remove them from their homeland.”
Indeed, as described in books like Elias Castillo’s Crown of Thorns, the missions that Serra and others founded were places of domination and violence, not just education and enlightenment. They were often built by Native American slaves (who supposedly came voluntarily, but who were kept in chains, forbidden from leaving, and tortured for misbehavior). Serra, one of those pious Catholics who whipped and scourged himself for being a sinner, likewise whipped and scourged the Natives who resisted his teachings.
By 1832, the mission system had grown so odious that the Mexican government in charge of California at the time called it “detestable.”
And then there’s the sweep of history of which the missions were a part. Neither Junipero Serra personally nor the missions in general bear sole, or even primary, responsibility for the genocide of Native Americans. But the numbers speak for themselves. In 1749, there were an estimated 300,000 coastal Indians in present-day California. By 1889, there were 16,624.
Given all of this, how could Pope Francis, or anyone, seek to make Serra into a saint?
The answer, I think, lies in the meaning of sainthood itself, and how Catholics and other Christians ought to relate to their long, troubled, complicated history.
Sanctus, the source of the word “saint,” means, simply, “holy.” And that is what saints are: those who were exemplary in their lives, possessed of uncommon qualities of faith, hope, and charity. Eventually, the notion of sainthood also came to acquire magical properties; saints who have died and gone to heaven can perform miracles, and answer the prayers of the faithful. In the vernacular, sainthood has come to mean perfection.
But saints are not perfect; they are holy. That is a crucial difference. Saints, in whatever religious tradition (Judaism has its tsaddikim, Buddhism its tulkus and arahants), are those who exemplify the virtues of their religious traditions and who strive to perfect them.
That struggle cannot but fail, for two reasons. First, humans may be capable of goodness, but we are incapable of perfection. Second, and more important in the case of Serra, the religious traditions themselves are imperfect and perpetually in need of development.
Which is why Serra’s canonization could be a unique teachable moment for the church.
By the religious standards of his day, Serra was undoubtedly saintly. Rising from humble beginnings, he dedicated his life to holy service.
Yet that service was, itself, morally tainted. On a personal level, his lifelong self-flagellation (literally) might be seen (and has been described) as a kind of psychosis. His projection of his own sense of sinfulness onto others was horrifying (and perhaps familiar, given our age of hypocritical sex-shamers who turn out to be perverts).
And on a systemic level, his very mission was Eurocentric in the extreme, and the way it was carried out was violent, brutal, cruel, and ultimately genocidal. These are not mere imperfections in an otherwise glorious campaign; they are cracks at the heart of the mission itself, and cannot be mended.
Thus, Serra emerges as a saintly icon of a system that we now understand to be evil. He is both saint and sinner.
So what is the Catholic Church to do with its history of inquisitions, crusades, and colonialism?
One option is to never canonize anyone who participated in it. A few hermits, perhaps, but no one who wielded temporal power or justified an ideology of domination. Basically, this is to say that there were no good Christians until finally, in the 20th and 21st centuries, the church came to understand the error of its ways.
That approach seems both incoherent and counterproductive. Incoherent because it judges individuals for failing to transcend what everyone in their culture understood to be true (perhaps we’ll all be judged, a century hence, for our use of animals, or our destruction of the planet). And counterproductive because it sweeps the nature of human religious evolution under a rug of ignorance.
In fact, there have been millions of good Christians over the centuries, living within a morally complicated world. The response should neither be apologetics (such as contemporary whitewashing of Serra’s legacy) nor exclusion, but a recognition that even saints are complicated figures, and that religion is always in need of progress
This is true today as well. Mother Teresa, well on her own way to sainthood, had questionable opinions about the poor, about birth control, and about sexuality, as Christopher Hitchens noted if not exaggerated. Does that mean her life of service does not merit canonization as a saint? Or should it mean a recognition that saints are exemplars of systems of belief that are, themselves, changing?
And that is the point: that the system itself must change.
In this regard, Pope Francis has already emerged as a transformative figure. In the case of colonialism, he formally apologized on behalf of the Catholic Church this past summer, saying, “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”
That is a good start. Making visible the records of that sorry history, meeting with Native American leaders, and restoring lands that were taken would be good next steps. So would ensuring that continued missionary activity respect, rather than attempt to suppress, non-Christian religious traditions. And ensuring that missionaries never cooperate with corrupt or genocidal regimes.
Junipero Serra represents the beauty and the terror of the Hispanic Catholic experience in America. He is the perfect saint for a deeply flawed church.