Pope Francis has announced plans to canonize the Spanish missionary to California, Fra Junipero Serra during the Pope’s upcoming visit to the United States in September and the announced canonization has caused quite a rumble in certain segments of U.S. society.
Born in Majorca in 1713, Serra joined the Franciscans and was ordained a priest in 1737. He earned a doctorate in philosophy before he was 30 and initially served as a professor at the University of Palma in Majorca before he left to serve the missions in Mexico/New Spain at the age of 36. In 1768, at age 55, he was made superior of the Franciscan friars in Baja peninsula of “lower California,” now Mexico. In 1769 the Spanish government decided to send colonizers into “Alta California” (upper California, today’s State of California) in an effort to check Russian colonization that was stretching down the West Coast of North America from the Russian colonies in Alaska. The Franciscan missions planted up and down the California Camino Real (Royal Road) were an important part of this strategy of anchoring California firmly to the Spanish Crown. Serra established 9 missions from San Diego northward to San Franciso.
The missions Serra founded were
San Diego de Alcalá (modern San Diego) 1769
San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (Carmel by the Sea) 1770
San Antonio de Padua, (near present day Jolon) 1771
San Gabriel Arcángel, (San Gabriel) 1771
San Luis Obispo deo Tolosa (San Luis Obispo) 1772
San Juan Capistrano (San Juan Capistrano) 1776
San Francisco de Asís, (San Francisco) 1776
Santa Clara de Asís, (Santa Clara) 1777
San Buenaventura (Ventura) 1782
There would eventually be 21 missions in all established by Franciscan friars in Spanish California.
The goals of the missions—as the goals of Christian missionaries, Protestant and Catholic, from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries was to “educate” the indigenous population in order to help them integrate into European models of civilization and culture which the missionaries deemed to be superior to the indigenous customs in which they found the various peoples. An essential part of this was to supplant indigenous religion with Christianity—in the case of the California Missions, with Catholic Christianity. And part of accepting the new religious system, in turn, was the acceptance of the established social and moral norms of Christianity. This displayed, of course, a certain contempt—implied or explicit—for pre-European contact cultures and religion.
In order to educate the indigenous population they were “invited” into the mission where housing was arranged according to marital status with unmarried men, and especially unmarried women, living under strict supervision. Where marriages existed or were arranged, family units lived together. Life was highly regulated on an almost monastic model with daily Mass and prayers, classes, and approximately six hours of manual labor daily. Sundays and about 90 holy days a year were labor-free. Life was organized communally with all working for the common good and the community providing necessities for all.
Native Americans were taught various crafts—previously unknown and unneeded—such as shoe-making, dress-making, iron-mongering, book-binding, candle-making, wood-working, glazing, and the provision of other essential products. European agricultural methods were introduced and indigenous peoples learned European music and artistry.
The missionaries were undoubtedly sincere yet what they produced was not, in some respects, unlike the slave societies of the American antebellum south. Granted, the indigenous people were generally treated more gently than most slave populations, but there was a lack of freedom to strike out on one’s own, develop one’s own personal wealth, or establish one’s own independence. Runaways from the missions were sought out and brought back as were slaves with Spanish soldiery enforcing the mission system. Physical punishment was certainly not unknown.
In addition, contact between the Europeans and the indigenous peoples exposed them to new diseases from which their immune systems could not protect them.
There has been much protest at the canonization of Fra Junipero because from a twenty-first century perspective we can see the harm done to the indigenous population by the mission system which he founded. This presents us with a challenge that raises the spectre of Pius XII and the Holocaust, of Harry Truman and the Atom Bomb, of the 17th century Wars of Religion, of the Spanish Inquisition, and a host of other topics.
I am going to strike out and say that we can only judge a person’s moral character by the moral knowledge available to that person in his or her own life-context. I think it is grossly unjust to apply today’s standards to people in situations who were working with different philosophical horizons than we have today. I think Serra can only be evaluated by the established moral parameters of 18th century European and Spanish society.
In Serra’s eyes, his work involved bringing knowledge of the Gospel and the protection of the King of Spain to the peoples of California. He understood that he was expanding their intellectual horizons by introducing them to European culture and thought. He also saw that he was introducing them to a more moral way of life according to Christian norms of human relationships and, in particular, sexual morality. His aim was to make them Europeans. This would erase their own cultural identity but in Serra’s eyes, to be European was an advancement in human development.
We—or at least most of us—would not agree today. Of course we export to any and to all who will take it our culture of violent entertainment, of tobacco and other carcinogens, of unstable human relationships, of gross consumerism, of religious skepticism and philosophic nihilism and we think nothing of it. We are as appalled at the condition of women and girls in Muslim society as Serra was at the unconventional sexual liaisons of indigenous peoples but we are right to insist on change and he was wrong. We are angered by the proselytism of the friars but see nothing wrong with imposing our secularist values on those whose religious scruples make them uncomfortable with the cultural shifts in our post-Christian society.
I am not sure that the canonization of Junipero Serra is a timely act any more than I think this is the time to advance the cause for Pius XII. Perhaps some dogs should just be allowed to sleep to another day. But I do think that the proposed canonization offers us the chance to examine our own world and our own political choices for modern day neo-colonialism.