The canonization of Junipero Serra, who used the militaristic fort-mission system to become the Evangelizer of the West, is puzzling, paradoxical, leaving me to wonder, is it pardonable? I mean why would a pontiff who demonstrates progressive overtones, like his “Who am I to judge” statement towards gay priests; his support for women having a greater role in the Church; or his hand out onto the world political stage brokering a rapprochement between Cuba and the U.S, make such an affront to the plight of Indigenous peoples in the Americas still coping with the legacy of colonial oppression? Why on earth, would the Pontiff sanctify the role of a friar, Serra, whose missionary zeal caused irreparable damage to countless numbers of native peoples in California? Should the Pope, the first from the Americas, have been more sensitive to the shared experience of the people who bore the brunt of the Spanish crown’s imperial program and its handmaiden, the Catholic Church? The answer is both yes and no.
As a scholar of colonial Mexico, I can assert that when the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they came in contact with an ethnically and linguistically diverse Indigenous population who had varied settlement patterns. In the areas furthest from the sedentary lifestyle of the central power, the people moved with the rhythms of the agricultural cycles and resisted domination from within or abroad. For Spanish missionaries, this posed a pastoral problem – How do you convert “barbarian” Indians when you have to chase them and they resist? Father Serra took his cue from 5th and 6th century missionaries preaching to the heathens: St. Colomba who did so to the Picts, St. Patrick to the Celts and St. Augustine of Canterbury preaching to the pagan Anglo-Saxons. The titles before each speaking volumes and probably not lost on Serra. Hence he implemented a clever tactic in the ecclesiastical arsenal of preachers since the mid 16th century – the practice of Congregecíones, or congregations. This institution grouped Indians from outlying communities into a central settlement that facilitated conversion and also supplied a steady labor force. Brown robed, roped and tonsured, Serra preached, like the great Saints before him, evangelizing the neophytes. For those who did not subjugate themselves, which among the free thinking Indigenous of the Americas, there were many, they were convinced with a little help from the mighty sword.
Given the irreversible damage this caused to the very fabric of native life, the loss of land, the separation of families, the enslavement of an entire people at the hands of evangelical missionaries, I think the Pontiff’s choice of canonizing Junipero Serra perplexing. And then I remember, the Pope is still a man of the institution. When I look back at the millennia of ecclesiastical history, I see the church chockfull of contradictions, the human condition overwhelmed by the irony of its interdependence, the predicament of expressing free-will dysfunctional. Yes, I see the contradictions. While Serra propagated the faith this way in the 18th century, a Dominican Friar in the 16th century, Bartolomé de Las Casas, was ablaze in his criticism of the violence and injustice the Spanish conquistadors and the Church committed against the natives of Mexico.
I see the contradictions in Las Casas as he took pen to paper, waging a bitter invective against his coreligionists, though he himself once having profited from the very institutions he decried. I see the contradictions as he used his missionary post to speak out against the Encomienda system, the obligatory labor and tribute forced upon the Indians, the bread and butter of Spanish livelihood. I see the contradictions as Las Casas, armed only with his knowledge of Christ’s teachings and canon law, used his pulpit to advocate for the Indians, earning the title Protector of the Indians. I see the contradictions that the very same religious convictions and powers of persuasion that emboldened Serra to advocate for Congregcíones, a system like Encomienda, emboldened Bartolomé to advocate bishops, cardinals, monarchs and popes against it. Yes, I see the contradictions. And the bottom line is yes, the Pope should have been more sensitive to the political and moral climate of his decision, but the papal faux pas is pardonable.
I also see the contradictions in what I am saying here, so let me explain – I am no apologist for the Catholic Church, nor am I a crusader for its progressivist program. But as a scholar in the history of colonial Latin America and law, I see an institution, like most others, including our own government, reaching for a higher progressive moral ground in an ever widening, growing and evolving moral climate. And in that evolution lies exactly the problem: progressive and Institution (i.e Catholic Church) forever illusive by their very nature. Hence that expectation is a cross too heavy even for Pope Francis, the sweetheart of liberals, to bear. By liberals, I mean the hopeful: hopeful in expecting an immediate world-wide hospitable climate for gay marriage, hopeful in expecting to see world-wide respect for women (including their ordainment as priests), hopeful in expecting the amelioration of global economic inequality, hopeful for world wide vindication for native peoples who suffered the enslavement and violence of evangelization and imperialism. They probably won’t be seeing that any time soon. Although I concede that the Holy Father straddles a political tightrope within his own institution, the complexities and contingency of history compels us more than ever to bring a consciousness to the leaders we heroize. As for Bartolomé Las Casas’ Sainthood? Well, maybe when hell freezes over.
Maria Ornelas is a doctoral candidate in the department of History at UCLA where she is specializing in the colonial history of Mexico. Her dissertation focuses on how indigenous communities in Oaxaca used the Spanish legal system during the colonial period to challenge the abuses of power by Spanish and indigenous officials, and how indigenous communities influenced Spanish law in the process.
Photo Description: Picture of a statue of Junipero Serra, located at Mission San Antonio de Padua in Monterey County, CA. Photo found on Flickr.