Stop the Canonization of Friar Serra, Patron Saint of Colonizers and Racists!

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Statue of Junipero Serra in profile

Credit: CreativeCommons/ millerm217.

Do we really need a Patron Saint of Colonizers? A Patron Saint of Racists? That is what is at stake in the dangerous canonization of Father Junipero Serra (1713-1784) that the Vatican is threatening during the papal visit to the United States in Fall 2015. We must stand with indigenous people everywhere and resist loudly this grave injustice. The native people I know are furious and fuming and for very good reasons. As one Native American leader named Toypurina put it, “by virtue of this canonization of a conqueror, the pope has declared war on Native Peoples, globally.”
Pope Francis has the support of many vis-à-vis his efforts to critique our failing economic system, clean up the Catholic Church, and pronounce about eco-theology and climate change. We all wish him well and extend him our prayers, but this canonization issue could seriously mar those efforts, as well as his soon-to-be-released encyclical on ecology. After all, indigenous wisdom, unlike most Western religion, has never forsaken the sense of the sacredness of the cosmos. Why continue to insult indigenous peoples? Isn’t their wisdom needed more than ever for an environmental awakening today?
It is particularly perplexing that the first American pope (granted, he was not born here but immigrated as a youth with his family from Fascist Italy), who has caught the attention of millions for his efforts to cleanse the church of its sins and society of its “narcissism” and social and economic inequities, and who has actively sought the perspectives of the faithful, would be so blind to the history of indigenous peoples on two continents, and deaf to the protests of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples alike. And it is sad that, as many nations and peoples await the pope’s encyclical on eco-theology and climate change, this canonization would drive still another stake into the indigenous legacy of respect for nature, which carries so much wisdom and is so central not only to their spiritual traditions but to the very survival of the planet as we know it today.
This is a severe blow to the hopes of people looking to a reformed papacy and a reforming pope. Granted, Pope Francis is only human like the rest of us and humans err – as he says, he himself is a sinner. And this decision is a grave sin indeed.
Who was Serra? What was his theology?
Serra’s theology was retrograde even in his own day and by standards even of his own time – to say nothing of today. How remarkable it is that Pope Francis has canonized Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, who stood up to the extreme right-wing militias of his country on the behalf of the poor, and is thereby choosing to rehabilitate liberation theology – but the same pope is tone-deaf to the colonialist and “enslavement” theology that motivated Serra.
When Serra left Spain for the Americas while in his mid-thirties, he mused about his parents “preparing themselves for that happy death which of all the things of life is our principal concern.” 1Unfortunately that was his driving ideology as a missionary to the American Indians as well. In January 1780, thirty-two years after arriving in the Americas, Serra wrote about how to treat two American Indian leaders who had rebelled against the missions, and displayed his already familiar theology:

I would not feel sorry no matter what punishment they gave them, if they would commute it to prison for life, or in the stocks every day, since then it would be easier for them to die well. Do you think it possible that if they kept them prisoners for a time, and by means of interpreters explained to them about the life to come and its eternal duration, and if we prayed to God for them – might we not persuade them to repent and win them over to a better life? You could impress on them that the only reason they were still alive is because of our affection for them, and the trouble we took to save their lives.2

This is language of the oppressor writ large. Serra urged his friars to baptize the American Indians in prison, give them crucifixes and rosaries, and dress them in tunics of white cotton cloth “in which they would die and be buried,” thus preparing them, it seems, for “eternal life.”3 Actually, their lives were saved not by Serra but by the military governor who commuted their death sentences to hard labor.
According to Spanish law, every mission was to be temporary – within ten years of its founding each was to be handed over to Christian American Indians, who were also to take over as governors of the land and mission. But Serra (who never really learned the native peoples’ languages) objected that the American Indians were too incompetent to govern themselves and needed to be supervised and punished by the friars, even though the American Indians had dwelt on the land for thousands of years, knew far more about raising crops indigenous to the land than did the Spaniards, and had developed a culture based on sharing and cooperation, not power-over, property ownership, and domination.

Junipero Serra's grave in black and white.

Credit: CreativeCommons / Ashley Van Haeften.

Serra also wanted to continue to whip American Indians after the military governor forbade it. He admitted that he and others seriously harmed American Indians by whipping them when he wrote to the military governor Felipe de Neve that there “may have been some inequalities and excesses on the part of some fathers and that we are all exposed to err in that regard.” Nevertheless, the end apparently justified the means because, as he put it, “When we came there, we did not find even a single Christian, that we have engendered them all in Christ, that we, every one of us, came here for the single purpose of doing them good and for their eternal salvation, and I feel sure that everyone knows that we love them.”4
Really? Whipping people; taking their land; forbidding their rituals; ending their languages; locking them up in colonial church properties from which they were forbidden to leave, even to visit relatives and friends; destroying their culture and subsistence by hunting and gathering; introducing diseases; and bringing in soldiers who frequently raped the native women; all in the name of the Spanish “king and lord” and for the sake of the empire – this is loving them? This is “engendering them all in Christ?” This is not love. Nor is it justice. It is colonialism writ large. And with God and Jesus and Imperial Christianity legitimizing it.
Also, Serra himself was big on beating his body with whips and piercings. Maybe his masochism rendered his sadism less of an issue: “Love others as you love yourself,” as Jesus said. But why endorse such a person’s theology and spirituality at this time? Why, why, why in 2015 canonize someone who represents such bad theology and bad intercultural values, utterly lacking the respect and humility that lie at the foundation of interfaith work and beliefs and values? No one who has passed Psychology 101 can believe in a masochistic treatment of one’s body in the name of a Creator God any longer, and no one who believes in a God of Justice can possibly subscribe to sadistic treatment of people of other faith traditions or no faith tradition. Sadism is not a virtue.
From the American Indians themselves, descendants of Serra’s System
A Native American leader named Andrew Salas is chairperson of the Gabrieleno Band of Mission Indians, Kizh Nation, known as The San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, recognized by the State of California as the aboriginal tribe of the Los Angeles basin. They made first contact with Junipero Serra’s expedition party 243 years ago in 1771. Salas writes about what that encounter was like:

Shortly after the enslavement of our ancestors, our tribal leader’s daughter was raped by Spanish soldiers assigned to the Mission. Our Chief was killed and decapitated by Spanish Soldiers for seeking justice for the brutal attack on his daughter. His head was kept on display, as a warning to our ancestors that they, too, would be killed, if they resisted the Church and Junipero Serra’s ‘evangelism.’

Salas respectfully cites Pope Francis, who recently stated in the case of the Armenian Genocide that “concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding, without bandaging it.” He continues:

The Pope continually advocates on behalf of those that have been victimized by sexual abuse in the Church and advocates human life, from the moment of conception. Clearly the actions of Junipero Serra and the California Mission System are in conflict with the beliefs Pope Francis has preached for the past two years…. I am writing to reiterate my strong opposition to the canonization of Junipero Serra. My historic tribe, comprised of the [descendants] of the Native Peoples enslaved by Fr. Serra and his agents, are unanimously against the canonization of Fr. Serra.

He recounts how due to the Doctrine of Discovery “Junipero Serra established a brutal system of dominations that lead [sic] to the exploitation, conquest, enslavement, torture, suppression and ultimate genocide of up to 90% of the Native Population of California; the largest genocide in North America” and that all this happened “in the name of the Church and Spanish Conquest.”5
Why this canonization?
What is behind this canonization? We know that the Opus Dei archbishops of Los Angeles and San Francisco are cheerleaders for it. Opus Dei, as I have made clear in my book The Pope’s War, is a fierce and fascist secret Catholic organization that was resurrected under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to provide a kind of vanguard of uber right-wing clergy and laypersons with strong attachments to power centers of finance, legislators, and courts. The greatest spy in American history, Robert Hanssen, who is now in prison and about whom the movie Breach was made, gave away more secrets and got more of our spies killed than anyone else in history while working for the FBI. He was a proud Opus Dei member.6
We know that the Franciscan Order is in serious financial trouble, since several of its members at the headquarters in Rome, along with some lay employees, recently absconded with millions of dollars of the order’s endowment. Is this canonization partially an effort to make money through the mission system of California, founded by Serra and now an attractive series of historical and architectural landmarks (despite having been built by significant amounts of slave labor) operated by Franciscan friars?
At issue too are the infamous papal bulls of 1452 and 1493, collectively known as the “Doctrine of Discovery.” In these three documents (two in 1493) it is established by Pope Nicholas V and Pope Alexander VI respectively that only Christian monarchies are sovereign, and thus Christian empires are encouraged to vanquish and place in perpetual slavery or servitude any “Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ” and “to take all their possessions and property.” This became the justification for Portugal to “discover” the West Coast of Africa, traffic in African slaves, and claim those lands as Portuguese territory. Columbus was thus authorized to “take possession” of any lands he “discovered” that were “not under the dominion of any Christian rulers.” (Native Americans see Columbus’s “discovery” very differently. They remind us that Columbus never “discovered” America – rather, he was lost, and stumbled upon it. And he was welcomed and assisted by the indigenous peoples he met for the first time and who had “discovered” the land and peopled it for tens of thousands of years before the Europeans showed up.)
When Columbus returned to Spain, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal document “Inter Caetera” on May 3, 1493, “granting” to Spain the right to conquer the lands that Columbus had already found as well as lands that Spain might “discover in the future.” The pope wrote that the people were to be “subjugated and brought to the faith itself” and thus be part of the “Christian Empire.” The pope drew a line of demarcation between the North and South Poles and gave Spain rights of conquest and dominion over one side of the globe and Portugal rights over the other.7
Thus we see that this “Doctrine of Discovery” had as much to do with the legalization of the African slave trade as it did with the legalization of the genocide of indigenous peoples of the Americas.
The same Doctrine of Discovery was invoked over subsequent centuries by Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Holland. It was also adopted into U.S. Law in 1823 by the Supreme Court in Johnson v. McIntosh, which ruled that American Indians had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations” and only retained a right of “occupancy” in their lands.
So clearly the Doctrine of Discovery is all about empire building in the name of Christ. Hasn’t the church moved beyond that sad chapter of history? (After all, the papacy did change its tune and in the seventeenth century it threatened to excommunicate all those who held that indigenous peoples were less than human.)
What Pope Francis Could Do to Reverse this Debacle
Instead of coming to our shores to canonize this Colonizer-in-Chief Serra, who is a poster boy for colonialism and racism, the pope ought to come and 1) apologize again for the treatment of indigenous peoples in the Americas and beyond, 2) hold up their wisdom about the sacredness of the earth and “all our relations” as important and inspiring for our times of ecological peril, and 3) distance himself and his papacy from the nonsense both of Serra’s otherworldly theology and of the papal bulls and their infamous Doctrine of Discovery. He might also sit down with indigenous leaders and be the good listener he has proven to be in the past, as when he and Rabbi Abraham Skorka met over a two-year period to dialogue and eventually co-publish a book called On Heaven and Earth.

Headshot of Pope Francis.

Credit: CreativeCommons / thierry ehrmann.

Is this possible? I think if enough people of conscience from all ethnic and religious traditions or of no tradition at all stand up with our indigenous sisters and brothers, sign the petition, shout to the press, get on talk radio, etc., some truth might get through to the Vatican. It is worth a try but time is not on our side.
This canonization is a scandal. People should be flooding the Vatican with letters of objection. It is not Pope Francis at his best. It is not Christianity at its best; it conjures up the worst shadows (of which there are so many) in the history of the imperial church, a church many hoped we had left behind. With the teachings of Vatican II and the powerful teachings and witness of Archbishop Romero in the 1980s, surely we have come farther than this!
In fact, a Holy See delegation bore a stern message on indigenous rights to the UN just last October:

Fostering indigenous specificity and cultures does not necessarily mean going back to the past…. Indeed, it entails the right of indigenous peoples to go forward, guided by their time-honored collective values, such as respect for human life and dignity, representative decision-making processes and preservation of community rituals.8

Some people say it is anachronistic to criticize the empire days of the past and expect Serra to live up to today’s ethical norms. But this objection does not apply in this instance. Why not? Because he is being held up as a saint in 2015, not 1815! We have moved on; he never did. What possible good would be achieved by honoring his distorted theology and his contribution to Spanish colonialism? This disastrous move puts wind in the sails of those who have learned nothing from the dark days of colonialism in the name of God and Empire, and this at a time when indigenous peoples around the world are facing the destruction of their lands and cultures at the hands of corporate and government militias. The system Serra set up was paternalism at its worst: it treated native peoples as helpless children, and reinforced an otherworldly religion.
One Franciscan historian comments on Serra and the epidemics that the Europeans introduced to the indigenous peoples: “Death might wreak havoc among his hard-won neophytes, but he found consolation in his sorrow, for he had prepared them for a future life which, his religious convictions assured him, was worth infinitely more than the life they were leaving and the pain of parting.”9 At a mission in Santa Clara there was a great epidemic in May 1777, but Serra’s companion Friar Palou writes of how “the fathers were able to perform a great many baptisms by simply going through the villages. In this way they succeeded in sending a great many children (who died almost as soon as they were baptized) to heaven.”10
It seems that Serra and his companion friars never wavered in their compulsion to reduce Christianity to a promise of life after death. Too bad that they missed their Master’s teaching of love and life, fully lived here and now, and the promise of the kingdom/queendom of God on earth, a place the prophet pictured, where justice flows like a river and we are “compassionate like our Father in heaven is compassionate” (Luke 6:36). One critical commentator summarizes Serra’s mission this way: “Clearly, if sainthood means self sacrificing devotion to harvesting pagan souls for the kingdom of god in heaven, then Junipero Serra deserves to become a saint.”11
If not, one asks anew: Why is the pope making so profound a mistake? Why create a patron saint for colonizers and racists in the year 2015? And for masochists and sadists? Why not instead take the occasion of his visit to the United States to do an about-face and canonize those thousands of native peoples who died at the hands of misguided, theologically mistrained servants of the empire?
Indeed, why not get on one’s knees in humble confession and ask the native peoples for forgiveness?
If you share these feelings of grief and outrage at the upcoming canonization of Junipero Serra, let your voice be heard! Please sign this petition…and spread the word so others can do so also. Thank you.

Matthew Fox is a theologian and Episcopal priest who was a Dominican friar for 34 years. He was expelled from the order by Cardinal Ratzinger for, among other things, “working too closely with Native Americans” and supporting the rights of women, gays, and indigenous people. His 32 books have been translated into 58 languages and include Letters to Pope Francis, Original Blessing, A Spirituality Named Compassion, The Reinvention of Work, The Pope’s War and most recently Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior For Our Time. Connect with him at his website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed.
1 Junipero Serra, letter to Francesch Serra, Cadiz, 20 August 1749, Antonine Tibesar, O.F.M., ed, Writings of Junipero Serra (Washington, DC: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955) vol. 1, p. 5.
2 Serra, letter to Fermin de Lasuen, Monterey, 12 January 1780, Ibid., vol 3, p. 424f.
3 Francis Florian Guest, O.F.M., “Cultural Perspectives on California Mission Life, ” Southern California Quarterly, Historical Society of Southern California, Spring 1983, p. 31.
4 Serra, letter to governor Neve, Monterey, 7 January 1780, Writings of Junipero Serra, vol. 3, pp. 413-15.
5 From a speech given at the United Nations, April 2015, and a letter to Pope Francis shared with me in personal correspondence from Norma Flores, June 7, 2015.
6 See Matthew Fox, The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s secret Crusade Has Imperiled the church and How It Can Be Saved,” (New York: Sterling Ethos, 2011), 106-125.
7 See Steve Newcomb, “Five Hundred Years of Injustice: The Legacy of Fifteenth Century Religious Prejudice,”
8 “Holy See to UN: No discrimination against indigenous peoples.” Radio Vaticana.
9 Finbar Kenneally, O.F.M. and Mathias Kiemen, O.F.M., Introduction to Writings of Junipero Serra, op. cit., vol. 4, p. xvi.
10 Francisco Palou, Life of Junipero Serra, C. S. Williams, transl. (Pasadena: G. W. James, 1913), p. 213.
11 Daniel Fogel, Junipero Serra, the Vatican, and Enslavement Theology (San Francisco: ISM Press, 1988), p. 81. The author does an excellent job of presenting the facts and realities of the Serra story from primary sources and I am indebted to him for the citations from Serra’s letters presented in this article.