Fr. Junipero Serra Is No Saint!

Heathen Chinese did a recent roundup drawing attention to the hideously ugly move the Catholic Church has recently made in canonizing Fr. Junipero Serra, the founder of the California Mission system, despite vehement objections from California Indians. I’d call this move an atrocity, but I wouldn’t want to dilute the word’s applicability to the actual genocide the Mission System participated in committing along with the US and Mexican governments, and countless European colonizers both Catholic and Protestant alike.

PSVL has made a strong suggestion that all who support the California Indians in their rightful demands for justice should follow the Church’s own political methods and refuse to endorse or “sponsor” the Church or Pope Francis even in the areas where we agree with his efforts. E points out that Pope Francis isn’t making actual doctrinal changes within the Catholic Church, he is only suggesting different emphases, to shift the focus away from political controversies and onto care for the poor. This is not going to bring about the kind of progress the Church would need to even catch up with the times, much less garner forgiveness for its past atrocities.

I’m honestly not sure how I feel about PSVL’s suggestion.

I really don’t expect an organization as large, old, or conservative as the Catholic Church or as intensely political as the Vatican to change very quickly. I believe this Pope Francis – the first Jesuit Pope, and a blatant rejection of the previous Dominican Pope – is their best hope of any change at all.

But is that enough to warrant expressing praise or support for an organization that still upholds doctrines of oppressive colonial, racism, sexism, homophobia, and more? How do we balance hope and encouragement for progress with demands for real justice and change from those who won’t be going away or relinquishing their power any time soon? What is working with what we’re stuck with and what is simply complacency?

It’s not like I am myself Catholic, nor have I ever been, so the absence of my praise when the Church is wrong won’t mean anything. But might the presence of my praise when the Church is right actually be notable? Might it encourage this Pope and the future Church to keep moving in the right direction? Or will it just contribute to the illusion that these gestures are enough, that substantiative changes to Catholic doctrine aren’t truly necessary?

I don’t honestly know.

Does anything change if the response to both good and bad behaviors is the same silence? I don’t think so. It certainly IS complacency to declare that I can’t make a difference and thus shouldn’t bother trying. The question is, as always, what difference CAN I make, how can I best make it, and which battles do I choose to spend my limited spoons on, personally? Those aren’t questions I can answer just yet.

I do know the Church had been researching the topic of Serra’s potential canonization for quite some time, having gotten plenty of push-back after Serra’s Beatification, which was back in 1949. Obviously canonization is a slow and contentious process anyway, so I can’t help but think it would have been quite believable if Pope Francis had simply refused to help Serra’s process along. Yet he didn’t. Why not? I seriously doubt, given the rest of his attitudes, that he believes Serra was an exemplar of Catholic virtues. I don’t know enough about the current Vatican to know for sure, but I DO know it’s still enough of the same Vatican that put Ratzinger in office before Francis, and only pulled him out when the scandals piled up so high even they had to admit he’s horrible.

It’s been interesting poking around, trying to sort out the reasoning. I remember hearing rumors that the canonization of Serra was going forward despite objections while I was still at SCU, which was several years before Francis’s papacy began. They were saying that they’d found evidence that the Missions weren’t entirely horrible after all, that many of the native Californians there went voluntarily to escape conflicts between neighboring nations. And this much is true, though it fails to take into account the abuses they suffered once there, much less how many were there against their will. It’s a very thin excuse against a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Apparently a thin excuse is all they needed, given how much of the Church’s reach Serra extended. He certainly served the Church.

I’m not so sure he served Jesus.

Jesus isn’t my god to judge the service to, per se, except that His followers staunchly claim Jesus is for everyone, so I think it’s a fair critique.

What is being observed from within the Catholic Church right now is that Pope Francis is going through and using a technicality to wave a number of new Saints through the usually expensive Canonization process in support of poor populations, especially those with a lack of local saints who share their ethnicity. Now I can’t for the life of me see how Serra would fit that bill, but I can easily see pushing that through to appease the politicians in the Vatican. I suppose I can hope that’s all Pope Francis had in mind, but it’s a thin hope at best, and I don’t think it’s anything like a fair trade. Regardless, I do believe, given his background, that he is playing a very careful game dragging the Church towards progress at whatever pace the Vatican will allow.

I’m not sure that’s enough, and I’m quite sure that my definition of “progress” is a lot more liberal than even the most progressive Pope’s will ever be.