Is the Pope Trying to Redeem Colonialism?

He is canonizing Junipero Serra for saving the souls of native peoples—despite a prevalent contemporary view that Serra was an agent of cultural imperialism.

Tony Gentile / Reuters / Ken Lund / Wikimedia / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

On Wednesday, Pope Francis will canonize Father Junipero Serra in a mass in D.C. In the mid-18th century, Serra led the missionary movement in California. During this time, groups of Spanish priests worked to baptize Native Americans and bring them into the fairly regimented lifestyle of mission communities.

“Serra did not just bring us Christianity. He imposed it, giving us no choice in the matter. He did incalculable damage to a whole culture,” Deborah A. Miranda, a Native American and a professor of literature at Washington and Lee University, told The New York Times earlier this year. She joins a host of others who are voicing objections to Serra’s canonization.

“There is one basic article that North American journalists are writing about this: that the Indians don’t like it, and there was genocide, and there were beatings, and what is the pope thinking in doing this?” said Bob Senkewicz, a professor at Santa Clara University who is the author, with Rose Marie Beebe, of Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary.

But, he said, there are a number of things missing from this story. As with any historical narrative, interpretations depend a lot on the interpreter. The controversy over Junipero Serra is not wrong or manufactured, but it is evidence of how thoroughly postcolonialism has taken over academia and seeped into the public sphere. According to Crux, roughly 25 percent of Native Americans are Catholic, and especially for them, this story is much more complicated.

As Pope Francis prepares to elevate Serra’s legacy, he’s inevitably raising another question: In 2015, is it possible to see a white European who came to a foreign land with the express purpose of converting native peoples as anything but a cultural imperialist?

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Miquel Joseph Serra was born on the Spanish island of Majorca in 1713. He became a Franciscan priest in 1730 and took the name Junipero, after a companion of St. Francis, and in 1749, he traveled to Mexico to become a missionary. He spent years working with natives in the Sierra Gorda region and later served as an official of the Spanish inquisition. In 1768, he headed north to California.

This is where much of the current controversy begins. From 1769 until his death in 1784, Serra was the head of the missions in the northern portion of California, helping to establish nine communities where natives lived under the supervision of priests in a life of prayer and work. “One of their major goals was to assimilate the native peoples and eventually make them productive peoples of the Spanish empire,” said Senkewicz. “The mission was to contribute to that assimilation in two ways: by making the native people Catholic, and by teaching them European-style agriculture.”

Over time, historians have uncovered evidence of how destructive this was for native peoples. “With the missions came terrible diseases and population decline in two ways: elevated mortality … and a reduction in fertility among women because of STDs, most likely, and poor health in general,” said Steven Hackel, a professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father. There were cultural effects, too, he said: Living year-round in the missions was a big adjustment from the tribes’ normal custom of moving periodically around the countryside. Once Indians were baptized, they were expected to live a Catholic lifestyle, including going to mass, not having pre-marital sex, and marrying the spouses chosen for them by the priests.

The priests offered food and stability; Catholic life was the price of entry.

But there were also continuities between the Indians’ old lives and their new ones, Hackel said. “Indian peoples did continue to sing many of their same songs and dance their dances. Many of them dressed the same way. Many of them practiced their own religions within the missions.”

In the six decades following Serra’s arrival in northern California, more than 80,000 Indians were baptized, Hackel said. But “they were not driven into missions by soldiers on horseback with guns or lances into the arms of waiting Franciscans, who then baptized them.” It was more that the missions represented a way to survive. “California Indians were under terrible pressure to find a new lifestyle,” he said. “Spain essentially colonized the region, bringing in plants and animals and horses and sheep and goats and pigs that really wreaked havoc on the countryside and made Indian lifestyles simply unmanageable.” The priests offered food and stability; Catholic life was the price of entry.

In academia, colonialism is often talked about in terms of power: Expansive, wealthy civilizations take over weaker and poorer civilizations, resulting in cultural erasure. Postcolonialism is an effort to pick apart and critique that use of power and re-elevate the voices of native populations—often in opposition to older scholarship.

This is the path along which attitudes toward Serra have evolved. “Junipero Serra ... kind of became the symbol of Spanish California, not so much during his lifetime or the mission era itself, but at the end of the 19th century under the influence of ... the Spanish revival movement,” said Senkewicz. Anyone who has been to California will recognize the architectural imprint of this movement; even the gas stations have tile roofs in the style of missions. According to Senkewicz, this grew out of what was basically a marketing effort as settlers came to Southern California in the 1880s. “[They] created a mission mythology of dedicated, selfless missionaries and happy, contented Indians. And this mythology created a notion of California before the U.S. as a kind of bucolic arcadia.”

In the 1920s and 30s, the backlash began, Senkewicz said. Anthropologists started looking more closely at the meticulous records kept by priests. They found that in virtually all the missions, death rates exceeded birth rates—in other words, native peoples died off inside the missions. Just as Serra had been the symbolic hero of the mythical, bucolic California, so he became the symbolic villain of colonialism.

There’s an awkward truth in the premise of mission work: the Church believes Christianity holds the truth about existence and salvation.

But this is not the worldview Pope Francis is coming from. “What’s missing in a lot of this stuff is that it’s no accident that the pope who’s canonizing Serra and the major supporter of that canonization in the American bishops, [Archbishop José Gomez of L.A.], were both born in Latin America,” said Senkewicz. There, “missions were regarded as places which genuinely did protect native peoples from brutal exploitation by conquistadors, who pressed native peoples to work to death on sugar plantations in the Caribbean, who forced them to work in the silver mines in Mexico and Bolivia.”

Pope Francis is no fool; he knows that the Church has not always been perfect, especially in its missionary efforts. In July, during his visit to Bolivia, Pope Francis made a point of noting that “many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.” In a speech before roughly 1,500 delegates, he asked forgiveness, “not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.” He did, however, follow this with a reminder of the good done by missionary priests in protecting native peoples from violence.

Ultimately, Francis has a lot of reasons to lift up the missionary work of Juniperro Serra in the U.S. “At a time when the Catholic Church is becoming more and more Hispanic and Latino, they’re trying to say, you know, Catholicism in America needs to be understood as always having had this kind of Hispanic element to it,” Senkewicz said. “It’s not just immigrants coming over from Northern Ireland and Italy.” For Hispanics in the U.S., Serra’s canonization is a symbol of legitimacy: He’s a saint who represents their version of America and their culture within Catholicism.

And though some native peoples are understandably upset about the canonization, for others, early American mission work made them who they are. For example: Charles Chaput, the Archbishop of Philadelphia—where Francis will be spending several days during his visit—is a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe. As he told Crux in 2014: “I’ve gone on a vision quest and prayed in the sweat lodges. It’s a part of my heritage.”

Throughout his papacy, Francis has encouraged evangelization. This was a major topic of his first big apostolic letter, Evangelii Gaudium, in which he writes whole sections about the joy of proclaiming the gospel. Even though Catholics’ approach to mission work today is arguably different than it was in the past, there’s still an awkward truth in its premise: the Church, and Pope Francis, believe Christianity holds the definitive truth about existence and salvation. This kind of firm metaphysical commitment doesn’t fit neatly with academic anti-imperialism, which considers all cultures to be equally valuable.

Perhaps this is the deeper reason why the controversy over Serra seems so totalizing. “It’s very difficult for people to understand him now because religious language is not the dominant language of our own culture,” said Senkewicz.“He believed that baptizing people was saving them from hell.”