John garvey

The California legislature is now attacking St. Junípero Serra, who has long been considered the founding father of the Golden State.

Authorities let an angry mob demolish the statue of the Franciscan missionary in Los Angeles. Now they aim to put at his feet all the offenses of the Spanish Empire and his Anglo successor.

Assembly Bill 338 would repeal a legal requirement for a state monument to the first Hispanic saint in the United States. The bill offers this explanation: “The slavery of adults and children, mutilation, genocide and assaults on women were all part of the period of mission initiated and supervised by Father Serra”.

Note the careful wording. The resolution tries, without saying so, to give the impression that Father Serra personally committed these atrocities. In fact, the phrase “part of the mission period” is also intentionally vague. He even avoids saying that the mission system caused these atrocities.

The bill states that in the 1530s, Pope Paul III and the King of Spain spoke out against the slaughter and slavery of indigenous peoples. It was over two centuries before Father Serra came to the New World. These edicts, says the bill, have been “ignored”.

Without a doubt, they were, at various times and places in the 300-year history of New Spain. But the bill makes no specific claims about St. Junípero’s actions, or anything done specifically in his time.

Archbishop of Los Angeles José H. Gomez and Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore J. Cordileone recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the legislature’s implicit slander that St. Serra enslaved and slaughtered the natives.

They wrote that “no serious historian has ever made such outrageous statements about Serra or the mission system, the network of 21 communities that the Franciscans established along the California coast to evangelize the natives. The lawmakers behind the bill drew their ideas from a single biased book, ”“ A Cross of Thorns, ”by the late journalist Elias Castillo, published in February 2015. This is the only source of information mentioned in The law project.

Six years ago this week – seven months after the publication of Castillo’s book – Pope Francis canonized Saint Junípero here at the Catholic University of America. Pope Francis has little sympathy for the abuse of indigenous peoples or colonial triumphalism.

But he had this to say about Father Serra’s life: “He learned how to bring forth and nurture the life of God in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters. Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the indigenous community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.

It’s a much more plausible account of Father Serra’s life. We know that he was a strong advocate for the indigenous peoples of Alta California, that he wrote a bill of rights for them and that he complained loud and clear about their treatment by the Spanish authorities, in particular. treatment of women.

It is true, as historian Kevin Starr wrote in an essay for America magazine, that the Franciscan missionary system has not been successful, even by its own standards. By the mid-1830s, 50 years after Father Serra’s death, the missions had not given rise to flourishing Latinized indigenous Catholic communities they aspired to create, but to a declining indigenous population.

The original populations of California, crushed by European diseases and disruptive changes in their way of life, were ill-prepared for the ethnic cleansing by Anglo-American authorities which was to occur even later, in the 1850s.

But for all his faults (and all Saints have them), Father Serra cannot be condemned for events that occurred centuries before his birth, or decades after his death; nor for its failure to foreshadow 21st century liberal democracy in 1784.

But these days, he can probably be unfairly seen as a scapegoat by California politicians who resent the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion, suicide, gender, marriage, and a host of other issues that have relatively little to do with the man himself.


Garvey is president of the Catholic University of America in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @CatholicPres. The Catholic University website is