Junipero Serra and the canonization controversy.

Yesterday I attended a lecture given by scholar-spouses Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz, respectively professors of Spanish and California history at SCU. They spoke on their decade of research on Junipero Serra, which just culminated in a book, Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary. Just as they were about to publish their book, of course, Pope Francis announced he was going to declare Serra a saint. As Senkewicz joked, the pope has been a great press agent for their book! Beebe and Senkewicz went to Rome in April to give an address to the pope on their research. My fiancé was in Beebe’s advanced Spanish class, and with all her other students received small medallions blessed by Francis!

serraBeebe and Senkewicz’s talk deliberately avoided the question on everyone’s minds: should Serra be a saint? They were very clear: we are historians, we only do history. And do history they did. Beebe began by describing Serra’s personality: he was not some dopey happy friar, but professorial, brilliant, fiery, sarcastic, and sometimes funny man. One of his main images for God was that of a stern father, which explains the paternalistic (and sometimes brutal) practices at the missions he founded. After becoming a professor of philosophy at a Franciscan seminary in Spain, he asked to be sent to New Spain to found a mission. When he finally did encounter unevangelized native Americans, he felt it was an Edenic experience.

One thing I really liked about Beebe and Senkewicz is that they tried to bring out the gray areas in Serra’s character. On the plus side, he felt he was doing good work. His ideal was to build a multiethnic community, and to shield the native peoples from the exploitation that the two other arms of Spanish colonialism – soldiers and civilians – would inevitably impose on the indigenous people. So at the very least we can say he had good intent. And he felt that these people were worthy of being saved, that they were human, and he labored for decades to achieve that end.   He could have stayed a professor in Spain, and probably lived a much more comfortable life. But he chose to leave because he felt he was doing some good for others.

On the other hand, many argue that in trying to shield native peoples from exploitation by Spanish colonialism, the missions created that same exploitation. One feature of the missions was that once baptized and brought into the mission, nobody was allowed to leave. If they left, they would be searched for and publicly flogged as punishment. I think one good word for that is “slavery.” Serra condoned this practice, and probably felt it was in line with his view of God as a stern father. Just as God is a stern father to His children, so Serra had to be with his. Clearly, this kind of paternalism can have good intent but disastrous, dangerous consequences.

Beebe and Senkewicz fielded some tough questions at the Q&A, and I was impressed at how poised they were in answering them. One Lakota woman pointedly asked if they engaged with contemporary Native Californians to learn more about their views of the legacy of Serra and the missions. Senkewicz replied that they did, but that the book would have been different if a Native person had written it. Two – not one but two – people asked what they thought about the canonization, despite the fact that they were very clear they were not giving an opinion on it. Another person asked if the native peoples would have been better off if the Spanish had never colonized them. Historians don’t generally traffic in contrafactual questions, but Senkewicz did point out that if the Spanish hadn’t colonized California, someone else would have. So the question should not be “Was Spanish colonialism worse than California never being colonized?”, but “Was Spanish colonialism worse than anyone else’s colonialism would have been?” He didn’t give a clear answer. I suspect there isn’t one. My fiancé asked the last question, about Serra’s view of religious syncretism. Serra seemed to be aware of it, but pretended not to notice. To me it seems clear that he would have had nothing to gain in either condemning or condoning it.

This was definitely one of the more lively academic lectures I attended. Beebe and Senkewicz really coordinated their talk, and had a lot of interesting images to show as well. I thought it was interesting to note what did not get discussed in the talk. How much are people conflating the question of Serra’s canonization with a moral evaluation of the California missions as a whole? Those are not the same questions.

From what I gathered, Beebe and Senkewicz’s book only focuses on the extensive epistolary correspondence and diaries of Serra himself. Of course, Serra was not the only missionary in California, and was definitely not the only missionary in New Spain as a whole. Serra died in 1784, and the missions definitely continued after he died. We can’t pin blame on Serra for actions taken by other people, nor can we hold him responsible for things that happened after he died. The native people of the time can’t speak for themselves, as AFAIK we don’t have their own words in writing. But archaeologists can look at their bones, which tell us a lot about their diet, manual labor, and other indicators of their quality of life both before and after the missions. My point here is that a full moral evaluation of the missions would have to take into account other missionaries’ writings, as well as the history of the missions after Serra’s death, as well as material evidence. Serra is only one piece of the puzzle.

Serra’s canonization makes me ask two questions, not historical but ethical questions. How much do we judge someone on their intent vs. their actions? And how much can we expect a historical figure to transcend their time vs. being a person of their time? In other words: how much do we take a person’s upbringing into account when we evaluate their actions morally? These are questions we confront in everyday social interactions. They don’t have easy answers. I really appreciated Beebe and Senkewicz’s humility in not answering the question of canonization, and in knowing the limits of their expertise. This kind of humility is something I aspire to as a scholar.

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