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Expanding Christian Empire and Father Junipero Serra

Quite a number of articles of late have asked whether it’s a good idea for Pope Francis to declare Franciscan priest Junipero Serra to be a Catholic saint. Most of the discussion has remained narrowly focused on Serra personally. Discussion of the overall system of Spanish Catholic imperialism that Serra represented and worked to advance has been avoided, particularly by the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church prefers that people think of Serra as an agent of religious “evangelism,” and not as an agent of dehumanizing religious imperialism. No doubt the Catholic Church Serra does not want Serra to be thought of as an agent of what Pope Alexander VI called “the Christian empire” and “dominations.”

Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles recently published an article in which he claimed that “Padre Serra’s canonization will be a beautiful day” for the United States.” He continued: “It will be a day to remember that our state [California] and our country [the United States]—and all the nations of the Americas—are born from the Christian mission and built on Christian foundations.” Archbishop Gomez is not being forthright about a key fact: What he is referencing is a “foundation” of Catholic and Christian imperialism and what Pope Alexander VI called in the Latin language “imperia et dominationes.”

The “foundation” that Archbishop Gomez is referring to is identified in a book published in 1909 by the U.S. Government Printing Office. The book was compiled and edited by Francis Newton Thorpe under the Act of Congress of June 30, 1906. It is entitled: The Federal and State Constitutions Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America.

The book’s Table of Contents provides important information about the documentary record of the political system and organic laws of the United States in those places where the Crown of Castile first laid claim to the lands and territories of original Indian nations in North America. Under “Florida” in the Table of Contents we find: “Prerogatives granted to Christopher Columbus—1492.” And, “Bull of Pope Alexander VI—1493.” Under “Texas,” we find: “Spanish claim of dominion in America—1492-93 (Papal Bull).”

According to a book published by the United States government, and compiled and edited by a foremost authority on the subject, the foundation of the imperial political system and organic laws in those areas where Spain first laid claim—such as Florida, Texas, and California (as well as Arizona, New Mexico, and other places)—trace back to the Prerogatives granted to Columbus and to the Alexandrine papal documents of the Christian empire of 1493.

The dominating legacy traced to the Prerogatives issued to Columbus, and to the papal bull documents of Pope Alexander VI, is the context of Pope Francis declaring Junipero Serra to be a Catholic saint. By declaring Junipero Serra to be a Catholic saint, Pope Francis is drawing attention away from an accurate reading of that dominating imperial past of the Catholic Church, and thereby work toward what Pope John Paul II called “the purification of memory.” He is thereby keeping the Church “purified” by drawing attention away from the deadly imperial context of the Spanish Catholic mission system. Pope Francis’ act of “sainthood” draws attention away from the fact that Serra was carrying out Pope Alexander VI’s desire that “barbarous nations” be “subjugated” (dominated).

Today’s imperial control over the original nations of California, and many other areas, is traced back to the Vatican papal documents of the fifteenth century and to the Spanish Catholic empire which Serra served. The true nature of the Spanish Catholic empire has been cleverly disguised behind a cloak of euphemisms such as “the Catholic mission system.”

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In his book A Violent Evangelism (1992), Dr. Luis Rivera-Pagán points out that “the Alexandrian bulls [edicts] maintained their authorized character” in “the juridical [legal] area.” He says that this is found in “the Compilation of the Leyes de Indias (1680),” which recognizes those papal documents “as the first foundation of the possession in perpetuity of the Americas by the crown of Castilla” (p. 32).

As the Emperor of Spain declared in 1680: “By donation from the Apostolic Holy See. . . we are Lord of the Western Indies, isles and mainlands of the Ocean Sea, discovered and to be discovered and incorporated in our royal Crown of Castilla. . . [so that] they may always remain united for their greater perpetuity and firmness, we forbid their being taken away..(Recopilación, 1841).”

Rivera-Pagán then says: “This law is based on consecutive royal declarations by Carlos V and Filipe II, who during the sixteenth century propounded the doctrine of Castilian dominion in perpetuity over the Ibero-American people. All those declarations allude to the Alexandrine bulls as the crucial point of reference.” The etymology of “dominion” traces to domination, for, as William Brandon put it: in his New Worlds for Old Reports from the New World and Their Effect on the Development of Social Thought in Europe, 1500–1800 (1986), “Political power grown from property—dominium—was, in effect, domination.”

By the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, of 1848, between the United States and Mexico, the United States was deemed to have become the political successor of the empire of Mexico over the geographical areas which Mexico purported to cede to the United States. As a result, the original Native nations of California (and in all other areas claimed by Spain) are deemed to exist today under the dominating sovereignty and dominium of what the U.S. Supreme Court has called “the American empire” (Loughborough v. Blake, 1820, and Downes v. Bidwell, 1901).

A book published in 1885 reveals that the U.S. claim of territorial domination over the vast region that Mexico ceded to the United States by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is traced back to the time of Columbus and the papal bulls of 1493. The book by Frederick Hall is, The Laws of Mexico: A Compilation and Treatise Relating To Real Property, Mines, Water Rights, Personal Rights, Contracts, and Inheritances. Part one of the book is titled, “Crown Lands of Spain, Public Lands of Mexico, and Mines,” where we find the following:

§ 1. Grant by the Pope.—For the purposes of overthrowing heathenism, and advancing the Roman Catholic Religion, Alexander the sixth issued a bull [document] in 1493, granting to the crown of Castile the whole of the vast domain then discovered, or to be discovered, between the north and the south poles, or so much thereof as was not considered in the possession of any Christian power. “Ut fides Catholica et Christiana religio nostres præsertim temporibus exaltetur, etc., ac barbaræ deprimentur, et ad fidem ipsam reducantur,” was the language of the bull: 1 Haz. Coll. 3.”

Hall cleverly left out of his Latin quote the word “nations” that is found in the original Latin text (the original reads: “ac bararæ nations deprimantur”). He did so undoubtedly to avoid attributing even a hint of nationhood to the Indians of the geographical region called “California.”

The dominion (right of domination) claimed by the Spanish Empire, based on the grant of the papal bulls, passed to the Mexican Empire when it won its independence from Spain, and passed from Mexico to the American Empire by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The imperial right of domination is deemed to pass from one empire to the next by the rules of political succession, and this is the context of Pope Francis’s decision to declare Junipero Serra to be a saint of the Roman Catholic religious empire.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.