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The Pope Makes a Mistake

Just when we thought the Papacy might be ready to confront its historical role in dispossessing and dominating indigenous peoples around the world, Pope Francis decides to carry forward the process started by John Paul II to make a saint of the man who founded the infamous California Indian missions in the 18th century.

Pope Francis announced this month he intends to canonize Father Junipero Serra during the Papal visit to the United States later this year. Pope John Paul II beatified Serra in 1987 — the first step leading to a declaration of sainthood.

According to the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, the Franciscan Order appointed Serra, at the age of 54 in 1767, to oversee missions in California. The appointment followed the Spanish Emperor's expulsion of the Jesuit Order from Spanish colonies. Serra arrived at San Diego in 1769, and, with the exception of one journey to Mexico, spent the remainder of his life there. He died at San Carlos Borromeo Mission of Carmel, near Monterey, in 1784, at the age of 71.

A brother Franciscan monk, Serra's disciple and companion, compiled a record of Serra's activity in California. According to an 1862 report about this biography, Serra was "even- tempered, temperate, obedient, zealous, kindly in speech, humble and quiet. …he had no quarrels and made no enemies." On the other hand, the report portrays Serra as extremely removed from ordinary life: "Earth for its own sake, had no joys for him…. Laughter was inconsistent with [his] terrible responsibilities…. Not a joke or a jovial action is recorded of him. … Art or poetry never served to sharpen his wits, lighten his spirit, or solace his weary moments."

Even more than avoiding pleasure, he sought pain: "He often lashed himself with ropes, sometimes of wire; he was in the habit of beating himself in the breast with stones, and at times he put a burning torch to his breast. These things he did while preaching or at the close of his sermons."

If this was all Serra was known for, it might make sense that his church canonizes him. The broader historical record, however—not just the record compiled by his fellow monk—presents serious difficulties for sainthood.

As a Public Broadcasting System (PBS) profile of Serra puts it, "Junipero Serra was a driving force in the Spanish conquest and colonization of what is now the state of California." PBS points out that the Spanish missions were "intended both to Christianize the extensive Indian populations and to serve Spain's strategic interest by preventing Russian explorations and possible claims to North America's Pacific coast."

In short, Junipero Serra fits the classic model of a Christian missionary: hard at work to "save" the Indians, as well as their lands, from rival empires. The fact that the Roman Catholic Church was in conflict with the Russian Orthodox over the proper form of Christianity added to the rivalry of the empires.

Serra's efforts to "convert" Indians and maintain a Spanish presence in Indian lands completely fulfill the mandate of the doctrine of "Christian Discovery," promulgated by the Papacy in the 15th century in an effort to resolve competition between Portugal and Spain for Indian lands in the "New World."

The Papal Bull Inter Caetera (1493) supported Spanish claims of "discovery" with "the fullness of our apostolic power" to "give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever, together with all their dominions, cities, camps, places, and villages, and all rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered."

The doctrine of "Christian Discovery" asserted the Papacy's claim to spiritual lordship of the whole world and the Pope's role in regulating relations among "Christian princes" and between Christians and "unbelievers" (referred to as "heathens" and "infidels".) The Spanish missions in California, led by Serra, thus represented the religiously sanctioned imperial power of Spain in its struggle to expand its colonies in the New World.

The PBS profile describes the function of the Spanish missions as follows: "The number of civilian colonists in Alta California never exceeded 3,200, and the missions with their Indian populations were critical to keeping the region within Spain's political orbit. Economically, the missions produced all of the colony's cattle and grain, and by the 1780's were even producing surpluses sufficient to trade with Mexico for luxury goods."

The Spanish referred to the missions as "reduccións"—"reductions." The Oxford English Dictionary defines a reducción as "a village or settlement established by Spanish colonists or missionaries to accommodate the indigenous population in an environment where they could be converted to Christianity, and become assimilated into European culture." In other words, the missions were like the "Praying Towns" established by the English 100 years earlier in Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the "reservations" established 100 years later throughout the continent by the United States.

The missions, the praying towns, and reservations are all premised on the same doctrine: the subordination of Indian peoples to a "Christian Discoverer." Each colonial power learned the doctrine from the Papacy, which was viewed as the source of legitimacy for Christian monarchs. Even after the English threw off the Papacy under Henry VIII, they explicitly continued the policy of "Christian Discovery."

In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted "Christian Discovery" as the basis for American property law, ruling that the Piankeshaw Indians were disqualified from holding title to their lands because of the doctrine. The court said the United States held title to Indian lands, "in trust" for the Indian inhabitants.

In 1955, the United States renewed its commitment to "Christian Discovery" in a brief to the Supreme Court that argued the Tee-Hit-Ton Indians did not deserve compensation for property taken by the United States, because the United States held "Christian Discovery" title to Tee-Hit-Ton lands. The court agreed.

Apologists for the Papacy—including John Paul II in a 1987 speech to Indigenous peoples in Phoenix, Arizona—argue that the 1493 Inter Caetera Bull was abrogated by the 1537 Bull Sublimis Deus, which forbid enslavement of Indians.

These apologists are wrong for two reasons. First, Sublimis Deus was designed to support the Christianization of the Indians: they could be killed as "enemies of Christ" if they refused conversion; the Bull did not forbid religious domination or "Christian Discovery." Second, Sublimis Deus and its enforcement order—Pastorale officium—were annulled one year after their issuance! So much for the apology.

The bottom line for the proposed sainthood for Junipero Serra: He's the wrong guy to canonize, especially in the current era of increasing concern for the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Pope Francis may already be in too deep to pull the plug. Too bad for him, too bad for the church, too bad for Indigenous Peoples, too bad for humanity.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe (DNA) Navajo Legal Services in Shiprock, NM from 1968-1970. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.