The “moral complexity” of Junipero Serra

Serra

Father Junipero Serra, a Franciscan priest who established some of the earliest Spanish missions  in California, has been under attack of late. On June 19, 2020, activists pulled-down a Serra statue in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The following day, activists took down a Serra monument at Father Serra Park in Los Angeles. On July 4, 2020, protesters toppled a Serra statue in Sacramento. Other Serra statues have been removed as well.

As Elizabeth Bruenig writes at The New York Times, “protesters have attacked statues of the saint because they believed he ‘eagerly participated in the conquest of North America, including the torture, enslavement and murder of some of the Native Americans he intended to convert.'”

Serra is a Catholic saint. Pope Francis canonized him in September 2015.

While there is a strong argument for the removal of monuments to Confederate generals and politicians located in public spaces, other cases are more complex. (See, for example, my recent piece on the George Whitefield statue at the University of Pennsylvania). As Bruenig shows, the Serra monuments fall into the latter category. Here is a taste of her piece:

Eva Walters, a founder and executive director of the City of the Angels Kateri Circle, an organization of Native American Catholics, expressed similarly complicated feelings. She was unhappy with Father Serra’s canonization, and does not doubt that what went on in his missions was atrocious. “We know our people, our ancestors, went through that,” she told me. “We know the horrors that happened. We know that.”

And yet Ms. Walters, who comes from the Quechan people of Southern California, was angered by the attacks on Father Serra’s statues. “We were very unhappy about the statues being desecrated, even though we weren’t happy about him being canonized,” she said. “It was not the American Indian Catholics who did that.”

I asked her how she had made such peace with Father Serra’s legacy. “Being Catholic,” she said, “we tend to forgive and pray over these awful things that have happened. We don’t condemn anyone.”

Father Serra would have been among the first to admit he had sinned, having had, according to Dr. Hackel, a routine of frequent self-flagellation. And yet he is still a saint. If conservatives can find some place for the moral complexity of a man like Father Serra, then I hope they can do the same for the racial justice movement that has been associated in some cases with attacks on his image. Catholics should know better than to let imperfections harden their hearts.

Read the entire piece here. Steven Hackel’s piece on Serra in the Los Angeles Times is also worth a read.