Steven Newcomb

The Vatican’s Rhetorical Strategy: Serra Was a Man of His Time

On May 2, the archdiocese of Los Angeles will host a daylong celebration at the main U.S. seminary in Rome. What’s the occasion for the “celebration?” The event will honor Junipero Serra, who was a Roman Catholic missionary, and, therefore, an invading and colonizing agent for the Catholic Church in Baja and Alta California in the 18th century. Serra worked on behalf of the Catholic Church’s desire to expand (“propagate”) the Christian empire (“imperii Christiani”). Pope Alexander VI, a man of his time, stated that imperial desire in his Inter Caetera edict of 1493, in relation to the part of the world which Columbus’s first voyage had brought to the attention of Western Christendom.  

How has the Vatican responded to protests and sharp criticism from Indian people in California regarding Pope Francis’s announcement to declare Serra a saint? To accompany its acknowledgement of Serra’s use of “corporeal punishment” on the Indians of California as an “educational tool” of evangelism, the Vatican has said that Serra was “a man of his time.” What the Vatican has not acknowledged is notable: The context of the “time” that Serra was “a man of” was a context expressed in numerous papal edicts of the fifteenth century issued by popes who were men of their time. That context is found in the Holy See’s directive to Portuguese Catholic monarchs to “invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue, all Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery,” and “take away all their possessions and property.” (Dum diversas, 1452; Romanus Pontifex 1455). It would seem that, in the Vatican’s view, someone who did a great job carrying out the papacy’s divine directive to achieve those ends by propagating the Christian empire through imperial evangelism deserves to be sainted.

That “time” of violent evangelism, to use the title of the book by Dr. Luis Rivera Pagán (A Violent Evangelism, 1992), is the deadly dominating context that the Holy See cannot escape. As shall be demonstrated below, Serra looked to the model of Catholic saints using violence, as men of their time, in the name of the Prince of Peace, to impose evangelizing beatings and whippings on Indian people. This legacy of Catholic Church violence used against Indian men and women is ironic, to say the least, given that, according to an Associated Press story (“Vatican Defends Decision to Canonize Serra”), dated April 21, 2015, “For the church, Serra was a great evangelizer and a model for today’s Hispanics.” Perhaps the “saintly” Serra can be made into a counter-role-model for any campaign that is opposing violence against “Hispanic” women.

The impact of the Spanish Catholic missions of domination shattered the traditional economies and ways of life of the original nations. Such shattering opened the way for Catholic evangelism. That shattering impact was devastating on all levels for original nations that had experienced thousands of years of free and independent life-ways before the colonizers invaded. Serra used the mission system of domination as part of his effort to carry out the papacy’s call for “barbarous nations” (“barbarae nations”) to be “reduced” and “subjugated” (“deprimantur”), meaning “dominated.”

In his excellent and well researched book A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions (Craven Street Books, 2015), Elias Castillo quotes “padre president” Serra in a letter from January 7, 1780. Ironically, given the announcement of his own likely sainthood, Serra mentions the heavy-handed behavior of “saints” toward the Indians in their violent evangelism towards the Indians since the first evangelizing invasion of the hemisphere:

That the spiritual fathers [friars] should punish their sons, the Indians, by blows appears to be as old as the conquest of these kingdoms, and so general, in fact, that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule. Undoubtedly, the first to evangelize these shores followed the practice, and they were surely saints. . .In the life of Saint Francis Solano, who has been solemnly canonized, we read that, while he had a special gift from God to soften the ferocity of the most barbarous by the sweetness of his mission in the province of Tucumán in Peru—so we are told in his biography—when they [the Indians] failed to carry out his orders, he gave direction for his Indians to be whipped by his fiscales (p. 81).

 The “time” of Spanish Catholic dehumanization of Indian people, and domination of Indian nations, that Serra was “a man of,” was a time of massive death for Native nations and peoples. This result caused the “saintly” Serra to “rejoice.” According to Castillo, the deaths among the Indians as a result of diseases for which they had no immunity, and as a result of “horribly overcrowded and filthy living conditions, did not cause Serra grief.” As Castillo puts it, “Serra rejoiced.” “Thanks be to God,” wrote Serra, “that by now there is not a mission that does not have sons in heaven” (p. 82).

Castillo further notes that even “the many deaths of Indian children did not faze Serra’s dark joy.” Serra wrote the following to his Franciscan superior at the Colegio de San Fernando in Mexico City:

In the midst of all our little troubles, the spiritual side of the missions is developing most happily.  In [Mission] San Antonio there are simultaneously two harvests, at one time, one for wheat, and [one] of a plague among the children who are dying.

The massive number of Indian deaths created a crisis of “manpower” for the friars and the Catholic mission system of domination. As Castillo states: “Their [the friars’] solution was to use harsh means, including threats and outright kidnappings, to induce fresh groups of Indians to leave their villages for the missions, replacing those who had died.”

The “saint making office” at the Vatican (I’m not making that up) is making a clumsy rhetorical effort to excuse Serra’s role in the deadly Catholic colonization and Spanish Catholic system of domination (dominorum Christianorum) which resulted in what demographer Robert Jackson termed a “demographic collapse” among the Indians of California. This was a result of the Roman Catholic Mission system of domination and Pope Alexander VI’s doctrine of imperii Christiani.

The diocese system of the Roman Catholic Church has been called one of the remaining institutions of the Roman Empire. What most people fail to notice is that today’s Roman Catholic Church is a contemporary 21st-century and still living manifestation of the official religion of the ancient Roman Empire. It traces to the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine. He was the emperor who purported to have a vision of a flaming cross in the sky accompanied by the slogan “Conquer By This” (The slogan is accurately re-expressed as, “Dominate By This”). Today, the Roman Catholic Church, during the reign of Pope Francis, is attempting to create a celebratory atmosphere around its centuries of destructive “evangelization,” which is simply a benign sounding word for religious colonialism as part of a universal (catholic) empire of domination.

Does the Vatican expect us as Native people in our time to overlook and excuse a legacy of Vatican empire and dehumanization because that was then and this is now? Why is the Catholic Church and the Holy See using the words “saint” and “sainthood” and “celebration” in association with a time of Spanish Catholic empire and domination, and in association with the legacy of a man who helped to expand a system that resulted in the destruction and deaths of thousands of Native women, children, and men, along with much of their own languages, cultures, and spiritual traditions? The Catholic Church celebrating Serra by Pope Francis making him a saint is tantamount to Serra “rejoicing” at the deaths of Indians, and “most happily” commenting in a “saintly” manner on the deaths of Indian children as a “harvest” for the Church. It is to glorify the time and context that Serra “was a man of.”

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.

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