Tags: Religion | Catholicism | Missions | Eiteljorg | Serra

Anti-Catholicism Gets a Pass in Discussion of Calif. Missions

Monday, 18 May 2015 11:39 AM Current | Bio | Archive

As was easily predicted, the impending canonization of Blessed Junipero Serra has provoked a deluge of anti-Catholic stories. The 18th century Franciscan friar who walked from Mexico through California, establishing a remarkable mission system (think San Juan Capistrano and the swallows), has been blamed for nothing less than genocide: the destruction of the Indigenous Native culture in California.

Much of the criticism of Father Serra and the California missions is both ahistorical and ideological, and these days there are not enough voices brave enough to defend the church on this matter, though some historians are trying.

One expects the predictable. After complaints from some Native American groups in California, for example, one California lawmaker has sought to remove a statue of Serra from the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, to be replaced with one of LGBT heroine and astronaut Sally Ride. Less expected is when folks who know better succumb to the temptation to get in a few licks at the church.

Recently I visited the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. It is a beautifully appointed museum in the heart of Indianapolis with an extensive collection of paintings and crafts. A special exhibit called “Gold! Riches and Ruin,” is running from March 7 to August 9. It is a fascinating look at the impact of the various gold rushes in the United States, particularly in mid-19th century California. Exhibits included gold ingots, panning trays, and a wide variety of mementos and stories.

So imagine my surprise when I suddenly found myself in front of a painting done in 1992 by Harry Fonseca, an artist claiming partial Indian heritage. Titled “Gold and Souls #21,” it featured a smear of gold, a bold black cross and a red handprint. Here is the museum’s posted description of the art:

“The gold rush and the Catholic Church-sponsored mission system had a devastating impact on California natives . . . The gold leaf references the gold rush, whereas the black cross represents Catholicism and the introduction of the mission system. The red handprint . . . symbolizing blood and death, stands in for the vast numbers of California natives who lost their lives after the discovery of gold and the introduction of Catholicism.”

Fonseca’s description is sheer propaganda, treated as fact. Never mind that there is no mention of Spain or Mexico or the military forces that were the actual conquerors of California. Never mind that the early devastation came from disease, not mistreatment. Nor that the gold rush followed the introduction of Catholicism by more than half a century. Nor that many more Indians died after Americans invaded California seeking gold than after the arrival of the missionaries seeking souls.

The artist is certainly welcome to his opinions, but the museum’s rare reference to religion in the exhibit is revealing of a prejudice that we can expect to hear more of in the next four months leading up to the canonization.

Fortunately, there are some good historians looking closely at the Serra record. One is Robert Senkewicz, professor of history at Santa Clara University and an expert on early California history, who with his wife Rose Marie Beebe wrote "Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary."

Another is Gregory Orfalea, author of "Journey to the Sun: Junipero Serra's Dream and the Founding of California."

As happened throughout the New World, missionaries often accompanied, or followed closely behind, the conquistadors and other explorers seeking fame, fortune, and new lands. Not every churchman necessarily lived up to the ideals of his faith, much less the ideals of 21st century ideologues. But there seems to be no effort to understand what motivated the missionaries, or the actions they took on behalf of the indigenous peoples.

And in this context, Blessed Junipero Serra was remarkable: He gave up his academic career in the comforts of Spain to bring souls to Christ. He treated the natives with respect, calling them not barbarians or savages, but gentiles, and demanded that others treat them with respect as well.

In a passionate defense of Serra, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles recently said that he “spoke out daily against the cruelties of soldiers and administrators. He complained bitterly that they were men ‘without any fear of God whatever in their hearts.’ He decried the systematic rape of indigenous women and fought for the removal of military officers who did nothing to stop it.”

Not only is Serra not someone to be embarrassed of or apologized for, but Archbishop Gomez argues that Serra’s 1773 document "Representación" is “a landmark of Catholic social teaching and a primary document in the history of human rights.”

While calling the document “a legislative memorandum,” Gomez said that at its heart, it was a “radical call for justice for the indigenous peoples living in the missions. Father Serra demands that corrupt colonial commanders be deposed and soldiers be held to strict moral standards.”

The Californian missions were unique outposts that reflected both spiritual zeal and a profoundly religious humanitarian impulse. They were certainly not perfect, but they often stood in stark contrast to the attitudes and desires of the colonizers.

As historians themselves are moving beyond the anti-Catholic “black legends” and taking a fresh look at California’s founders, I can only hope that the Eiteljorg will rise to the challenge of a more historically accurate representation of the Spanish missions and the men who founded them.

Gregory R. Erlandson is the president of the Publishing Division for Our Sunday Visitor, one of the largest Catholic publishing companies in the United States. Erlandson is also an adviser on the U.S. Bishops’ Communications Committee, and has been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as a consultant to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Read more reports from him — Click Here Now.

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As was easily predicted, the impending canonization of Blessed Junipero Serra has provoked a deluge of anti-Catholic stories.
Catholicism, Missions, Eiteljorg, Serra
Monday, 18 May 2015 11:39 AM
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