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Father Junipero Serra ~ Saint or Sinner

By Henry H. Goldman
Adjunct Professor of History, Longview Community College, Lee's Summit, MO.


In September, Pope Francis will travel from the Vatican to Sacramento, California for the purpose of canonizing Franciscan Father Junipero Serra (1713-1784), founder of the first nine of the twenty-one Catholic missions in California which led to the creation of the El Camino Real, and the King�s highway, linking each mission together, from San Diego to Sonoma.

Father Serra has been an historical icon in California history for generations.  His statue is one of two representing California in the Hall of Statuary in the United States Capital, the other being that of Sally Ride. 

Serra�s canonization will cap his career and may make him the Patron Saint of the State of California.  But, the canonization of Serra comes with a good deal of controversy.  Some Aboriginal People (Native Americans) argue that he was not a saint but a sinner, in that he forced hundreds of Indians to convert to Catholicism, even though that would seem to be in conflict with the Christian ideal of free thinking.  The controversy is certainly not new.  One of my mentors at the University of Southern California in the 1960s was Dr. Donald C. Cutter (d. 2014) who had been retained by a group of California Native Americans to keep the Vatican from making Serra a saint.  The group was successful and the issue of sainthood was dropped. 

A new biography of Father Serra has recently been published by the University of Oklahoma Press, in cooperation with The Academy of Franciscan History, Mission San Luis Rey, Oceanside, California.  This 2015 book, written by two professors from the Catholic University at Santa Clara, attempts to justify canonization by proclaiming Serra�s good works, and how he helped the California Indians by forcing them onto the missions where they encouraged to give up their ancestral ways, learn to speak Spanish and become good citizens.

But the conferring of sainthood for Serra has opened up a political can of worms.  Two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal (May 3rd and June 5th, 2015) have made the issue a political one.  Ms. Allysia Finley (WSJ, June 5) proclaims that �. . . liberals want him [Serra] purged from the Capital.�  But it is not the liberals who are against the canonization, but conservative non-Revisionist historians that argue against sainthood.  Father Serra was following the decision that was made at the Great Debate held at Valladolid, in Spain, in the late sixteenth century.  The question that the Debate took up had to do with the Aristotelian view of, the �natural slave.�  Aristotle, in The Politics, argued that there were peoples in the world who were so far down the social ladder that they were �naturally-born to be slaves.�

The Indians� champion was Bartolome de las Casas, who argued that there were no peoples on the earth who were �natural slaves,� and if there were such, they were certainly not the natives of the Spanish New World (cf. Lewis Hanke, Aristotle and the American Indians, and his The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America, 1949.)  The victory for the original peoples of the New World led to an immediate cease in Indian Slavery, but encouraged something else: the Encomienda system which gathered the natives together on what might have been called a reservation (had taken place in 19th century United States of America, where they could be educated, converted and become Spaniards.  Father Serra was following that example when he brought Indians into the missions.

But, there is still more to the story.  Junipero Serra�s deeds were cataloged by his close friend and fellow priest, Francisco Palou, who, writing after Serra�s death, proclaimed him to be responsible for �miraculous happenings.�  For nearly a century, Palou�s book was the only source for Serra�s life.  It was replete with examples �. . . the author hoped it might help to procure the beatification of his revered brother-Franciscan. [Charles E. Chapman, A History of California: The Spanish Period, 1921]�

Some have called for Serra�s statue to be removed from the Nation�s Capital Building, while there are others have cheered the upcoming canonization. 

Like it or not, the Pope�s visit will put Father Serra into an entirely new position: that is that he was called by God to help spread the Gospel to the heathen and, as such, he should take his place on the Vatican�s list of Saints.   

Henry H. Goldman is a Fellow of The Business Forum Institute.  Henry got his Masters Degree at the University of Iowa and did his Doctoral Studies at the University of Southern California.  He is a Certified Professional Consultant to Management (CPCM); and has published numerous articles in trade journals and was Associate Editor of Taking Stock: A Survey on the Practice and Future of Change Management (Berlin, Germany).  He is a member of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD); Association of Professional Consultants (APC) and the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC). Henry has consulted and/or offered training in South Africa, Tanzania, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Barbados, Georgia, Kosovo, Tajikistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and of course North America. He has also taught at Baker University: Lee�s Summit, MO, 2008, was Adjunct Professor of International Business; National Graduate School: Falmouth, MA, 2004-2008, Adjunct Professor of Quality Management; California State University: Fullerton, 2005-2006, Lecturer on Taxation; University of California: Berkeley, 2002, Adjunct Professor of Management; University of Macau (China), Adjunct Professor of Management, 2001-2003 and Adjunct Professor of History, Longview Community College, Lee's Summit, MO..

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