Serra's defenders point out that he vigorously opposed lengthy imprisonment and capital punishment for Indians. He once wrote the Spanish viceroy in Mexico "that in case the Indians, whether pagans or Christians, would kill me, they should be pardoned." The Franciscans were constantly protecting Indian converts from Spanish soldiers and colonists who wanted to turn the natives into servants and concubines.
Another major point made on Serra's behalf was that, in 1773, he went from Carmel to Mexico City to meet with the Viceroy, and to defend the interests of the Indians.
Got Bill of Rights
"He was planting the same ideals on the West Coast that the Founding Fathers were establishing on the East Coast," said Father Noel Francis Moholy of San Francisco, who has overseen Serra's sainthood campaign for the Franciscans for more than 30 years. "He came back from Mexico with a Bill of Rights for the Indians of California 18 years before there was an American Bill of Rights."
Most academics agree--and recent Franciscan historians concede--that the primary reason Serra went to Mexico was to wrest civil control from the military governor at Monterey, Pedro Fages. Serra was successful in this effort, and the controversial Fages was replaced, although he later returned for a second term. Control over the Indian population was a constant struggle between the two men.
The key provision of the document Serra brought back from the Viceroy stated that "the management, control and education of the baptized Indians pertains exclusively to the missionary fathers . . . just as the father of a family has charge of his house and the . . . correction of his children."
Fages seems to have been as much a defender of the Indians as Serra. In 1783, the military governor of California, then in his second term and still battling with Serra, criticized the missionaries for beating the Indians, adding that "chastisement by putting in chains is very frequent at all the missions, but principally at Carmel," where Serra maintained his headquarters.
Two Basic Arguments
Serra's defenders make two basic arguments with regard to his treatment of the Indians.
For one, they argue that it is unfair to judge actions taken in 1786 by the standards of 1986, which approach aboriginal evangelization with much greater sensitivity.
But numerous theologians in Spain and Latin America--some writing as early as 200 years before Serra's arrival in California--argued in opposition to extreme discipline and compulsion toward native peoples, and in favor of cultural sensitivity.
"These were huge debates that involved great Spanish theologians on the whole issue of using force for conversion," said Father John A. Coleman, a professor of religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.
Serra's defenders also say that in colonial America everyone beat the Indians. They contrast the well-meaning but admittedly destructive approach of the Franciscans toward Indians on the West Coast with other European colonial powers, who did worse. The contrast is sharpest, they say, with that of the treatment of Indians on the East Coast by the French and English (and later, the Americans) who drove the Indians off their lands or slaughtered them wholesale.
However, Russian colonists and traders in Northern California made no effort to convert Indians or seize their lands. And in French Canada, Jesuit missionaries traveled with Indians or lived in villages with them, beginning in 1640, without destroying their culture.
"All of this Jesuit material from Canada was published and circulated within the Jesuit order. It's not as if the example wasn't there to follow if he (Serra) wanted to," said James Axtell, author of "The Conquest of Cultures in Colonial North America."
"In retrospect," Coleman said, "we can now say there were some people who knew better about acculturation and the Gospel."
The Vatican, however, does not agree.
"The good that Serra did for the Indians far outweighed any of what we might now consider negative elements, namely blending them into the Spanish culture," said Father Robert Sarno, an official of the Sacred Congregation for Causes of Saints in Rome.
"Serra was revered as an exceptional individual" by Native Americans in California, said Moholy, whose official title is vice postulator of Serra's sainthood drive. "The Indians truly loved him. And that's why it hurts so much to hear some of these indictments."
More Critical Standard
Close scrutiny of Junipero Serra's moral character and judgment is required by the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Vatican officials say, inasmuch as canonization carries with it the imprimatur of papal infallibility. Thus, a much more critical standard is applied by the Vatican than by secular academics, according to Sarno.