When the Catholic Church is considering elevating someone to the status of sainthood, there are always disagreements concerning their merits. The same was true when the venerable Junipero Serra was being considered for sainthood back in 2015. There was no disputing the fact that he was instrumental in establishing many Catholic missions in California, but how much good these missions did for the native population of the region is where the controversy begins. Officially, the state of California was completely behind the elevation of Serra in the Catholic Church, but there were certainly groups in the state of California that weren’t as convinced of his piety. We believe the argument for making him a saint outweigh any controversial aspects of his past.
There is a mistaken belief that religious individuals have to live a near-perfect life if they are to ever be considered for sainthood. This seems to be one of the main arguments against making Serra a saint. He was by no means perfect, and it seems likely that he was aware of practices that took place in the missions he established that weren’t necessarily in the best interests of native populations. However, he could not control the policies of the Spanish royal court or her armies, so he had to do the best he could within the framework of his reality. Where the missions perfect? No. Would the situation for native Californians have been worse without them? Almost certainly, it would.
Different Standards of Behavior
When we look back on history we do so with our own modern eyes. We judge the past and the people that came before us based on modern standards of morality, which have been developed over centuries of dealing with human failures. Serra lived and worked in the 18th century, when moral standards were very different – by the standards of his time, Serra was undoubtedly a good individual trying to good work in the name of God.
The other question you have to ask yourself, when looking at whether a person is worthy of being raised to sainthood, is, did they create any lasting good? At the time that Serra was spreading his missions throughout California, the Spanish empire was expanding ahead of him. While he certainly held a paternalistic view towards natives, as every other Spanish colonist did, his mission system was designed to protect them from the worst excesses of colonial expansion. He almost certainly saved a lot of native Californians from a much worse fate, and he was successful in establishing Catholicism in California, which now represents 30% of the state’s population.