Controversy over Serra sainthood: Not all media settle for reporting

Ever hear people arguing past each other? Each makes seemingly good points, but doesn't answer those raised by the other.

If they only had someone -- oh, like a reporter, for instance -- to put some questions to them. Then, they could understand each other, and the rest of us could understand them both.

Mainstream media fill that function -- partly -- with the fallout over Pope Francis' speech about Junipero Serra this past weekend. Francis praised the 18th century California missionary, scheduled for sainthood in September, as a "founding father" of American religion. Reporters also looked up historians and Indians who branded his work genocidal.

But how the articles treat and background the speech varies vastly.

For some reason, the Associated Press ran two stories on the topic, and on the same day -- Saturday. One is AP's typical overly brief item that raises more questions than it answers.

That story first has Pope Francis praising Serra's "zeal"; then it quotes a native American leader who says the missionary "enslaved converts" and tried to destroy Indian culture. Here's the run-on lede:

Pope Francis on Saturday praised the zeal of an 18th-century Franciscan missionary he will make a saint when he visits the United States this fall but whom Native Americans say brutally converted indigenous people to Christianity.

AP then quotes Ron Andrade, who fires several salvos like:

"No Indians pray to Serra here," said Ron Andrade, a member of the La Jolla Indian Reservation and director of the Los Angeles City and County Native American Indian Commission.
When Spanish missionaries moved up the coast in their quest for new souls, "we moved inland, we moved away from the churches," Andrade said in a phone interview about Francis' honoring Serra. "(Serra knew) by destroying the culture and the lifestyle (of Native Americans), they would die."

The wire service doesn't have Francis reply to those and other charges, nor does it ask any Vatican spokesmen. Closest is quoting the pope that Serra helped defend "indigenous people against abuses by the colonizers."

AP Story #2 does ask a Vatican official, but only quotes him saying Serra was " 'a man of his times' but not a brute." AP also has Cardinal Donald Wuerl saying "critics took a 'secular and somewhat prejudiced view of the Church.' "

Against those vague excuses, AP pits an Indian leader, who says: "Some of the things he did personally were disgraceful, as far as we’re concerned. There was enslavement of the Indians, rape of the women, some were put to death."

The story does qualify a bit: "While there’s no record of Serra personally raping or killing, he led a movement that forcefully reshaped California." That excerpt, and the Indian leader's accusation, are lifted from a story in the San Diego Union Tribune.

The Los Angeles Times adds more balance and background, and in the same length. Rather than the "brutal" j'accuse of the AP stories, the Times lede merely calls Serra "controversial."

The article includes Francis saying that Serra "defended" Indians against colonizers, and adds a qualifier about missionaries: "Sometimes we stop and thoughtfully examine their strengths and, above all, their weaknesses and shortcomings."

We then hear from a Jesuit historian, who says that saints are chosen not because they're perfect, but because their work "had more good than nongood associated with it." The Times also quotes Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles saying that Serra's writings "reflect genuine respect for the indigenous people and their ways." Gomez' quotes are only in a press release, though.

But hey, lookit this: The Times also gets a viewpoint somewhere in the middle. Historian Steven Hackel, author of a 2013 book about Serra, gives this explanation of the Catholic side:

"What they are trying to say is that Serra protected indigenous people from soldiers and settlers and things would have been a lot worse without him," said Hackel, a professor at the UC Riverside. "There’s very much truth in that … but the other side of the equation was what did those missions … mean for tens of thousands of Indians."
After Serra died in 1784, conditions worsened and many indigenous people died and much of their culture was lost, Hackel said.

The usually balanced Cruxnow runs a surprisingly slanted apologia, with two historians and an archaeologist in favor of Serra -- and no detractors. One is the guy who told the Times that Serra did "more good than nongood." Another says Serra's writings show a "total devotion" to teaching and preaching, and that five nations have already put him on a postage stamp.

The most substantive are eight paragraphs from the archaeologist:

He insists that many of the Spanish missionary’s critics are confusing the impact of Spanish colonizing and missionary activity on the native communities with what happened after California became a US territory in 1848.
"A decimation of the Native American population,” Mendoza said, occurred “in the period after 1850; Serra had no connection to that phenomenon. Those who criticize Serra the most tend to conflate the American period with that of the missionaries."

Whether Cruxnow, as a news outlet, should have gone totally to the Catholic side is another question.

Historian Steven Hackel sounds less benign in the Religion News Service account. RNS has Hackel saying Serra waged an "aggressive" campaign to found Franciscan-style missions. It also adds numbers from Hackel:

Missionary rivalry aside, it’s the high death rate among the mission inhabitants for which Serra is most controversial. Serra died in 1784 at age 70, and the system he helped create saw around 80,000 Native Americans baptized in the missions between 1769 and the mid-1830s. By the latter period, around 60,000 of those had died, Hackel said.
“Even though he never killed anyone and would never have promoted that, there’s no question that the system that Serra creates is culturally and biologically lethal to native peoples,” he added.

RNS -- which, has the longest of the four stories here, at 800+ words -- also quotes Robert Andrade, a La Jolla Indian and director of the Los Angeles Native American Indian Commission. Andrade, also an AP source, calls Serra's planned canonization "nothing more than a PR move by the Catholic Church to entice more people to become Catholic." He calls instead for the Catholic Church to apologize to Native Americans.

On the other hand, RNS gets some nuance from historian Tracy Neal Leavelle at Creighton University:

“There certainly was oppression and coercion — the missions didn’t work without native labor — but native peoples and communities also figured out how to make the missions work for them,” he said.
Native Americans were able to use the missions as “backup” when facing the pressures of seasonal cycles of subsistence, Leavelle said. Their communities were nonetheless decimated by disease due to the missions, with Serra becoming “a symbol of that traumatic period.”

None of this is to deny mainstream media the right to look critically at Serra's life. When the Catholic Church praises the good he did for Native Americans, non-Catholics can legitimately ask how good it really was.  But they need a balanced look, neither rushing to judge nor rushing to whitewash.

Photo: Stained glass window of Friar Junipero Serra in the Immaculate Conception Church, Old San Diego, Calif. Image via Shutterstock.

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