Catholics are criticizing California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to replace the toppled statue of a saint at the state Capitol with a monument to the indigenous peoples who protesters say the missionary oppressed.
Faith leaders said Mr. Newsom, a Democrat and Catholic himself, overlooked a complicated reality by signing legislation to banish the image of Father Junipero Serra, an 18th-century Spanish priest who founded missions across the state.
“If the Franciscans hadn’t come along with the Spanish soldiers, the Indians would have been treated even worse by the colonial government. It was often the missionaries who complained about how the natives were treated,” the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst with Religion News Service, told The Washington Times.
Father Reese said that while American Indians suffered illness and patriarchal attitudes at the hands of Europeans, they had few alternatives to the missions established by Serra.
“The alternative was to have no colonization at all, which the Spanish were never going to do,” Father Reese said.
Mr. Newsom signed Assembly Bill 338 on Sept. 24.
The law declares that “enslavement of both adults and children, mutilation, genocide, and assault on women were all part of the mission period initiated and overseen by Father Serra.”
“I’m proud to sign this long overdue legislation to honor the Native peoples who have called this land home since time immemorial and to further our important work in partnership with Native American communities to tackle the multi-faceted challenges facing California,” Mr. Newsom said at the signing.
In a Sept. 12 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Archbishops Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco disputed the bill’s characterization.
“While there is much to criticize from this period, no serious historian has ever made such outrageous claims about Serra or the mission system,” wrote the state’s only two archbishops.
During Black Lives Matters-inspired demonstrations in 2020, protesters toppled statues of Serra across the state, including the one on Sacramento’s Capitol Park.
On Oct. 17 of that year, Archbishop Cordileone called the destruction “an act of blasphemy” as he performed an exorcism at San Rafael Mission in Marin County, where Indigenous Peoples Day protesters had defaced and toppled a Serra statue on church grounds a few days earlier.
On his September 2015 visit to the U.S., Pope Francis canonized Serra, calling the new saint “a defender of the dignity of the Native community.”
In 1931, California chose Serra as one of two figures to represent the state in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol, but protesters are calling on Mr. Newsom to remove that statue as well.