Surely Pope Francis knew he would be wading into controversy when he announced this month that after 80 years of consideration, Father Junipero Serra was to be made a saint.
The outrage over recognition for Father Serra as “the evangelizer of the West in the United States” was swift in coming. Typical was the comment from UC Berkeley scholar Tony Platt in the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 25 that the decision “represents a profound insult to Native Americans and an injustice to history.”
But if our reading of this remarkable decision is correct, in honoring Father Serra, the astute and street-smart Francis is sending a message to the world about leadership. And the message is this: A truly effective leader must not be cowed by the extreme parties in his own camp.
Francis is, after all, a product of the social justice wing of the Catholic Church, a wing that has championed human rights in Latin America. He personally has chastised wealthy elites for not doing enough to alleviate poverty among the world’s poor.
But when it comes to recognizing the historic significance of Serra, his vision for California and the founding of the state’s missions that to this day frame the state’s economy, Francis was quick to make the case. He signed off on sainthood despite protests from the academic world and many on the left that Serra’s treatment of Native Americans, who declined in population by one-third during his time in California, amounted to genocide.
Instead, he accepted the fact that the harm done to Native Americans under Serra was not purposeful and not as impactful as the damage done by Americans in the 19th Century, a fact noted by Westmont College scholar and Serra biographer Gregory Orfalea. Francis placed Serra next in the queue for canonization, despite relatively thin evidence that he actually performed a miracle and after waiving the requirement of evidence for a second heavenly act.
What Francis is telling his peers is that you cannot be held captive by those of your own party. It is not a trivial message.
Can you imagine President Barack Obama wringing concessions from the GOP on a carbon tax in exchange for signing off on Keystone XL? Or Speaker John Boehner gaining a breakthrough on corporate income taxes in return for some small loophole closing? Or an amnesty-plus-deportation deal on immigration in which both Boehner and Obama stand their ground against the far left and far right.
Certainly not. It’s true that Francis doesn’t have to stand for re-election, but he operates in a highly political arena. And he is saying that when you exercise power, you don’t always have to play to your base.