As the struggle for racial justice in American society expanded to include calls for the removal of statues honoring historical figures who perpetuated institutional racism (including slaveowners and Confederate soldiers,) statues of other figures have also been called into question. Some of these include two canonized saints, like Junípero Serra (a Franciscan who founded missions in California) and Louis IX, a medieval French King.

Protesters and their sympathizers have mentioned how St. Junípero Serra exhibited a paternalistic attitude toward the indigenous people in his care. They also point to violent incidents that occurred in the Californian missions where, after baptism, the indigenous people were not permitted to leave, and those who tried to flee were dragged back by soldiers and beaten. As for St. Louis IX, he committed anti-Semitic acts and participated in two crusades, leading armies that killed Muslims in holy wars. Our contemporary society certainly would not view these actions as acceptable today.

On the other hand, it is also true that St. Junípero Serra defended the rights of Native Americans against exploitation by conquistadors. At his canonization Mass, Pope Francis said he “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.” To have done so was very rare for a white man in that time and place. Regarding King Louis, he was considered a model ruler, who cared for the sick, poor, and disadvantaged. In a recent letter, St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson wrote, “The reforms that St. Louis implemented in French government focused on impartial justice, protecting the rights of his subjects, steep penalties for royal officials abusing power, and a series of initiatives to help the poor.”

Serra was a man who fought for the rights of minorities, Louis was a political leader who exemplified the search for the common good in his governance. The unrest in American society in recent weeks seems to cry for models in these particular areas. Focus on these specific aspects of their lives could be a source of healing.

But does the good these men did outweigh the dark sides of their lives? Of course, good and evil actions do not cancel each other out, they stand on their own. How do we answer this question? Their good actions are certainly not the source of the controversy. No one disputes that Fr. Serra was doing good when he walked a long journey with a painful ulcerated leg to obtain the authority to discipline soldiers who were abusing the indigenous people. Likewise, no one denies that King Louis IX was doing good when he fed and ate with the poor of his realm. Rather, the controversy rages when we turn to their bad actions.

Those who defend keeping these statues on display have argued that we cannot judge historical figures against contemporary moral standards, and ignore their cultural context. To do so is to be guilty of presentism, a historiographical error. Presentism is a form of cultural bias, in which one judges past cultures through the lens of one’s own contemporary culture. Presentism then becomes paradoxical when it is used to judge the cultural biases of Catholic saints who erred when they judged other cultures through the prism of their own Christian culture.

In this sense, Pope Francis struck the right balance when he said, in his 2018 Christmas address to the Curia, that it is “the choice and the decision of the whole Church” that errors “must never happen again,” but also that we “need to judge the past with a hermeneutics of the past.

One can argue, however, that to absolve someone from guilt simply because they were from a different time and place is a form of moral relativism, an evil Pope Benedict XVI battled against fiercely. We believe in objective, eternal moral values: what is evil today was also evil in the past. It is interesting to note how many conservatives who are moral absolutists regarding contemporary society tend to be moral relativists about the past. Likewise, many progressives are moral absolutists about the past, but relativistic towards the present age.

How should we approach the faults and imperfections of historical figures? Perhaps the answer can be found in the wisdom of a papal document that has come under tremendous scrutiny in recent years, precisely from the ideological quadrant more prone to defend these saints: Amoris Laetitia.

Contrary to what many of its critics argue, Amoris Laetitia rejects moral relativism very strongly (AL 307). Nevertheless, Amoris also reminds us of the difficulty in forming accurate moral judgments based on external facts. How does Amoris reconcile this tension? By making a distinction between objective evil and subjective culpability.

It is very easy for Catholics who admire these saints to give apologetical responses to attacks against them. Such Catholics risk falling for the opposite temptation: to whitewash the evils committed by those saints. Canonization does not entail the complete validation of every aspect of a saint’s life. Pope Francis teaches this in Gaudete et Exsultate 22:

Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person.

The 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia reminds us:

Although the saint is proposed as a model of virtues and Christian living, it is not the specific object of canonization. For example, it is quite possible that a martyr show heroic virtue in the face of death without necessarily having lived all the virtues to an exemplary degree.” (Source)

To whitewash is a sin against the truth, just as relativism is. The truth is often complex and does not always conveniently side with our preferences. We should not fear a rigorous examination of the moral failings of saintly individuals. In fact, as defenders of truth, we should embrace it. That said, we shouldn’t uncritically accept every accusation, either.

But after the historical facts have been established, there is still the question of the culpability of these individuals. Amoris Laetitia draws from the traditional teaching on mitigating circumstances, reminding us that mortal sin entails not only grave matter, but also full consent and full knowledge. While Amoris deals mostly with discerning mitigated consent in cases of divorced and remarried people, with historical figures, the discernment mostly involves full knowledge.

In his book A Friendly Reply to the Critics of Amoris Laetitia (Risposte amichevoli), philosopher Rocco Buttiglione affirms that contemporary divorced and remarried couples might not be fully aware of the wrongness of divorce. He draws from St. John Paul II’s teaching on “structures of sin”. Modern society would predispose people to the widespread sins of that society (like divorce) and hinder individual ability to recognize and choose the truth. A person living in a culture that accepts certain sins often has diminished responsibility for committing such sins. In this sense, people are not only a mix of vices and virtues, but are also constrained by the moral horizons of their time.

Slavery, tribalism, ethnocentrism, and holy wars were, unfortunately, pervasive throughout a substantial part of human history. St. Junípero Serra and King St. Louis IX were born into and molded by such societies. They did not create these societies, they inherited them. Many things that today we realize are moral evils were considered widely accepted by the societies where they found themselves. While we may think that the wrongness of these actions is self-evident, the truth is that humanity only arrived at these conclusions very late, through a gradual development.

We may think that we arrived at these conclusions by ourselves, but the only reason why we can now recognize these evils so clearly is that we stand on the shoulders of moral giants. These moral giants do not stand as tall as we do, for we stand on their shoulders. Yet, without those giants, we would be at a much lower level today.

People like St. Junípero were instrumental in planting seeds of social awareness that would eventually lead to emancipation and then to the civil rights movement. And that awareness continues to evolve today, for the process of racial justice in the US is far from complete.

This is where another key concept in Amoris Laetitia, also inherited from John Paul II, comes in: the law of gradualness. Pope Francis wrote:

Along these lines, Saint John Paul II pro­posed the so-called “law of gradualness” in the knowledge that the human being “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stag­es of growth.” This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law.” (AL 295).

Does this mean that we must excuse moral monsters, like the Confederate slaveholders? Not at all. Amoris is not about excusing evil, which would entail a “gradualness of the law”. But it tells us that a case-by-case assessment is needed. As I wrote in this recent article, not all are eligible for Amoris Laetitia‘s provisions:

“For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must neces­sarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more per­fect response to it (…) Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which sepa­rates from the community” (AL #297, 300)

The Confederacy was created with the express purpose of perpetuating slavery, at a time when the need for abolition had already penetrated the collective morality. It was instituted with the sole purpose of resisting this moral development. In their cases, we cannot argue that their culpability may have been mitigated in the same sense as we could for Junípero or Louis.

One final point where Amoris can help us in this particular topic is discernment. Statues are not everlasting. Sometimes they are taken down and are replaced by others. Other times, it is morally imperative to remove the statues of immoral people, who do not deserve recognition (as is the case for Confederate statues, in my opinion).

Junípero and Louis are not exempt from this discernment just because they are canonized saints. The New Catholic Encyclopedia article cited above also points out that canonization does not “make the saints immune from the judgment of history insofar as hindsight might show that some of their external actions proved to be unwise or had negative consequences.”

The question is: who decides which statues should stay or go. he divorced and remarried couples described in Amoris Laetitia do not discern alone, but as members of a Church, with the help of their pastors. In the case of the assessment of historical figures, this discernment should be done as a society, with mechanisms of democratic decision-making and consent informed by an unbiased discussion of the historical facts. We should listen, converse, and build consensus for change.

Only then will we be able to make an appropriate case-by-case discernment. Namely, we must differentiate between the treatment given to statues erected solely as historical propaganda meant to undermine the advancement of society’s awareness of human dignity (such as statues of Confederate figures during the Jim Crow era), and statues erected with no ill intentions.

We must also differentiate between those who are revered for their contributions for the advancement of mankind despite their moral failings and those whose significant historical contributions were to perpetuate the evils of their time. Obviously, we can never be certain how these historical figures might act if they were alive today. But given the fidelity demonstrated by Sts. Junípero and Louis to the teachings of the Church during their lives, it is plausible to think that their actions would have been different. Had Fr. Serra lived today, he would probably be on the side of those who promote the rights of minorities. Likewise, King Louis certainly would not be engaging in crusades today, but one can imagine that he would involve himself in diplomatic efforts to build world peace. Meanwhile, the descendants of the Confederates today are those who continue to fight to preserve systemic evils and perpetuate racism in US society, much like their forebearers. They cannot be treated the same way. In my opinion, the Confederate statues must come down, but the ones from Saints Junípero and Louis should stay.

Image: Monument to Father Junípero Serra in Sacramento. By Nathan Hughes Hamilton – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nat507/10618016033/, CC BY 2.0, Link


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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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