Of Saints and Symbols

Over the past few months, the United States has been grappling with racism in a way that it has not in recent years. The current discourse has included a greater discussion within the Church of these issues as well. And, one hopes, that the continued discussion will bring further healing and reconciliation, especially with regard to the failures of the American Church to address racism and how it has facilitated racism.

Despite this healthy introspection, an additional phenomenon has arisen that has affected the nature of the discussion: the destruction of the statues of saints. The actual destruction or threatened destruction of these statues is almost beside the point. There will always be people seeking to engage in behavior of this sort. What has taken my interest is the response of some Catholics that—rather than defend the saints—take the opportunity to call for a reexamination of the saint, and what they represent.

I recently listened to a very edifying podcast put out by the Jesuits, AMDG: A Jesuit Podcast, with guest Dr. M. Shawn Copeland. The interview ranged over various issues confronting the Church regarding racism. And the conversation included many important points. But when the discussion turned to the controversy over Saint Junipero Serra, I noticed something interesting happened. Rather than a robust discussion about the life of the saint—including the spiritual reality that Saint Serra is a living member of the heavenly Jerusalem—the interlocutors discussed what Serra represents as a symbol to oppressed groups.

St. Junipero Serra statue on Serra Mall, now renamed, at Stanford University.

Whether it is Saint Serra, or other saints, it has become clearer to me that we have a problem when we approach our saints like the world approaches their heroes. A saint can never be reduced to a symbol because he or she is alive in the communion of saints among the Church Triumphant. In other words, as members of the Church we are in communion with these holy men and women. And any attempt to reevaluate these men and women must take into account that we are not talking about men and women who are gone but who are alive in Christ today—men and women who, by virtue of their place in heaven, are deserving of our friendship.

Indeed, there is no person on this earth who is more deserving of our friendship than the saints in heaven who are friends of God and, by virtue of their inclusion on the liturgical calendar, especially identified by the Church as guides and helpers on our journey to heaven. While it is fair to discuss how these men and women may have had their legacies marred by others inappropriately using their lives to teach the wrong lessons, we can never make the mistake of arguing that they are unworthy of our love and affection. Nor is it necessary to accept that everything they did was perfect—every saint sinned and failed while on the path to holiness. But we do know that they lived a life directed towards and that ended in perfect love of God and neighbor.

No one is cancelling the saints. And if, in the thirst for righteousness, you find yourself growing cold in charity towards any saint—I would humbly suggest that you are being attacked by a spirit of evil that seeks to tear apart the body of Christ in the guise of justice. This danger should not be surprising, after all, the Devil is also known as the Accuser. A disordered obsession with the faults of our friends in heaven is a twisted form of purity that comes from the enemy and has more in common with scrupulosity than justice.

That our saints have flaws should be a beacon of hope to us all, who are sinners on this earth as well. It may also be an invitation from the Church for us to learn something important: a pattern for how to love our fellow neighbors, despite their flaws.

There is a good and healthy reexamination taking place about who are our heroes. And a stronger understanding of what constitutes a heroic life as modeled by the Church is a good guide for our country as well. Rather than myopically focusing on a man or woman’s flaws, we should also look at the direction of their lives and how they tried to live the virtues.

There is no doubt that many statues and places of honor must be denied men and women when they are honored for the worst aspects of their lives. The classic case is Confederate leaders and soldiers that fought our nation for the right to oppress their fellow man. These men cooperated in evil and their statues honor their service in that cause. This should not be tolerated in a society that is seriously committed to building a national culture of equality and anti-racism.

But our saints do not fall in this category—and it is impossible to believe otherwise. Some saints have been misappropriated in the service of racist narratives—one can think of how the Stanford family has done this with Saint Junipero Serra. And in those instances, the Church has an obligation to the saints and the faithful—for the honor of God—to take back the narrative and call out the sacrilegious use of the saints.

Leland Stanford, Sr., was, among other things, the governor of California from 1861 to 1863. He was a ruthless railroad tycoon and a racist politician, leading efforts against Chinese immigrants and Native Americans. Jin Barber, a Stanford student, wrote of Stanford:

While governor of California, Leland Stanford supported legislation and raised volunteers for Civil War-era army campaigns against California Indians. In February 1863, Stanford specifically recruited ten new companies of California Volunteers to prevent the “repeated incursions of hostile Indians,” essentially fielding a major US Army operation in doing so. Only two months later, he approved legislation that increased compensation for these volunteers, luring more California men to enlist and expanding the number of soldiers available to hunt American Indians. He later donated over $20 million to found Stanford University, which sits on land previously owned by the Muwekma Ohlone tribe.

He then closely associated himself with Saint Serra by building the university to match the style and architecture of the missions. In doing so, Stanford tied together his legacy with that of Saint Serra, so that Serra’s failings are now seen as Serra’s defining characteristics and the inspiration for Stanford’s depredations. While the legacy of Stanford himself is rarely questioned, Serra has become a token or representation of an oppression and genocide he never endorsed and would have rejected.

A statue of St. Serra in Golden State Park. Photo by Burkhard Mücke

By treating the reputation of a friend of God in this way, Leland Stanford committed a sacrilege. As the Catechism explains: “Sacrilege consists in profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions, as well as persons, things, or places consecrated to God”(2120). A saint is consecrated to God and using them to justify oppression and evil is unworthy of God.

Stanford University has compounded this sacrilege by using Saint Serra’s life to hide their role in oppression. By singling out Serra as responsible for the abuse of California’s native people, through deleting mention of Serra, Stanford University escapes grappling with its own history. Moreover, it perpetuates the narrative that Saint Serra would support the past and present marginalization of native people. The faithful should oppose sacrilege like this every chance we get. 

If we are to do justice to Saint Serra and our Native Californian brother and sisters, we have to do the hard work of separating Serra from the dominant “founding” narratives that reduce saints, like Serra, into tools to justify oppression rather than treating them like the complex, God-loving people they are. This, in part, means resisting the urge to use the saints to prop up the reputations of political leaders or institutions that have little to commend them. This kind of stolen valor may ingratiate Catholics with a certain subset of American society, but it cheapens saints and risks associating men and women who love God with oppressors.

Ultimately, this sacrilegious use of the saints for purely ideological or immoral uses threatens the prophetic witness of the Church that has elevated these men and women as worthy of particular veneration and identified them as friends of God. After all, if Serra and Stanford were really kindred spirits, and Serra is God’s friend—then what does that say about who we think God is? How will those hearing the Gospel see the poor in the God of Stanford? For this reason, we must insist  in the separation of Stanford and his ilk from Serra—as Pope Francis explained in 2015 :

He [Serra] was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life. He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters. Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.

Sadly, the opposite approach was on display at this year’s National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, where Bishop Barron—known for savvy engagement with popular culture—decided to rhetorically tie together Thomas Jefferson and Junipero Serra (see 7:00 and onward in the video below). Barron acknowledged that these men had no direct ties, but that they should be thought of together because they both extolled virtues arising out of a common Christian culture. As a Black multiethnic Catholic—with Hispanic and Native American ancestry—I was disappointed, immensely. Significantly, too much concern was expressed with Jefferson’s reputations and using Serra to try to buttress Jefferson.

The good principles in the Declaration of Independence are true regardless of whether Jefferson is “under attack.” And the document, ultimately, was a product of the Continental Congress. Jefferson’s reputation need not be saved or protected for us to acknowledge the Gospel truth that all men and women are created equal. And Saint Serra does not deserve to have his witness marred by using him to try to rehabilitate a slave-owning and sister-in-law raping hypocrite.

While there are many wonderful things about this American republic, including many of its professed ideals, Catholics should not be so eager to assimilate that we fail to evangelize. America needs to be reminded that not all of its heroes deserve the title and that salvation does not come from its Founders or its institutions. Rather—like all earthy powers—America is in need of the Church and the help of the saints.

A robust review of how others have misappropriated the saints and how the Church can engage in remedying the harm caused to the Body of Christ by this misuse is essential moving forward. It is certainly not enough just to simply defend these images as history. Doing so objectifies and dehumanizes men and women that are living stones in the heavenly Jerusalem. Rather we must recontextualize any images of the saints improperly used by others and affirm the holiness and communion we share with them. The saints are not symbols—and we should refuse to let them be treated as such. They are my brothers and sisters, our dear friends, who we will one day see in heaven, God willing.  

Gunnar Gunderson is an Affiliated Scholar and member of the Fellowship Faculty at the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding and Partner at Gundersen & Gundersen LLP, where he represents clients on intellectual property matters, including before the U.S. Supreme Court. Follow him on Twitter at @GBGundersen.