The bien pensants were elated when Pope Francis canonized St. Junipero Serra in 2015. As was always the case in those halcyon days, the media set aside its disdain for our patriarchal, homophobic Church to applaud (what they believed to be) the Holy Father’s wink-and-nod to their left-wing agenda. The first Hispanic pope canonizing the first Hispanic saint in American history: an unprecedented victory for identity politics!
Had they not weighed the scales of identity politics correctly, or did the point-system change? Whatever the reason, St. Junipero Serra is now positively outré. Stanford University is planning to strike from its campus all references to that great eighteenth-century Franciscan. Why? Because he baptized thousands of natives during two decades as a missionary … inevitably displacing their primitive religious beliefs and customs in the process.
No doubt Stanford (that bastion of traditionalism) is deeply grieved at the decline of indigenous pagan rites. As such, they’ve decided that our “forgotten Founding Father” should go back to being forgotten. There was a time once, which has long since passed—over three years ago!—when men were honored for winning souls to Christ. But no longer.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Yet Catholics may find themselves siding with these vandals in their effort to remove a statue of Oliver Cromwell from the Palace of Westminster. “Its banishment would be poetic justice for his Taliban-like destruction of so many of England’s cultural and religious artefacts carried out by his fanatical Puritan followers,” historian Jeremy Crick told The Telegraph. Hear, hear.
Cromwell wasn’t just a violent iconoclast and a joyless philistine: he was also a genocidal maniac. During his conquest of Ireland, which was predominantly Catholic and royalist, his New Model Army claimed 618,000 lives—a staggering 40 percent of the total population. (It may seem strange that his statue has stood even this long. However, consider that recently Princess Alexandra of Hanover was barred from the line of succession for converting to Catholicism.)
The contrast between St. Junipero’s case and Cromwell’s should give us pause. As a matter of principle, those who fall on the political Right defend monuments that “snowflakes” condemn as politically incorrect. It’s becoming an instinct. And, nine times out of ten, the instinct is sound. The Left’s objective is indeed to erase our shared history. But surely we must recognize a difference between the Apostle to California and the Lord Protector. We ought to memorialize that tender friar and dauntless missionary; we ought to revile the memory of the most prolific barbarian since Genghis Khan.
I doubt many readers will disagree. Yet we might not be able to explain why. We may find it difficult to explain why we support Serra’s memorials but condemn Cromwell’s without sounding like hypocrites.
The trouble, I suspect, lies with our culture’s current concept of censorship. In the age of trigger-warnings and participation trophies, as conservative Catholics we automatically recoil from any effort to soften or tame reality. We understand that learning to take offense and bear it manfully is an important aspect of maturity, but there are two definitions of “offensive”: One, which we use more commonly today, refers to something that hurts one’s feelings. The other refers to something unedifying, immoral, or antisocial. Traditionally, the censor concerned himself with the latter “offenses” and left the former to mothers and nannies.
Russell Kirk goes into this matter at length in an essay called “The Ethics of Censorship,” taken from his 1956 collection Beyond the Dreams of Avarice. In ancient Rome, he explains, appointment to a censorship was regarded as “the crown of a virtuous political career.” Only the greatest sons of each generation could be trusted with the post, for they were charged with no lesser duty than to “determine the responsibilities of the citizens, and to see that these responsibilities were properly executed… They were the guardians of ‘the high old Roman virtue,’ and their powers were very great.” In the exercise of those powers, they were “accountable only to Roman traditions and their own conscience.”
Can we blame progressives for policing the boundaries of acceptable opinion? Not really. As Kirk explains: “Every society, usually in theory and invariably in practice, has asserted its right to restrain those who would destroy the foundations of society.” A more recent observer acknowledged the desire on the left and right to limit certain forms of expression: “the culture war as we’ve known it … has not been a simple clash of conservatives who want to repress and liberals who want to emancipate. Rather it’s been an ongoing argument between two forces—feminists and religious conservatives—that both want to remoralize American society, albeit in very different ways.” Given that our brave new world is built on a foundation of saccharine niceness, it’s hardly surprising that not-nice statues (and people, for that matter) face the modern censors’ wrath.
Therefore, we shouldn’t condemn censorship completely. We shouldn’t join in the mindless incantations of “freedom” nor the crude rhetoric of the internet trolls who give offense for its own sake. These forms of expression are lazy and ineffectual. Instead, we should be prepared to defend our “high old Roman virtues” against the syrupy dogmata of the Left and the self-defeating relativism of the libertarian Right. We should pit our truth against their error, our right against their wrong, our good against their evil—and be assured that we’ll triumph in the end.
We honor St. Junipero because he was a baptist and a catechist who helped expand the borders of Christendom to the far end of the earth. And we revile Cromwell because he was a butcher and a despot who sought to destroy Christian civilization in all its truth and beauty. One was good; the other was evil. Beyond that, no justification is necessary; beyond that, no justification is possible.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia)