In the afterglow of the Novena of Grace in honor of St. Francis Xavier, I thought I would comment on a troubling aspect of Xavier’s missionary activity. Stated baldly, Xavier was not particularly tolerant of other religions. Deeply imbued with the theology of the later Augustine, he was fiercely jealous of God’s greater glory and deeply suspicious of the untutored efforts of man to scale the heights of the spirit. In fact, as the late Jesuit Cardinal Henri de Lubac puts it, Xavier considered non-Christian lands to be under the “quasi-exclusive rule of the devil.”
This worldview led him to missionary tactics that today seem, at least at first glance, downright “mean.” It seems that in Goa, for instance, Xavier used to organize mobs of boys for the purpose of religious vandalism. He reports rather proudly to his Jesuit confreres in Europe:
The [native boys] are full of love and desire for the faith, keen to learn the prayers and to teach them to others … When I hear from them some idolatrous ceremonies in the villages … I collect all the boys I can, and off we go together to those places, where the devil gets from them more despiteful treatment than their worshipping parents had given them honour. The little fellows seize the small clay idols, smash them, grind them to dust, spit on them and trample them underfoot.
Of course, there is little more embarrassing to us than religiously motivated religious intolerance. Even Fr. Brodrick, writing an admiring biography of Xavier more than a decade before Vatican II, gushes apologies for Xavier’s “woefully inadequate views about Indian religion and civilization.” He was surely right to do so.
But there is another aspect of Xavier’s intolerance that sounds much more “presentable” to contemporary sensibilities: humanistically motivated religious intolerance. In smashing idols, Xavier at least thought that he was freeing the lower castes from malnutrition and Brahman oppression. In the same letter, the saint writes:
Thus [the bragmanes] make simple people believe that the idols require food, and many bring an offering before sitting down to table themselves. They eat twice daily to the din of kettle-drums and give out that the idols are then feasting… Rather than go short, these bragmanes warn the wretched credulous people that if they fail to provide what is required of them, the idols will encompass their deaths, or inflict disease, or send devils to their houses… They regard me as a great nuisance because I keep on exposing their wickedness all the time, but when I get them alone they admit their deceptions and tell me that they have no other means of livelihood than those stone idols …
Was Xavier a religious bigot or a democratic revolutionary? Torquemada or Che Guevara?
Xavier’s missionary activity and motivation thus become interesting reference points for charting the drift of the “sacred,” by which term I mean that inviolable sphere against which all values must either yield or shatter. Most people today would bristle at the aggressive tactics of Christian missionaries of earlier ages. Yet, when push comes to shove, nobody disagrees in principle with smashing religious statuary (or its equivalent). Few would complain, for instance, if Christian missionaries forcibly interrupted a rite of female circumcision in Africa, or rallied Muslim women to question their role as described in the Quran. Few complain that the New York Times regularly questions a practice as ancient as priestly celibacy on the basis of its (dubious) connection with child abuse. But bodily integrity, gender equality, and the innocence of childhood—these are our sacred spheres. Christian doctrine, by the way, concurs. It just includes more—extending the sacred sphere beyond what Charles Taylor calls the “immanent frame”.
If we understand that the Truth of Christ was as sacred a principle for Xavier as bodily integrity is for us today, we might look upon his vandalism a little more sympathetically. Of course, we need not share Xavier’s understanding of other religious cultures as the devil’s playground. Nor need we feel obliged to express the ultimacy of Christ through the destruction of Hindu statuary. On the other hand, if we never see the Truth of Christ—even unsupported by humanist considerations—as a sufficiently weighty motivation for disturbing another’s religious tranquility, we must wonder whether Christ is “sacred” for us at all. In this sense, Xavier’s challenge abides.