Xavier and Tolerance


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.


6 Responses to Xavier and Tolerance

  1. Well written and explored, Aaron, but what about
    bringing the relevance of religious practices, or
    should it be under the heading, missioning, into
    the Present times: Xavier’s practices challenge
    all futures, and all cultures.

    His style of missioning challenges times, cultures, and practices! And profoundly so: if we are to stand under the Banner of Christ, what are our soldiering duties, obligations and rights of passage, both to
    ourselves and to significant others?! And what core
    commonalities are to be found in what he did, vs. that
    which Joan of Arc did?

    There are no easy, perfect answers. But there is, always and everywhere, the clarion call to seek the
    truth. Because for anyone to seek the truth, is to
    find God, because God is the source of all truth!

    At least Xavier no where condoned death: but what do
    we witness among just too many, under pseudo religious
    zeal, doing to Christians today, in many parts of
    the world?! (Although separate from the perpetrators’
    sin, is the cross given the Christians, in context
    of the expected trials for real believers: modern
    day martyrdom?! Both the red and the white varieties!)
    To me Xavier actually freed those he converted plus
    tried to help, by liberating them from lies, deceit,
    and pseudo religiosity! At least “his” intentions,
    and “end,” was, is, noble!!!

    Contrast that by way of another international example,
    that of what the Crusaders did in over-running
    Europe, but failed to accomplish with one thorn-in
    the side nation: Lithuania! Their pretext to invade
    Lithuania was to convert it from its entrenched pagan
    practices (which in and of themselves, paralleled
    those of the Celts: the Celts founded Europe,
    Lithuania is the oldest living language in Europe!).

    After Lithuania crushed the Crusaders the 3rd time
    (Trinitarian symbolism?!), its king decided that
    another possible future battle is not worth the cost
    and initiated the mass Baptism of Lithuanians as a
    way of appeasing this Crusaders’ goal. Is
    that bad, or Providence at work through human

    I claim the latter because Lithuania was the last
    nation in Europe to become Christian, and whereas
    today most of Europe has abandoned Christianity,
    Lithuania remains tenaciously Christian, in
    significant numbers. Even though it as a nation had
    to undergo THREE Baptisms before it stuck! Who said
    only the Irish are obstinate? (!)

    Much of Salvation History is mystery, starting with
    the old testament weird stories, before we get into
    new testament times: sanitizing God’s ways should not
    be our modus operandi! That would compromise our
    stance against the Dark Forces always doing battle
    with the children of Light! We will always remain
    just A Force of Ones, under the One who overcame
    darkness, who redeems the World.

    I defend Xavier against the false exactitudes of
    this “World” and side with Joan of Arc to do battle
    with the lies in this “World!”

  2. Jeff Miller says:

    Plus Xavier did not have the developments regarding religious tolerance that we have today. His attitude was probably not an exception for the time. Though certainly the magisterium was moving more in the direction of religious tolerance due to the subjection of people in the new world.

    One more example to add to you list of what people would not complain about is the ending of widow-burning in India by the British.

  3. crystal says:

    Really interesting post. I wonder about this a lot – the tension between respecting other religions (religious freedom) and respect for humanistic ideals. Speaking of the immanent frame, here’s a post that kind of touches on this at The Immanent Frame. But I’m not sure the Catholic Church is a good example of the embrace of the sacred sphere of equality, given the treatment of women and gays/lesbians in the church.

  4. Paul Francis Xavier Swarbrick says:

    I can fully understand and admire the missionary zeal and tactics adapted by my great Patron, Saint Francis Xavier, in order to bring souls to God. Considering the culture of the times, it seems clear that his actions, along with his young converts, of destroying pagan idols, was indeed needed, even necessary, to convince them of the evils of paganism.
    Francis brought thousands of these pagans to the Faith, the Faith that still survives in Goa today.
    His mission to these non Christian lands was to convert the pagans and spread the Kingdom of God, not to practice some kind of false ecumenism by attempting to compromise or ‘go along’ with these pagan practices in the hope that they may change their ways by abandoning their old ways.
    Francis Xavier considered non-Christian lands to be under the “quasi-exclusive rule of the devil”.

    I resent this ‘slur’ on one of the greatest Jesuit saints and I am proud to have been baptized and given the name ‘Paul Francis Xavier’,both Patrons of the Missions.

  5. Qualis Rex says:

    Aaron, I share St Francis Xavier’s view, as it is the only logical one any believing Catholic can take. God = truth. False religions = lies. Satan = Father of all lies, ergo false religions are indeed being controled by Satan (quasily or not).

    Let’s can the morally bankrupt PC jargon of “all paths lead to God”. Anyone who has ever lived in Africa and/or India and seen the “fruits” of thousands of years of paganism knows what the value of human life is in those countries currently. Europe arguably puts the highest regard on human life, and it’s not for nothing it is a product of Christian civilization.

  6. […] evangelization strategy that I have in mind is the violation of shrines.  As I pointed out in another post (and my return to the theme might indicate an obsession), St. Francis had little-known penchant for […]

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