Anna Abbott is a graduate of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has written for Catholic World Report and Canticle. She had a weekly column on religion for four years at the Napa Valley Register, the Weekly Calistogan, the St. Helena Star and the American Canyon Eagle. She is aunt and godmother to two boys, as well as a newborn girl. She currently resides in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Let’s take a trip back in the time, to an era that feels eerily familiar: In the eighth and ninth centuries, Byzantine Iconoclasm rocked the Catholic Church, especially in the East. It called for the destruction of religious images. The Second Council of Nicaea from 786 to 787, as well as the Synod of Constantinople in 843, would resolve the issue in favor of sacred art, but there would be persecution of those who supported iconography. Germanos I of Constantinople, now revered as a saint by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, was deposed because of his support for icons. St. Stephen the Younger was martyred in 765 because he was devoted to icons.
The battle of Iconoclasm was centered on the Incarnation, and whether it could be depicted artistically. The argument was a real one, which would re-emerge during the Reformation, when images, statues and churches would be destroyed in an attempt to destroy the memory of the Catholic Church’s doctrine and saints.
But before the Incarnation, there was “condemnation of memory” under the ancient Egyptians and Romans. The “condemnation of memory,” like iconoclasm, was centered on destruction. Just as Iconoclasts destroyed to control how people thought, “condemnation of memory” was destruction in the cause of revisionist history.
“The condemnation of memory” reflects an idolatrous and totalitarian society. In ancient Egypt, the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Horemheb tried to eradicate all memory of his predecessor, the monotheist Akhenaton. Thutmose III, an earlier 18th Dynasty pharaoh, attempted to destroy the memory of his aunt and the first female pharaoh, Hatshepsut. Ironically, this only increased her posthumous glory.
The Romans would later have their own version of “condemnation of memory.” It was first enacted against Herostratus in the fourth century BC, who tried to become famous by destroying the temple to Artemis in Ephesus. The attempt to doom Herostratus to obscurity failed; he achieved the posthumous fame he desired. The Romans tried to condemn the memories of Nero and Caligula, yet it was historians like Tacitus who kept their infamy from being forgotten.
And of course, the Council of Trent responded to the destruction of the Reformation with great artistic and spiritual revivals in the Baroque period.
Now, flash forward:
Last August, San Domenico School in San Anselmo, a parochial school run by the Dominican religious order, removed its statues out of a desire to be “inclusive.”
In September 2016, the Church raised Junípero Serra to the altars; on Sept. 11 of this year (9/11), the statue of St. Junípero at Mission Santa Barbara was vandalized.
Now, there are calls to remove or alter discussions of the missions in the Californian fourth grade curriculum, an iconic feature of public school education.
That is, St. Junípero and his Californian missions are being subject to this iconoclastic treatment. In July 2016, Sacramento State University proclaimed, “Repeal, replace, reframe the California mission project.” This past May, the California History-Social Science Project Assistant Director Tuyen Tran at University of California (Davis) said, “Repeat after us, say no to the mission project.” The highlights of the original curriculum were to visit a mission, have freshly made tortillas, and in some cases, build your own mission model. The mission curriculum shows California’s distinctly Catholic heritage. Third-graders in Massachusetts go to the Plimoth Plantation and the Old North Church to learn about their colonial past, a Protestant history. The Californian mission curriculum shows how Catholicism formed the state—from its first marriage (at Mission San Antonio de Padua), to its first library (Mission San Carlos Borromeo), its first school (Mission Santa Clara), and its first hospital (Mission San Rafael). While many Spanish missions have fallen into ruin or disuse (like the Salinas Missions in New Mexico), St. Junípero’s vision remains as a collection of active churches to this day, with the exceptions of the Sonoma mission and La Purísima Concepción. Expunging or revising the missions project politically does not make a neutral void. It is a vacuum that will be filled with a postmodern, relativistic doctrine.
Attempts to purge the past historically backfire, not just in the cases of Akhenaton and Hatshepsut, Nero and Caligula.
During the Reformation, monasteries were sacked and churches destroyed. The resulting Counter-Reformation brought about a flowering and renewal in the Church, from the powerful music of Palestrina to the reforms of St. Teresa of Avila. One could say that St. Junípero Serra’s missionary fervor came from the Counter-Reformation. Catholicism is a historical faith, not a collection of myths; ignorance of history has devastating consequences.
Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman famously said that one could not be deep in history without becoming Catholic. Conversely, one cannot be truly Catholic without being deep in history. Our Scriptures testify to this, remembering God’s intervention in history from the beginning. Yet there is a specific way in which keeping our history is crucial for our own identity.
In Exodus 12-13, the Israelites are commanded to remember their liberation from Egypt at Passover. Ignorance is enslavement. The loss of memory is connected with a loss of spiritual identity that degenerates into identity politics. St. Paul warns against this divisive identity politics in 1 Corinthians 1:11-14. Hebrews 11 traces the history of faith from Abel, Noah and Abraham to Moses, Samson and the prophets.
This saintly history is remembered in Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” When the history of the faith threatens to be expunged from the public square, one must stand as boldly as St. Stephen when he recounted salvation history before his martyrdom (Acts 7:2-60). It means educating people, just as St. Paul preached in the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-32). Knowledge of Incarnational history is the remedy for an idolatrous society.