The uncomfortable history of Catholics and slavery

By:

The birds are coming home to roost. Georgetown University, this country’s first Catholic college, and first Jesuit institution of higher learning, is considering ways to make reparations for its involvement in slavery a century and a half ago.

Orders of nuns are doing the same thing. They held slaves prior to 1866, and they are coming to terms with the fact that they owned, bought and sold slaves. Even Catholic laity are facing the past. Trying to make amends for his ancestors, one wealthy Catholic recently made a substantial donation to a traditionally African-American college.

For Catholics, reading the history from that period is uncomfortable. Abolitionists were many — the Grimke sisters in South Carolina, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, from Maryland — but no Catholic is prominent among them.

At times, the uninformed excuse is given that no Catholics were in positions of influence at the time. Not quite. Catholics ran Louisiana, a center of the slave trade, politically, socially, economically and in every other respect.

Catholics were major players in Maryland, a slave state, although it did not leave the Union. Catholics had a presence in St. Louis, in Missouri, another slave state that did not join the Confederacy. Catholics were strong in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.

In the cabinet of Confederate President Jefferson Davis were Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory, a Catholic from Pensacola, Florida, and Secretary of State Judah Benjamin, a Jew from New Orleans, whose wife was a staunch Catholic. Confederate General Pierre Beauregard and Admiral Raphael Semmes were Catholics.

The only chaplain killed in action in the Civil War, of any denomination, was a priest from Nashville, Father Emmeran Bliemel, serving in the Confederate Army.

This is the obvious fact. Catholics accepted slavery in many, many cases. After all, they likely reasoned, under the Constitution and laws of the United States, that slavery was perfectly legal. (Slavery was not a Southern institution; it was an American institution.)

They probably also thought that many Americans, if not a majority of Americans, accepted slavery. (They took no polls in those days, so we do not know for sure who or how many supported or at least tolerated slavery, but it is clear that Americans universally did not oppose the system.)

So, Catholics back then rolled with the tide. Now we say that it was unbelievable, but, after all, it was back then. Historically, while slavery may have been “back then” in our country, rolling with the tide is as alive and well as ever for many Catholics today in this country. Only the issues are different.

Since 1972, when the United States Supreme Court invalidated the laws that made abortion illegal, the Catholic Church in this country, led by several succeeding generations of bishops, has been the most vocal and most constant voice in denouncing abortion as a grave evil.

Anyone who claims not to know where the Catholic Church stands on abortion just arrived from Mars or is utterly oblivious to fact.

Nevertheless, so many American Catholics, even though they may not disagree with Church teaching regarding the immorality of abortion, simply tolerate it. They do not hold politicians to account on the issue, for example. They even may tolerate it when it occurs in their own families.

Abortion is one concern, but the list of evils and sins is long in this country. Other problems may be our society’s chronic racism, mistreatment of people because of their condition or circumstance, the rampant sexual abuse of women and of children — and I do not limit this accusation to clergy — exploitation of people here at home or abroad, and on and on.

What can we do? We can refuse to participate in certain behavior, obviously, and we can make our opinions heard, explaining why we accept our Church’s teachings, because it is from God, and it makes sense.

We live in a society troubled by misinformation and even bad intentions.

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.

 

Catholic News & Perspective

Provides information on the Church, the nation and the world from OSV, America's most popular and trusted national Catholic news source


Recent

With church shootings on the rise, what are Catholic parishes doing to keep the faithful safe?

Wednesday, February 19, 2020
By: Brian Fraga The people in the pews next to Chris Pereira probably have no idea he’s armed with a loaded weapon. The handgun he carries at... Read More

Vatican homeless shelter continues long history of the Church’s charitable works

Monday, February 17, 2020
By: Msgr. Owen F. Campion Talk about a breath of fresh air. NPR spent some minutes reporting that Pope Francis had turned a one-time palace near... Read More

Opening the Word: The Law's horizon

Friday, February 14, 2020
By: Timothy P. O'Malley Many residents of the United States distrust law. Yes, Americans appreciate basic traffic laws, legal prescriptions... Read More

Understanding the liturgy of the domestic church

Wednesday, February 12, 2020
By: Greg Popcak Have you ever thought of your family life as a liturgy? The liturgy of domestic church life. Does that seem odd? It... Read More

Many lessons were taught at the first desegregated high school in the South

Monday, February 10, 2020
By: Msgr. Owen F. Campion Catholic Schools Week, observed not very long ago, caused me to think about my 12 years of Catholic education, in... Read More

Opening the Word: The light of the world

Friday, February 7, 2020
By: Timothy P. O'Malley Our Gospels proclaim the blessedness of the poor, the hungry and the thirsty. The Gospels demand radical poverty, total... Read More

Sisters in solidarity: Praying for an end to abortion

Wednesday, February 5, 2020
By: Deirdre A. McQuade Planned Parenthood clinics perform over a third of all abortions in the United States. They are known to schedule even more... Read More

A culture caught up in the ingesting of darkness

Monday, February 3, 2020
By: Kathryn Jean Lopez I had an intense March for Life experience, as I typically do. People from all sorts of stages of my life seem to converge... Read More

Opening the Word: The materiality of salvation

Friday, January 31, 2020
By: Timothy P. O'Malley On interstates, it’s normal to encounter billboards that announce to harried motorists, “Jesus saves.”... Read More

How to stay above the fray in 2020

Wednesday, January 29, 2020
By: Deacon Greg Kandra Is it over yet? Maybe you’re having the same feeling: 2020 has barely begun and already you want it to be over. If the... Read More

Online Giving

Online Giving

Secure and Convenient Donate now!