freed slaves

Today we Americans commemorate the end of slavery here in our country. Word of Union victory–and emancipation of the quarter million slaves then living in Texas–reached Houston on June 19, 1865. Jubilation filled the streets.

Lord Jesus came into this world to liberate. He came to free every human soul from bondage. To turn us toward the infinite horizon of heavenly love. To teach us our true destiny–and how to achieve it, by loving God and neighbor.

Christians respect the dignity of every human person, made free in the image of the sovereign God. Our heavenly Father summons all of us to eternal love. We recognize everyone’s right to respond freely to God’s call.

From the Catechism:

The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold, or exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. (para. 2414)

From an 1830 Handbook of Christian morality, written by a German bishop:

The state of slavery, and any treatment of human beings as slaves, turns people who are persons into mere things, turns people who are ends in themselves into mere means, and does not allow the responsibility of people for what they do, or do not do, to develop properly, and in this way cripples them in their very humanity; hence it is contrary to the basic principle of all morality.

Two years ago, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., acknowledged with shame, sorrow, and contrition, the fact that the University, and the Georgetown Jesuits, had trafficked in slaves. Among other acts of reconciliation, the University renamed one of its buildings. It had borne the name of Fr. Thomas Mulledy, SJ, who had engaged in the slave trade. Now it bears the name of one of the slaves he traded.

Fr Thomas Mulledy SJ
Father Thomas Mulledy SJ

A Virginian, Father Mulledy played a significant role in the early life of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. He participated in the solemn consecration of St. Peter’s church in Richmond in 1834.

The following year, one of Mulledy’s brother Jesuits, Father James Ryder, spoke at St. Peter’s on the subject of slavery. He spoke to assure everyone that the Catholic Church by no means opposed it.

In what was then the cathedral of our diocese, Father Ryder referred to abolitionists as “wicked would-be philanthropists,” with whom “only madmen or traitors” would co-operate.

Of the abolitionist movement, Ryder declared: “The Catholic will shrink from shaking the polluted hand that would sow the seeds of confusion and horror in the fair fields of the South, rifling the domestic happiness of the master and his slave. [Abolitionism] is not religion. It is not piety. It is a profanation of the gospel.”

Pope Pius VII erected the Diocese of Richmond in 1820, but we did not have a resident bishop until 1841. Bishop John England of Charleston, SC, served as a de facto spiritual leader. But he did not prove to be a genuine spiritual leader at all, on the subject of slavery.

In fact, Bishop England died, in 1842, while in the process of explaining to the world that Catholics do not oppose slavery. Even though the pope had declared in 1839 that we do. Even though the great Irish statesman Daniel O’Connell had challenged his Irish countrymen in America to oppose the servitude of their black brothers and sisters.

Daniel O'Connell
Daniel O’Connell

Frederick Douglass traveled to Ireland to hear O’Connell. Douglass said that O’Connell had “shaken American slavery to its center.”

But Bishop England, and the American Catholic Church as a whole, not only failed to take up O’Connell’s challenge, but proceeded to impugn O’Connell’s judgment, and to pile up spurious distinctions to defend the enslavement of black people in the South.

The typical historical narrative regarding American slavery neglects one crucial set of facts. In the early nineteenth century–over fifty years before the Civil War–our mother nation of England actively sought to bring slavery to an end, throughout its entire sphere of influence. The Holy See intervened repeatedly to aid this effort. Most of the western world had come to recognize that slavery offended the dignity of man.

The western world, that is, minus the United States. Andrew Jackson and his partisans pushed in the other direction. The United States took away from the Creeks, Choctaws, Cherokees, Seminoles, and Mexicans, the land that became Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas–in order to expand chattel slavery. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny provided the mythological cover necessary to mask the brutal immorality involved.

All of this happened during the nascent days of both our diocese and of the American Catholic hierarchy as a whole. Bishop England bragged about how the American bishops, assembled in Baltimore in 1840, did not regard slavery as immoral.

Now, we must note that the Catholic Church occupied an almost unimaginably weak position in American society at that time. Bigoted mobs subjected us to repeated acts of violence and arson. And the South had so few Catholics that everyone reasonably wondered if Catholicism could survive here at all.

But all that does not change the fact: We American Catholics profoundly failed to confront the evil of slavery. Our Church not only absented herself from the abolitionist movement; we not only ignored the moral clarity provided by leaders like Daniel O’Connell–we actively opposed the cause of justice for the slaves.

We cannot honestly commemorate the 200th anniversary of the founding of our diocese without acknowledging this lamentable fact.



Nathaniel Russell Ash Wednesday

slave arrival USA

Nathaniel Russell, born in Rhode Island in 1738, had a great knack for organizing commercial shipping. He moved to South Carolina and married into a wealthy family. He built a grand house and entertained graciously. One of his daughters married the Episcopal Bishop. [SPANISH]

Russell’s Charleston home has become an evocative museum that takes you back two hundred years. Visiting the place gives you an intimate feel for how well-respected, prosperous city gentlemen lived. Russell was known as a scrupulously honest businessman, diligent in paying his taxes. He was altogether honorable.

Just one thing: He made a lot of his fortune by buying and selling other human beings as slaves. In 1772 he wrote to a fellow sea-merchant: “There have been a great many Negroes imported here this summer and many more expected. They continue at a very great price.”

Now: Should this properous, honorable South-Carolina gentleman have known better? Should his conscience have accused him for enriching himself by buying and selling people as if they were animals? Is it fair for us to apply our morals to a man who lived three centuries ago? After all, no civil law prohibitted his business. To the contrary, the laws of of South Carolina made it almost impossible to free a slave. The enslavement of Africans had become an established institution.

But a man who lived under Russell’s own roof knew better. The blacksmith, a slave named Tom. Tom Russell participated in the planning of a thwarted slave rebellion, led by the famous Denmark Vesey. Tom was hanged right alongside Vesey by the Charleston City Council in 1822. What motivated the would-be rebels? The idea that Holy Scripture teaches that slavery runs contrary to the laws of God.

Nathaniel RussellYou can’t erase God’s truth, no matter how hard you might try. Something blinded Nathaniel Russell to the obvious. He had built his comfortable house not just on sand, but on sin. The grave, detestable sin of human slavery ran like rainwater through the streets of his town.

But this Charleston gentleman was no rank, malicious villain. He only wanted what we want: material security, a comfortable life for himself and his family, beautiful things around him. His neighbors admired him greatly  and sought his friendship. We can hardly imagine that, when he lay on his deathbed at age 82, in the year 1820, he suffered any pangs of conscience over his business dealings. The evil of slavery had become too familiar.

But at the very moment when the owner drew his last breath in his comfortable bed, down in the back yard, Tom the slave knew the truth–that he was no animal, and that his enslavement at this rich man’s hands was wrong. You can’t erase God’s truth.

Be merciful to us, O Lord! We sinners stumble through life with huge blinders on. For all we know, we oursleves may have graver evils to answer for than all the well-liked Nathaniel Russells of history. Like him, we could know better, if only we took the trouble to look into it–to study Your Holy Word, and make it the absolute rule of our lives.

Help us to purify our hearts and minds. We confess that we can never truly become good without Your help. We know we don’t deserve the grace of compunction and deeper conversion to the truth. But we beg for it anyway!

Georgetown-Jesuit Apology, and Mine

Matthew Quallen at the GU teach-in on slavery
Mr. Matthew Quallen at the Georgetown University “Teach-In” on slavery

I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation. Deuteronomy 5:9 (See also Exodus 20, 34:7, Numbers 14:18.)

In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are on edge.’ Jeremiah 31:29. The son shall not suffer the iniquity of the father. Ezekiel 18:19

Last week, Georgetown University and the Jesuits apologized for participating in slavery.

The apology happened in the same beautiful hall where my dear historian mom delivered the commencement address, and then I received my high-school diploma. Footsteps away: the office in which, a couple years later, I first spoke with a Catholic priest. Across the courtyard: the chapel where I received Confirmation and First Holy Communion.

And GU/Jesuit history is our Richmond-diocese history, too. The same slave-selling Jesuit whose name they just stripped off one of GU’s oldest buildings also gave the Vespers sermon at the dedication of St. Peter’s parish church in downtown Richmond.

The Catholic Church in the U.S. has an antebellum past. Before the mass migration from Europe that made us an overwhelmingly poor and urban people, we had an earlier chapter–which unfolded primarily in the south, with black slaves.

When I first began the path to the priesthood, I spent ten months in the novitiate of the Maryland province of the Jesuits. One of my brother novices wound up serving on the committee that prepared GU’s apology of last week. Here he is, reflecting on the committee’s work:

A young man named Matthew Quallen wrote a series of articles for the GU newspaper, The Hoya, skewering the university for having benefited from one of the largest slave sales in US history, in 1838. Maryland-province Jesuits had studied the business for years, and had tried to make some amends. Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic certainly helped precipitate GU’s decision to address this issue in this way at this time.

In other words, Georgetown University has certainly achieved a great victory in political correctness. But: The way GU and the Jesuits have done it also rings with real, inspiring Christian integrity.

I think US Jesuit superior Fr. Tim Kesicki overstated himself a little bit, apologizing so profusely that his words manage to emphasize the us/them division that Christ came to overcome. Addressing the descendants of the slaves the Jesuits sold, Fr. Kesicki said:

…even with your great grief and right rage, with our sin and sorrow, all will be well…

But we must a. hand it to GU and the Jesuits for having the sobriety, learning, and guts to do this, and b. take up the matter ourselves, for the good of our souls…

Why exactly do we say that slavery is wrong? The Catechism puts it briefly:

The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold, or exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. (para. 2414)

The dignity of the person–revealed by Christ–provides the key concept. We cannot romanticize an abstract dream of absolute freedom, which no human being has ever actually enjoyed in this limited, creaturely life we live in the fallen world. But neither can we underestimate the genuine incompatibility between slavery and the Christian concept of man.

German bishop Johann Salier put it like this in his 1830 handbook of Christian morality:

The state of slavery, and any treatment of human beings as slaves, turns people who are persons into mere things, turns people who are ends in themselves into mere means, and does not allow the responsibility of people for what they do, or do not do, to develop properly, and in this way cripples them in their very humanity; hence it is contrary to the basic principle of all morality.

Helpful clarity: slavery is immoral because it destroys the moral independence of a human being. Our moral freedom is our distinctly human treasure.

Commonwealth Catholicism FogartyWhen, in the period of American history before the Civil War, Georgetown University, and the Maryland province of the Jesuits, found themselves on the altogether-wrong side of this moral analysis, we found ourselves there, too.

It wasn’t just GU; it wasn’t just the Jesuits, who have now apologized so profusely. It was us.

When I say “us,” I mean the Catholic clergy of the United States.

We had a duty to guide souls to the correct moral analysis of slavery as it was practiced in our lands. And we did not do that.

In the first part of the nineteenth century, we studiously misunderstood and misinterpreted the guidance given by the Apostolic See of Rome. Popes didn’t write encyclicals then, and priests and bishops around the world did not expect Roman guidance the way we do now. But the popes had written and taught a correct moral analysis of slavery.

In 1814 and 1815, Pope Pius VII wrote the leaders of Europe insisting on the unconditional abolition of slavery. He prohibited the clergy from making the claim that the slave trade was permitted.

In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI wrote, in an apostolic letter to all Catholics:

We consider it our pastoral duty to make every effort to turn the faithful away from the inhuman traffic in negroes, or any other class of men. We vehemently admonish and abjure all believers in Christ, of whatever condition, that no one hereafter may dare unjustly to molest Indians, negroes, or other man of this sort; or to spoil them of their goods; or to reduce them to slavery; or to extend help or favor to others who perpetuate such things against them. No Catholic can defend such practices, under any pretext or excuse. (In Supremo Apostolatus)

But we American priests (and bishops) did not make the pope’s pastoral zeal on this matter our own.

Pius VII
Pope Pius VII

Now, we did, in fact, find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. No one can hold the Catholic clergy responsible for setting up the chattel-slavery system in America in the first place. The first bishop in the US, John Carroll, freed the slaves he had inherited from his family.

And, when the American bishops began meeting regularly to discuss things in the Baltimore basilica (built by the same architect who gave us the US Capitol)–the series of meetings which eventually gave rise to the greatest book ever written in English, the Baltimore Catechism; when the bishops met in Baltimore, they had some pretty tricky things to discuss, like: how to defend ourselves from the widespread belief that all Catholic priests secretly conspired in a plot for the pope to take over the country.

As Robert Emmett Curran put it in “Rome, the American Church, and Slavery:”

The nativism of the 1830’s through the 1850’s made the American Church all-too-conscious of its status as an alien minority in America. By 1850 Catholics were still less than nine percent of the population, but, having become the largest denomination in the country, were under stronger attacks than ever. Self-preservation became the priority. The bishops as a group concentrated on private behavior rather than social ethics. Except for the area of public education, the bishops foreswore any activity that could be deemed political.

We cannot, however, proffer any of this as a reasonable excuse. Because, in striving to protect our fledgling institutions, we missed the issue. Anti-Catholic bigotry in antebellum America did indeed cause us some problems. But the major problem for everyone in the United States was patently obvious: slavery. Slavery was simultaneously the great moral problem and the great political problem.

We were silent. Former-President, and Virginian, John Tyler wrote to his son in 1854, defending the Catholic clergy from the charges leveled by Know-Nothings. He damned us with this praise:

The Catholic priests have set an example of non-interference in politics which furnishes an example most worthy of imitation on the part of the clergy of the other sects at the North.

…Now, let’s not oversimplify. The North had racism every bit as vicious as the South. Many northern abolitionists insisted both that the Southerners must free their slaves and that those slaves should, under no circumstances whatsoever, come north.

Solving the great moral and political problem required more than slogans and self-righteousness. And the problem deserved a better solution than it got. If we think that the process of brutal Civil War-Reconstruction-Jim Crow-Civil Rights Movement-what we have now illustrates the MLK/Obama principle that “the arc of history always bends toward justice,” then we kid ourselves. Sin doesn’t go away on its own; racism gets born anew in every generation. We need heavenly medicine.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s plan for the Baltimore Basilica

But how can we Catholic clergy not acknowledge that we failed in the early nineteenth century? We failed to apply the principles of Christian morality properly, and we isolated ourselves by our obtuseness. Priests came from Ireland to the U.S. during that period, and they were appalled. Appalled that their brother priests in America tolerated slavery as practiced in the South, without a peep.

Roman authorities had tried to enlighten our consciences, but we knew better. We didn’t like slavery, but we did not regard it as our task to confront its evil.

What task, then, other than confronting such un-Christian evil, could we have claimed to have had? Or what task, other than that, do we have now?

We priests stand at the altar, and we read, and we pray. We must also apply all that we read and pray to the lives of our people, who do their daily business on the little stretches of earth that make up our humble parishes. We must know intimately the physical reality of those stretches of earth.

In one of his articles for The Hoya, Quallen described the lot of a slave that the Jesuits had sold down the river. Cornelius Hawkins wound up working the “fetid, unforgiving fields” of Iberville parish, Louisiana.

Quallen knows how to write. “Fetid, unforgiving fields.”

In the first part of the 19th century, we lost sight of that particular physical reality, and the moral evil attendant to it. It was an evil we had the duty to confront.

The question for us now is: What evils have we lost sight of in the early 21st century? What campus building somewhere will someday have to be renamed, because the honoree wouldn’t focus his or her mind on what an abortionist’s knife actually does? Or on what it’s like to wind up in an ICE detention center?

I am sorry that we failed so miserably in antebellum America. Please God we learn something from the mistake.







Good Work

St. Joseph gets two feast days. We do not wonder, Why does he get two? We wonder, Is two really enough?

On March 19, we focused on the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and foster-father of the Nazarene they called “the carpenter’s son.” Today we focus on St. Joseph the steady working man.

st-josephWork gets us out of the house, engages us with others, challenges us, and brings out our powers and our talents. Work gives us a worthy venue for spending our strength and our time.

We can make our work into a sacrifice for God: We offer our own personal labors—a small contribution to the great human undertaking of making the earth hospitable and fruitful—we do our little part as our act of submission to the great plan of the provident God Who gave us our time, our energy, and our talents in the first place.

In one of Jane Austen’s novels, the heroine lives with her kindly old invalid father. A minor character asks her, “Don’t you long for a husband or a change of some kind?” Emma replies: “Why should I be unhappy as I am? I do not lack employment.”

Emma didn’t have a “job,” as we would define it. But she had interests and dedication to the common good; she had energy; she had enterprise and style. She got up every day with things to do; she spent her days doing them; and she could while away the evenings comforting her father and then sleep the sleep of the just. She was living the rule of life which St. Benedict made the keystone of holiness for the Western world: “Pray and work.”

Ora et LaboraNow, many workers suffer unjust abuse of their energies and skills, working under inhuman conditions for inadequate compensation. Others languish in a miserable state of idleness because someone somewhere acted selfishly or meanly—and broke the great chain of relationships that is supposed to keep all able-bodied people working. Other workers have no joy whatsoever in their daily labor, either because they neglected their own education, or because they never had the chance to obtain one.

Emma Jane AustenThe good Lord gave us two things in the Garden of Eden, both of which were designed to lead simply to our fulfillment and happiness. As a race, we human beings have managed to make a big mess out of both of them. We have subjected both of them to our self-centeredness and the worst excesses of our capacity to be ignorant and cruel. Sex and work.

May God forgive us for our own personal contributions to this mess.

When the Lord consecrated St. Joseph to participate in the great work of welcoming the Christ into the world, He gave the human race a fresh start in the area of honest daily labor. With our eyes fixed on St. Joseph, then, we have the hope of living our days in the service of God. We have the hope of doing our part to redeem the world from the twin agonies of slavery and unemployment.

May St. Joseph always be our guiding light and keep us employed in the work which does us, and our neighbors, the most genuine good.

Upper Room Religion

To worship God in truth, we go to the Upper Room. The Upper Room of Jesus’ Passover formed the Church of God. How did this come to pass?

Maybe, in some primordial arbor of trees, in the morning before Adam and Eve sinned, a simple altar stood. Our First Parents could have offered God a worthy sacrifice there and worshiped Him in friendship.

Continue reading “Upper Room Religion”

Heroic Wisdom

The concluding chapters of the book of Genesis provide as moving and as edifying a tale as anything a person could ever read.

Joseph possessed divine wisdom. When he was seventeen years old, he had dreamed that he would reign supreme. But he did not bear arms for his accoutrements. Rather, he wore a coat of many colors.

Joseph’s brothers despised him in their jealousy and conspired to sell the ‘dreamer’ into slavery in Egypt. Joseph, unarmed, but wiser than his brothers, offered no resistance.

Joseph became an attentive, prudent, and provident servant in Egypt. After Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams for him, the king of Egypt declared, “Can we find such a man as this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” Joseph came to enjoy Pharaoh’s highest favor and ruled Egypt in Pharaoh’s place.

Joseph anticipated a coming famine of seven years. He lad aside stores during the years of prosperity so that Egypt could feed the world from its granaries when the hard times came.

God had a plan to re-unite the sons of Jacob, the progenitors of the chosen people. Joseph proved to be the hero of this plan. Not because Joseph foresaw it all, or because he accomplished astounding feats of strength or guile or will. Joseph emerged as the hero because he knew how to co-operate with the strongest person in the story, namely Almighty God.

After Joseph revealed himself and was re-united with his father, his brothers begged his forgiveness for the evil they had done him years before. Joseph did not hesitate to forgive. In fact, he had long since forgotten all about it, because he was too busy co-operating with the plan of God. He told his brothers not to blame themselves: “God sent me here ahead of you for the sake of saving lives.”

Moral of the story: The strongest, wisest hero—the one who truly reigns supreme—accepts that God is in charge, and co-operates.