Creating Inclusive Community: Slavery and the American Catholic Church part 2

By Dr. Kristin Anderson-Bricker (TheLorian)

Article one in this series explored the story of Marie Louise and why we need to recognize her personhood as we confront the legacy of slavery at Loras. The knowledge that Bishop Loras used money earned by Marie Louise to build the Diocese of Dubuque matters because the systematic racism that evolved out of slavery still oppresses members of American society today. The evidence establishes that, like his fellow Catholics, Bishop Loras was a willing participant in the institution of slavery. This reality conflicts with our Catholic identity today. Historical context will help our Loras community act positively and aggressively against inequality, white supremacy and injustice today. This article benefits from the scholarship of Leslie Woodcock Tentler’s “American Catholics, A History” (2020), Maura Jane Farrelly’s “American Slavery, American Freedom, American Catholicism” (2012), and William B. Kurtz’ “Excommunicated from the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America” (2015).

  • Catholics in the nineteenth century did not reject slavery. They believed that “nothing in their faith required them to see hierarchy or bondage as incompatible with the will of God or with one’s status as a Christian,” (Farrelly, 91). In the lead up to the Civil War, Catholic clergy and newspaper editors saw slavery as a political issue rather than a moral issue. The Church refused to take a side except to castigate abolitionists.  Abolitionists advocated immediate emancipation and the use of tactics that would result in anarchy. In addition to threatening law, order, sectional harmony, national stability and the Constitution, abolitionists attacked “popery,” (Kurtz, 93, 94, 91, 92, 96; Tentler, 122).
  • Catholics shared the racism of most white Americans, and regarded African Americans as inferior. According to Leslie Woodcock Tentler, “The Irish were especially aggressive in their racial hostility, presumably due to their poverty and low social status. Low-skilled Irish workers often competed with blacks for jobs, and employers used blacks on occasion to break Irish strikes,” (Tentler, 121).
  • In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI condemned the slave trade between Africa and the New World in an apostolic letter. American bishops ignored this, and later argued that it referred only to the international slave trade, not to slavery in the United States (Tentler, 119-120; Kurtz, 93).
  • Catholics did not support emancipation before, during or after the Civil War. Before the Civil War, not one Catholic leader publicly argued for immediate emancipation. Northern Catholics and their bishops supported the war in order to preserve the Union, but their support declined when the primary aim of the war became emancipation. After the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, the bishops assembled at the Secondary Plenary Council in 1866 and “expressed their collective regret that ‘a more gradual system of emancipation’ had not been adopted” (Tetler, 120, 122; Kurtz, 102, 106).
  • The Catholic Church also showed little concern for freed slaves after the conflict and continued to act in racist ways towards African Americans throughout the nineteenth century (Kurtz, 106). As summarized by Leslie Woodcock Tentler: “Like other white Americans, most Catholics chose to remember the war without reference to slavery and therefore without reference to justice claims on the part of the newly emancipated. . . Thus, emancipation caused little change in Catholic racial attitudes.  Most Catholics remained staunch Democrats even as Democratic regimes in the South kept black men from the polls, imposed legal segregation, and turned a blind eye to mounting violence against an increasingly isolated black population.  Catholic churches in the South nearly always relegated blacks to segregated pews, while some northern parishes barred them entirely, as did Catholic schools and hospitals throughout the nation,” (Tetler, 137).
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Jon is currently a junior who is double-majoring in Media Studies and Public Relations. He is heavily involved at Loras as a campus photographer, residential adviser, and a sports editor for the school newspaper, The Lorian.

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