For 80 years, the U.S. government assembled every decade a federal “Slave Register,” listing the names of Americans who owned slaves, along with the number of slaves, recorded only by gender and age. This practice ended with the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution on Dec. 6, 1865, which rendered slavery illegal in this country.
These old slave registers lay on dusty shelves in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., until fairly recently when, through the marvel of cyberspace, they became available online on certain websites.
Recently, I went to one of these websites and took a look. Of course, none of the citizens owning slaves is listed by religion, but you cannot help but wonder when you see unmistakably Irish or French names. Were the people with these names Catholics? As likely as not, they were. If the French name was in Louisiana, you can bet your bottom dollar that the person was a Catholic or lived surrounded by Catholics.
Even more striking is to note the dioceses and religious communities that owned slaves. (My own Diocese of Nashville owned six slaves, according to the 1860 federal register.)
Just as likely as not, the majority of Catholics who owned slaves before 1866 were decent, God-fearing people who considered themselves fully compliant with everything taught by the Church; yet, nary a single Catholic voice prominently stands in the list of Americans who publicly denounced slavery before the Civil War.
It is no wonder that they considered the owning and holding of slaves, with all the injustices involved, not at all in conflict with Catholic doctrine. Catholic pulpits were silent on the subject. More than a few bishops and priests even preached that slavery was acceptable.
An excuse today is that the country had few Catholics, and fewer with wealth or political influence. Well, this is true to a point — and in some places.
Look at the facts. A number of Catholics, such as U.S. Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, were important in Maryland and supported slavery. Catholics were influential in Mobile, Ala., Natchez, Miss., Galveston, Texas, Savannah, Ga., and St. Louis, important centers in the slave trade. Also, Catholics literally ran Louisiana politics and business, and New Orleans had an immense slave market.
Back then, even these Catholics with influence, bishops and priests included, simply followed what the overall culture allowed and sustained.
Pointing fingers at those bishops and priests and at Catholic slave-owners is easy, now that at least 150 years has passed. However, although the issues are different, our generation is not much better.
Today, we all too often dance to the tune of the culture around us, precisely as those Catholic slave-owners did long ago. There surely was personal, private opposition to the system of slavery among at least some Catholics, but in the final analysis, the governing philosophy was, “to each his or her own, do not rock the boat, fall in line.”
This same philosophy today guides so many Catholics in this country when it comes to abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia and so on.
Ultimately, the horror of tolerating slavery was not that it led to the Civil War, with all its death and destruction. The fundamental evil was the acceptance by so many of a practice that negated the God-given rights of human beings, and in this ignored the fact of divine creation and of the supremacy of the divine will.
Following Church teachings in these current matters, of course, is absolutely a personal requirement for Catholics. It does not end with this. We Catholics need to speak out for what is right.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.