A Catholic history lesson

On April 12, it will be 150 years since a unit of the Confederate army, commanded by Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, a Catholic from New Orleans, fired on Fort Sumter, a U.S. Navy installation in the Charleston, S.C., harbor. 

The Confederates took Fort Sumter, but much, much more followed. Four states that had remained in the Union joined the Confederacy — Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Maryland almost left the Union. In Kentucky and Missouri, secession had much support. The Civil War began. 

Almost four years after Fort Sumter, on April 9, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse, Va., with other Confederate forces quickly following suit, signalling an end to combat. 

In the war, at least 618,000 Americans died. Thousands upon thousands more were maimed or wounded. On Dec. 31, 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ended slavery, the most dramatic and lasting result of all that began at Fort Sumter. 

This country tried to commemorate the Civil War’s centennial 50 years ago, but it was an ill-fated effort, overwhelmed by the budding civil rights movement. 

Plans are well under way to note this 150th anniversary, but already controversy is surrounding at least some plans. 

Much may be learned from this horrendous chapter in American history. Catholics can learn something. It is interesting to think about the role of Catholics in the war (see Pages 14-15), but more specifically the response of Catholics at the time to slavery, the social institution that created such divided opinion in this country not only in 1861 but for decades before. 

Overall, Catholics were silent about slavery. Catholics owned slaves. Dioceses and religious communities owned slaves! 

Catholics in the South rallied to the Confederacy. Dioceses were organized in all the seceding states, and most of them were a generation old if not older, giving the Church a presence. Only one Catholic bishop seemed against secession, but his opposition still is unclear. 

The temptation is to excuse Catholics’ involvement in slavery, or the failure of Catholics publicly to resist slavery, because Catholics were few in the South at the time. Not so in every case. Catholics ran Louisiana, where they were a heavy majority. New Orleans was the site of a notorious slave market. Catholics were influential in Maryland and Missouri, and here and there in other places. 

This was despite the fact that the official Catholic teaching about all humans being special to God was as clear then as ever.  

When the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, abuse of African-Americans did not stop. The vindictive and short-sighted policies of Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow, a system of keeping blacks down that reigned throughout the South and in many other parts of the country. Catholics who publicly confronted segregation were so few that history books can list them in one paragraph. 

Segregation was part of Catholic life long after the war. A woman religious told me that, as a young adult, she applied to 30 communities of nuns before finding one that would accept an African-American. Her story is not unusual. 

Here is one lesson to be drawn from the war and its aftermath. Catholics are too willing to fall into line with the majority in this country and with the culture. They always have been too willing, and they still are too willing. The details easily may be complex and daunting. Swimming against the tide rarely is pleasant. But the basic point remains. If Catholic, think and act as a Catholic. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.