Catholics and slavery

The U.S. Capitol in Washington allows each of the 50 states to display statues of two persons whom each state judges as exemplary citizens.

A flap recently arose, demanding that California remove its statue of Padre Junipero Serra, on the grounds that he exploited and abused Native Americans while he was a Catholic missionary. The proposal is not gathering that much steam, at least not at the moment. California Gov. Jerry Brown, for one, will not hear of it.

Nevertheless, curious, I checked to see whom all the 100 statues in the Capitol represented.

Recalling the recent efforts to remove the Confederate battle flag from public grounds, I found it interesting that of these 100 statues, nine are former Confederates, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis from Mississippi, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens from Georgia and five Confederate generals: Joseph A. Wheeler from Alabama, Edmund Kirby Smith from Florida, Zebulon Vance from North Carolina, Wade Hampton from South Carolina and Robert E. Lee, the Southern commander-in-chief, from Virginia.

Additionally, no less than 15 slave-owners are represented, including George Washington and Charles Carroll, who raises a question about slavery in this country and the Catholic Church. He was a prominent figure in Maryland, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. He owned slaves.

So did many other Catholics in this country until the 13th Amendment to the Constitution freed all the slaves in 1865. (Contrary to the assumption of most, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 left many slaves in bondage.)

As an excuse, the statement is made that for the first half of the 19th century, Catholics were few and far between in America, and almost no Catholics were wealthy enough to own slaves.

Hello. Louisiana was part of the United States at the time, and Catholics ran everything in Louisiana. It was the most Catholic state in the Union with plenty of rich Catholics, and they owned slaves by the thousands. Catholics never were noticeably pro-abolition, not even in Louisiana where Catholic slave-owners were numerous and ran the show. Few Catholic historians today are proud of the fact that even dioceses and religious communities owned slaves.

Among Americans at the time, generally speaking, some opposed slavery, many had no interest in the question whatsoever, many were helpless and some supported slavery.

What difference does all this make today?

Slavery, of course, is gone, but how far have American Catholics come? What is the thinking of most American Catholics, regardless of their ethnicity, when they hear modern stories of abuse or disadvantage among African-Americans? To look at the broader picture, are most American Catholics outdone when they hear of systematic want or the subtle put-down of any group?

Some differences occur between the 19th century and today. Likely now, no state legislature would send a statue of an outright defender of slavery or outspoken opponent of human rights to the Capitol. Another difference is that Catholics in this country are very many; many are well off financially, many have influence and some even are powerful, but they are not together.

Our bishops have their platforms, and on important social and moral issues they certainly have let their minds be known. Do we follow Church teaching today? Is today a carbon copy of American Catholic culture 150 years ago? Do we care? Why do we not take stands?

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