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THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, SLAVERY, AND TANEY
Transparency is long overdue
A personal essay by Paul H. Belz, January 2018
By age fifty-five I had performed as an altar boy, watched three of my sisters become nuns, studied for sixteen years and taught for ten more in Catholic schools, listened to over 3,000 sermons from priests and accumulated twenty-three college credits in theology and philosophy. Nothing during that significant experience with Catholicism had provided a hint that my Church had ever been involved in slavery.
I was fifty-five in 2002 when Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was running for governor of Maryland and commented in a newspaper interview that she was embarrassed by her Church’s history regarding slavery. I read the news piece and quietly asked myself, “How could I not have known this?” I began research immediately.
I learned that my native state of Maryland and the city of Baltimore had been in the forefront of Catholic Church involvement in 19th century slavery in the United States. That involvement must bear some responsibility for the horrific Dred Scott Supreme Court decision in 1857 which reaffirmed that slaves were chattel and could be taken to the territories. It was a contributing cause of the Civil War.
Roger B. Taney was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Andrew Jackson. He was the first Catholic on that court and as chief justice wrote the majority opinion in the Dred Scott case. In explaining his decision he called African-Americans “beings of an inferior order.”
Taney was born to Catholic slave-owning parents. When he inherited their slaves he freed them and continued to support those too old to work. That was evidence his position on slavery would be malleable under a strong church leader. A devout Catholic, Taney maintained a Baltimore office at 31 W. Lexington Street, just a short walk from what was Catholic America’s “mother church”; its first cathedral and basilica in its first diocese and archdiocese. During that era there was no dichotomy between most politicians’ religious beliefs and political convictions. Church teachings could influence the public actions of a states’ rights Jacksonian Democrat like Taney.
The archbishop Taney admired was Francis P. Kenrick, who had served as bishop of Philadelphia between 1842 and 1851 and then led Baltimore’s archdiocese from 1851 until his death in 1863. In addition to Baltimore, that archdiocese included hundreds of thousands of Catholics in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, Richmond, Louisville, Wheeling, Erie, and Floridaꟷsplit between northern and southern cities. Those numbers would have significantly propelled the abolition movement had Kenrick chosen to lead American Catholics there. He did not.
While in Philadelphia, Kenrick had opened a seminary in his home and written a text for American seminarians which taught that slavery neither violated natural law nor reached the level of a social evil.
In 1841 he published De Servitude, in which he wrote . . . “the law of nations permits ownership of people and the Old Testament confirms this.” Kenrick maintained that the apostle Paul did not condemn slavery but on the contrary taught that slaves had to be obedient: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your lords according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the simplicity of your heart, as to Christ.” (Ephesians 6: 5-8).
Kenrick wrote that following St. Paul’s lead, the Council of Gangra in 362 A.D. excommunicated those who, under the pretext of religious obligation, drove slaves from their masters.
His writing embraced the views of theologian Cardinal Hyacinthe Gerdil of Savoy who in the 18th century posited that “as long as a master takes good care of his slaves, slavery thus understood is not at odds with the natural law . . .” Gerdil nearly became pope on the death of Pius VI.
Kenrick’s pro-slavery position wasn’t an aberration relative to the Vatican’s. Across the centuries the Church position on slavery accommodated many hybrids, always reaching an accommodation with the reality that slavery was acceptable to the general populace. Popes owned slaves, Vatican ships were rowed by Muslim slaves and Vatican approval was given to Spain and Portugal to use slaves to labor in their colonies; an action that introduced slavery into the United States. Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas found niches in their theologies for varying degrees of slavery.
Roger Taney was also well aware of the Georgetown Jesuits’ deep involvement in slavery. The 2006 book Complicity, authored by three reporters for The Hartford Courant newspaper, revealed details.
The Georgetown College Jesuits owned 12,000 acres on four large properties in southern Prince Georges, Charles and St. Mary’s counties in Maryland in addition to two plantations on that state’s Eastern Shore. They owned nearly 400 slaves who worked those farms. Complicity noted that in 1818 college president John Grassi boasted, “Catholic slaves are preferred to all others because they are more docile and faithful to their masters.” Incredulous Complicity authors noted that the Jesuits debated whether whipping of pregnant women should be allowed on their plantations. Then in 1838 the order callously sold 272 slaves to the Deep South. The Jesuits were fearful that abolition was coming and might not include owner compensation. They used the $115,000 in proceeds to pay bills, fund an $8,000 pension for Baltimore’s archbishop and found St. John’s College (later Fordham University) in Fordham, New York. Like me, Courant reporters had been unaware of the role in slavery of either the Catholic Church or the northern U.S. cities. Like me they asked, “How could we not know this?”
It wasn’t until 1888 that the Catholic Church under Pope Leo XIII took an unequivocal position opposing all forms and degrees of human bondage. Sadly that was 23 years after the United States’ Civil War ended with the now revised tally of over 800,000 deaths. It was decades after the 13th and 14th amendments legally freed the American slaves and made them citizens. 1965’s Second Vatican Council finally removed the last ambiguities in Church policy concerning human rights.
In 2017 Taney’s statue was removed from the Maryland State House and he was reviled nationally as a racist. Yet he had been a product of his Church. Sadly both were on the wrong side of history and morality.
We are left to ponder how history might have changed had the Church proactively supported the men and women abolitionists, black and white, who risked everything during the 30 antebellum years when the tidal wave of abolition was swelling inexorablyꟷbut which only belatedly swept the
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