Tuesday, February 8, 2011

American Catholics in the Civil War

Let’s take a look at the role of Catholics in the American Civil War. In the two decades before the war many of your large Protestant denominations (Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians) broke apart into Northern and Southern Churches. The issue, of course, was slavery, an issue that was dividing the country. As the abolitionist movement grew strong in the North and as the South became more and more defensive of its "pecuiliar institution," the unity of these denominations inevitably fractured—and would not be healed for decades. The Episcopal Church fared somewhat better, undergoing a “separation” rather than a division as the dioceses in the Confederacy organized themselves into “The Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America,” without undergoing any doctrinal or canonical division, retaining the same prayer-book while praying for different presidents and Congresses.. The Episcopal Church in the Confederate States, decidedly more "Low Church" in tradition than the more "High Church" North, had the distinction of a Bishop-General when Leonidas Polk, Bishop of Louisiana traded in his rochet and chimere for Confederate gray and accepted a commission in the Army as a General. Bishop Polk was killed in the battle of Pine Mountain Georgia by a Union shell in 1864. Division was not on the agenda for Lutherans either as most Lutherans, indeed almost all, lived in the Union and were either loyal to it or, especially the Scandinavians, were obliviously indifferent to the conflict which had no direct bearing on their rural farm life in Minnesotta and the Dakotas. (Lutherans were already fractured along ethnic lines—Swedes, Germans, Norwegians, Estonians, Danes, and their divisions were often as bitter as the North-South divisions tearing the country apart.)
For Catholics division or even separation was not a possibility as their common allegiance to the Papacy held them in communion—if not agreement—with one another. The Papacy itself had a rather ambigious record on the issue of slavery until Pope Gregory XVI in 1839 issued the bull Supremo Apostolatus which condemned both the institution of slavery and the slave trade. Not all Catholics rallied to the papal teaching. Catholic officials in the United States, Brazil, and other nations which still legalized slavery were not inclined to preach against slavery, Catholic slave owners—including the clergy—did not sell their slaves, much less emancipate them. (The American Jesuits had been ordered by Rome earlier in the century to get rid of their slaves and they did.) Perhaps one of the more embarrassing responses from a Catholic was that of Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court (and the only Catholic to serve in that position until the current Chief Justice, John Roberts). Taney was a devout Maryland Catholic. He had freed his own slaves and he “regretted” slavery. Nevertheless, he is responsible for the infamous Dred Scott decision declaring: “It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” He further declared that Blacks—free or slave—were not and could not be citizens and that Congress had not authority to regulate slavery in the territories. In terms of dissent from Church teaching, Taney’s action would be as if today Justice Roberts or any other Catholic Justice on the court ruled that neither the States separately nor the Federal Government collectively could limit access to abortion. It was a shocking contradiction to the magisterium yet Taney’s dissent from magisterial teaching was in no way punished by Church authorities of his day. This was despite Pope Gregory’s admonition in Supremo Apostolatus: "We further reprobate by our apostolic authority all the above described offences (slavery and the slave trade) as utterly unworthy the Christian name; and by the same authority we rigidly prohibit and interdict all and every individual, whether ecclesiastical or laical, from presuming to defend that commerce in negro servitude under any pretence or borrowed excuse. … or to teach or publish in any manner, publicly or privately, things contrary to the admonitions which we have given in these letters." Pretty clear, huh? By "interdict" Gregory meant of course that any one supporting slavery or the slave trade was to be denied the sacraments and other rites of the Church. It was never enforced against Mr. Justice Taney or any other person--official or citizen--as far as I know, Of course Pope Gregory also had written that race was not to be a barrier to Holy Orders, but no American seminary would accept an Afro-American candidate. It was only in 1886 that Augustus Tolton, the first African American ordinandus, was ordained to the priesthood and that was after being sent to Rome for his educaiton to get around the refusal of the American seminaries to admit him. (There is the case of the Healy brothers whose mixed race lineage allowed them to passé blanc. We will do a blog on them in the future.) Regardless of papal declaraitons, it would not be until the Civil Rights movement in the mid-twentieth century that most Catholic seminaries and religous orders would accept African-Americans and candidates. But Father Tolton is long after the Civil War and we have wandered too far--more to come when we get back to the topic of American Catholics in the Civil War.
The image today is Roger B, Taney, the first Catholic to serve as a justice of the United States Supreme Court and the first Catholic to serve as Chief Justice. He was appointed to the Court as Chief Justice and served from his appointment in 1836 until his death in 1864, He handed down the infamous Dred Scott decision which declared that slaves were property and Blacks, free or slave, could never be citizens.

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