Friday, June 3, 2016

Catholic Church and Desegregation: The Archbishop Rummel Story

Archbishop Joseph Rummel
Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle is remembered as an arch-conservative prelate because of the exceedingly harsh way in which he suppressed dissent from Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae condemning artificial contraception.  But what is often overlooked is that one of his first acts on becoming Archbishop of Washington was to desegregate Church institutions in the Archdiocese.  Washington and the surrounding Maryland counties had a long tradition of racial segregation and O’Boyle’s acts preceded the Supreme Court decision desegregating Public Schools, Brown vs. The Board of Education, by six years. 
The next story to consider is Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans who face a showdown with segregationists in Louisiana in the early ‘60’s.  Joseph Rummel’s family immigrated from Baden Germany when he was six years old and settled in New York City.  He entered seminary as a high-schooler and, after having done his theological studies in Rome, was ordained for the Archdiocese of New York on May 24, 1902.  From 1928 until 1935 he served as Bishop of Omaha and in 1935 was translated to New Orleans.   His tenure in New Orleans was marked by a great expansion of the population due to the urbanization that marked the Great Depression and Rummel built Catholic institutions: parishes, schools, high-schools and other facilities to better serve the Catholic population of a very Catholic city.  Rummel was slow to embrace desegregation but in 1948 he admitted two African Americans to the Archdiocesan  seminary as candidates for the priesthood.  In 1951 he mandated the removal of “white” and “colored” signs from the churches and schools.  And in 1953 he wrote a pastoral letter mandating an end to segregation in Archdiocesan institutions but was not very stringent about enforcing it.  He did close a parish in 1955 when parishioners refused to accept a Black priest. 
The desegregation of the Catholic schools was a major challenge.  The Archbishop clearly wanted the schools desegregated but was hesitant to take on the local school boards that resisted the changes to the status quo.  Moreover, Catholic Schools were peaking in enrollment precisely because as public schools had to be desegregated after Brown vs. The Board of Education, many parents were putting their children in parochial schools to avoid integration.  However, on March 27 1962 Archbishop Rummel announced that of the following autumn term the Catholic schools would be integrated. 
As far back as 1954 Catholic segregationists had been organizing to resist desegregation.  They had even written Pius XII asking for a papal encyclical supporting racial segregation; to their chagrin the Pope issued a statement condemning racism as a major evil in our world. 
Archbishop Rummel wanted a conciliatory approach towards desegregation but that was impossible in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement.  Catholics organized White Citizens Councils and other groups to resist change.  Parents took their children out of Catholic Schools. Letter-writing campaigns deluged the chancery with countless letters asking for the policy to be rescinded.  Patience exhausted the Archbishop said there would be no reversal and anyone standing in his way would be excommunicated. Three dissenters, Judge Leander Perez, Jackson G. Ricau, and Una Gaillot, were put under a ban of excommunication.  And in the end, resistance collapsed and the schools were integrated. 
I relate this story because I have received several comments objecting to my having written in a previous post:
The issue today is the sovereignty of conscience.  In forming our conscience we must pay serious attention to the teaching of the Church—but the teaching of the Church cannot take the place of conscience nor can we be expected to give blind obedience to the teaching of the Church as that would be equivalent to resigning our personal responsibility for making moral decisions.  We need personally and seriously to consider the choices that face us in life.  The Church provides guidance, but it must be our interior adherence to the Holy Spirit that sets our course.   

Readers have brought up the segregationist protesters and asking if my above statement doesn’t justify their resistance.  In a word, yes.  If they were truly following their conscience, believing that segregation was part of the Divine Law, they would be bound to resist it.  Given the clarity of the magisterium on the issue however, it is highly unlikely that the three excommunicates had seriously considered the teaching of the Church in forming their consciences.  But at the end of the day, it is our conscience that must determine our action.  Plenty of saints were excommunicated in their day for standing their ground against bishops and even an occasional pope or two.  Conscience is sovereign and sometime we have to pay the price for our convictions. 

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