Pressures on the Faith in the American Civil War. And now?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 08, 2019 | In Reviews

In an intriguing new book by Fr. Charles P. Connor, the Catholic position on slavery leading up to and during the American Civil War (1861-1865) is explored in considerable depth. What we learn from it is how much cultural conditioning and competing interests can modify or “slant” the moral positions of bishops within the same Church.

The book is Faith and Fury: The Rise of Catholicism During the Civil War. This is not a review, but Connor’s study is of interest because of the ways in which various prelates “stretched” themselves toward either moral responsibility or partisanship (or both) and also because of the light the slavery issue sheds on the episcopal response to so many equally important moral issues today. Generally speaking, what we find is that the bishops carved out prudential positions based on several competing factors, none of which was unimportant, but all of which at least sometimes muted the moral effectiveness of Catholic leadership in opposition to slavery itself.

Of course, it was difficult to find a bishop who positively approved of slavery as practiced in the South, but it was easy to find bishops, including northern bishops, who made a point of explaining that slavery—in the form of that voluntary servitude in dire circumstances known among the Jews in the Old Testament—was not a violation of the natural law. In fact, it would be hard to argue that it is contrary to natural law for a person without resources to give himself over to another in service in return for basic protection and care. But there was much more to our “peculiar institution” than that.

Sometimes, as the generations progressed—especially after the slave trade was abolished—bishops in the South, or bishops who owned slaves, or religious orders (like the Jesuits) that owned slaves, tended to emphasize the benefits of the position of slaves in the South as compared with how they had fared in Africa or with the consequences of being turned loose en masse on their own resources in the United States. Many bishops were very cautious about the perils of wholesale emancipation, and not entirely without good reason. But at the same time, bishops, religious communities and leading Catholics were frequently the best owners, doing things like ensuring that families were not separated, mitigating living conditions and “punishments”, and ensuring access to basic education, including thorough education in the Faith.

It was frequently remarked that Catholic slaves were typically far more educated, more well-spoken, more accomplished, and more prone to sobriety and self-control than others. In addition, Catholic owners were pressed by the Church to treat their slaves well, and frequently emancipated them at some point, at least upon the owners’ deaths. But again, it was often overlooked that the type of slavery known in the United States was almost exclusively chattel slavery, in which human persons were, without their consent, bought and sold. Despite mitigating circumstances, this was obviously gravely evil. Apart from the Church’s occasional institutional participation in this evil (which was not widespread and often geared to making things better for the slaves, lest they be sold to others), we might wonder what considerations could have led to a common refusal to condemn unequivocally the form of servitude characteristic of the vast majority of blacks in many areas of the United States.

Regional culture, anti-Catholicism, and power politics

The first concern, as might be expected, was each bishop’s fondness for the place in which he served and the people to whom he was called to minister. As North-South rhetoric heated up and talk of secession shifted to acts of secession and consequent acts of war, there were many reasons for southerners to regard themselves as better off no longer part of a union increasingly devoted to commercial and urban interests foreign to their own needs. It was not uncommon to point out that northerners who now sought to diminish the influence of southern states had been the main suppliers in the slave trade before that trade was outlawed, simply because it was a fantastic commercial enterprise. Moreover, the whole question of the right to secession could not be framed in terms of the moral law. It was an argument about self-interest and personal preferences, pure and simple. There came a time when most Southerners, including their Churchmen, feared that wholesale emancipation—as a kind of political attack by the North—would lead to far worse evils for the entire community.

The second concern, was the rabid anti-Catholicism of the abolitionists. Abolitionism in the United States was all but inseparable from anti-Catholicism. For most abolitionists, opposition to slavery was strongly tied with opposition to immigration, and especially to the widespread immigration of Catholics, who were regarded as irrational and deluded followers of a diabolical sect. Abolitionist arguments were almost always extreme, unwilling to consider the grave difficulties surrounding the problem of the immediate emancipation of millions of black slaves, and extraordinarily hostile to the Catholic Church. There was a serious reluctance among Catholic leaders to take any position which would strengthen the abolitionist party in the United States.

There were other concerns as well, such as: (1) The desire to keep the United States from falling back into the cauldron of European conflicts, not to mention fratricidal war, which tended to put the bishops on the side of managing the problems connected with slavery primarily through policies of amelioration and gradualism; and, (2) The legitimate Catholic preference for changing both society and its laws through the reformation of persons rather than by government fiat (would that this were more prominent today!), along with the corresponding difficulties of increasing the Catholic presence in a largely non-Catholic and even anti-Catholic nation.

Most bishops were primarily and very deeply concerned with evangelization, missionary work, and amelioration within their own dioceses, but some in both the North and the South wanted to play major diplomatic/political roles in representing their respective governments to European powers and the Pope. These bishops tended to make one-sided representations according to the interests which they represented, understating the catastrophe of American slavery whenever possible.

It would not be too much to say, in hindsight, that too many Catholic leaders were too comfortable with slavery, though none argued that African slaves were not beloved children of God just as were the descendants of white Europeans. The bishops did manage—quite remarkably—to maintain Church unity throughout the conflict, even as different bishops were blessing opposing troops and praying sincerely for the success in war of those entrusted to their care. But they were to some degree formed by their culture as well as seeking to form it. It remains difficult even among bishops to recognize the gravity of the moral failings to which we have become culturally accustomed, because we view them as normal.

Conclusion

The impact of Connor’s book on this reader was to recognize yet again the difficulty, in a Church run by human beings, of completely transcending both cultural conditioning and competing interests in the face of grave moral peril. The life issues today are, if anything, significantly clearer than the problems surrounding slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. The absolute evils with which we are faced are logically less easy to dismiss with mitigating interpretations, and the potentially bad side-effects of correcting these evils cannot be conceived with the same alarm by rational men and women as the sudden emancipation of millions of slaves. Finally, while most bishops today concern themselves primarily with teaching, preaching and ministering to the people in their care, many of them are prone to dismiss the severity of the evils that face us, instead focusing on low-stress causes. And some are intent upon playing grand roles, or currying doctrinal favor with the surrounding culture, or both.

In the end I came away from Faith and Fury with greater understanding, but also greater concern. I mean for our common refusal to recognize what it means, in the final analysis, to be a slave to sin.


Fr. Charles P. Connor, Faith and Fury: The Rise of Catholicism During the Civil War, EWTN Publishing via Sophia Institute Press, 2019, 260pp.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 11, 2019 10:11 AM ET USA

    margaretinvirginia: I'm not familiar with Kurtz’s book, but I suspect it includes a serious consideration of the anti-Catholicism that was characteristic of abolitionism.

  • Posted by: margaretinvirginia - Oct. 09, 2019 10:56 PM ET USA

    This is interesting. I have on my "to read" list another book, "Excommunicated from the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America" by William B. Kurtz. Are you familiar with that one?