It was hard to ignore the papal bull condemning the slave trade, which was read to American Catholic leaders gathered in Baltimore in 1839.
Pope Gregory XVI proclaimed that “no one in the future dare to vex anyone, despoil him of his possessions, reduce to servitude, or lend aid and favor to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men but rather animals, having been brought into servitude, in no matter what way, are, without any distinction, in contempt of the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold and devoted sometimes to the hardest labor.”
Nevertheless, the first bishop of Charleston, S.C., attempted to soften the blow. Quoting scripture and Catholic doctrine, Bishop John England wrote a series of letters arguing that the pope didn’t mean to attack those — including Catholics — who already owned slaves.
“Bishop England was not a bad man. He was not personally in favor of slavery, nor was he a racist,” noted Father John Raphael of New Orleans, at a rally organized as an alternative to the University of Notre Dame’s graduation rites.
“In fact, Bishop England exercised a cherished and personal ministry to black Catholics,” he added. “But in the face of strong, anti-Catholic sentiment and prejudice, he simply wanted to show his fellow antebellum Southerners that Catholics could be just as American as everybody else and that tolerance of their cherished institution — slavery — was not in any way opposed by the Catholic church.”
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