In his column this week, Monsignor Campion writes, As we stagger amid reports of scandal…
On difficult issues, think critically — and think with the Church
A priest tells this story. He was driving through a rural area on vacation when he noticed an exit sign for one of the oldest motherhouses of nuns in this country. He had heard of these sisters. They eventually became one of the largest congregations of women religious in the United States, and even in the world, teaching and nursing in cities from Atlantic to Pacific and overseas.
Deciding to have a look at this landmark in American Catholic history, he left the interstate and drove to the old convent. On arrival, he left his car and entered the little, original chapel where he encountered a nun.
Introducing himself, he said he was visiting because he was interested in the beginnings of the Church in this country. Sister offered to give him a tour. She told him that at first the convent was the centerpiece of an immense farm. The sisters raised all the food that they needed. The rest of the yield was sold to raise money for other interests of the nuns and for their ministries. She said that back in the day several thousand acres were under cultivation, and the herds of cattle and other animals numbered in the hundreds.
He was puzzled. How did the nuns find time to teach students and operate a hospital while maintaining such an enormous farm? Sister quickly said no nun worked in the fields or with the livestock. They had their slaves.
Indeed, she noted, slaves built the chapel and the first convent.
The priest was shocked. Nuns owned slaves! How could this have been?
Before 1866, when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ended American slavery, nuns owned slaves. So did priests and bishops. So did an untold number of lay Catholics. Indeed, in 1860, my own Diocese of Nashville, Tennessee, recorded at the courthouse its ownership of six slaves, human beings.
The Jesuits have begun to try to make reparations for the slaves that they owned. Good for the Jesuits.
This is the point. The priest who tells this story was aghast to learn that Catholic nuns owned human beings, denying them any personal liberty or even dignity, but this is 2021. When it was all happening, nobody thought anything about it. It was the way it was, as they say.
Leaving religion aside, almost every American president between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln owned slaves. Lincoln did not, but his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was born into, and bred by, a slave-owning family, as was Julia Dent Grant, the wife of the federal commander in the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant.
Neither of these women was a Catholic, but their obvious tolerance for slavery, and its acceptance by so very many Catholics at the time, including hierarchy, clergy and laity, simply shows how people fell into line with the popular opinion and conventions of their day, and how few asked moral questions.
The lesson to be learned from this priest’s story is not solely about Catholics who lived in America a century and a half ago. (Modern Catholics in the United States today could learn very much by studying the Church’s, and individual Catholics’, historic reactions to the plight of African Americans. These reactions do not always prompt pride in our past.)
Rather, it says that too many of us readily blend into the culture, defend it and even promote it. Or we are silent. We may know that evil is at play, but we say nothing. We hesitate even to whisper a question about evil in our culture, if something is accepted widely.
Question the Church, but never the culture or the way most people prefer!
Public opinion studies, and many are quite reliable, reveal that not every American Catholic, to say the least, truly abhors abortion. This is a scandal.
First, question things. Be tough. Do not make excuses. Then, think with the Church.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.