First, I’d like to thank Bishop Baker for inviting me; it is an honor to be addressing all of you. When I was an altar boy at tiny Sacred Heart Mission in the town of Blackville – about forty miles this side of Aiken – I’d never have imagined that I’d be standing here today. Fortunately, I don’t have to give a homily, something I’m hardly qualified to do. I’ve been asked by the bishop to share with you some reflections on being Catholic and Southern. In my case, those reflections inevitably spring from two sources: first, my family history; second, my study of American literature and – more broadly – American culture.
My paternal ancestors came to the U.S. about 1850, an Irish family that settled in New York except for one boy who came South and, despite having never owned slaves, ended up Confederate, against his brothers; after the war he married and settled in Blackville, on the then-busy Charleston-Augusta railroad. Through his efforts and those of the priests who served the Sacred Heart Mission, the faith was kept alive in the family despite their geographical isolation. One of his sons was considering the priesthood when he took sick and died young; two of his granddaughters – my great-aunts – ultimately joined the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s. It became a family imperative to attend a Catholic college, whether up at Mount Saint Mary’s in Maryland, in the earliest generations, or Belmont Abbey near Charlotte, in my father’s case. And still today my parents live in the house that my great-great-grandfather built, a house filled with documents recording the family history as well as with the books, rosaries, and crucifixes that sustained their faith.
I myself was born and baptized at Belmont Abbey College, where my father was working; we then lived at Saint Leo College in Florida before we returned to South Carolina and the orbit of the old family home. Spending time there, and in the mission church my ancestors had helped to build, planted the seeds of interest that have shaped much of my academic life. My scholarly interest in Catholic writers from the South in part reflects my larger interest in the question of what it means to be Catholic in the South and therefore, inescapably, what it means to be Catholic in the United States – a nation which, due to its immediate origins in the Enlightenment and Reformation, has traditionally been somewhat suspicious of Catholicism.
(And I should mention at this point that, though I’m not exactly giving an ecumenical address today, I don’t mean to be altogether anti-ecumenical. I’m half-Protestant myself, at least in terms of family history. My mother was a Lutheran before she met my father, and her mother had originally been a Baptist, all South Carolinians; on her side I think I’m kin to about every variety of Protestant you can find in the state).
My mature interest in these questions first began to take shape during my years as an undergraduate at Notre Dame. There, one of my favorite professors discovered that I was a South Carolinian – there weren’t many of us up there – and made a startling announcement: “The South is really Catholic,” he said, “it just doesn’t know it yet. Maybe in a hundred years or so.”
I’m not sure he was quite right about that, though he was undoubtedly an intelligent man – a Midwesterner who had graduated from the University of Virginia, where he read St. Augustine for the first time, became a Catholic, and met and married his wife (whose family was from the same part of South Carolina as mine). He then earned his doctorate in medieval studies and taught right here in Charleston at The Citadel before Notre Dame. So he knew something about the South, and he certainly knew a lot about Catholicism, though I still don’t know quite what he meant by that remark. Considering his particular predilections, I’d guess he meant that if Southerners – famed for being temperamentally conservative – ever got around to figuring out what was actually worth conserving, they’d be Catholic.
As it is, of course, the Southerners who’ve historically talked loudest about “conservative” religion have generally been at odds with the Catholic Church. I know this from family stones and from attending second through sixth grades in Barnwell and Bamberg Counties, where I was occasionally told that the Church worshipped Mary and the Pope had made up Purgatory and all sorts of other stuff that wasn’t in the Bible, and was probably setting me up for eternal damnation. I even got a little of this later in Columbia, where I went to public high school – but not nearly as much, partly because I was in honors classes where students tended to be quiet about faith and where at least a few proudly disdained religion altogether.
What I didn’t begin to understand until college was that the two South Carolinas I had grown up in – the rural counties where some pockets of fundamentalist Protestantism held strong and the Columbia suburbs where a new secular South was springing up – were themselves products of a split between faith and religion that went back a long time. Back, in fact, to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the land we now call South
Carolina had just caught the eye of a newly divided Christian Europe.
I was vividly reminded of this split just a few weeks ago as I sat in my classroom in Mississippi administering an exam. While doing so I was forced to listen to the lecture of the Western Civilization instructor in the adjoining room. I don’t know this instructor, but he’s loud enough – with a strong upland South accent – that I’d previously overheard a few of his remarks about the Reformation. What I heard this day were some claims about Copernicus and Galileo that sounded accurate enough but that ended with the disturbing general observation that Catholic orthodoxy by its nature demanded only literal readings of the Bible; fortunately, however, some progressive Protestant thinkers had come along with the novel idea that since God made the universe any true attempt to understand its order must be an attempt to understand Him.
Published in The Catholic Miscellany April 20, 2006
The students in the next room, I gathered, were getting a dose of the standard, old – fashioned Anglo-American narrative of Western history: that after the decline of the Roman Empire everything went bad for about a thousand years, but then around 1500 everything suddenly started getting better. In this narrative, great Catholic thinkers such as St. Augustine and Dante and St. Thomas Aquinas – who did assert that since God made the universe any true attempt to understand its order must be an attempt to understand Him – might as well have never existed. When I related this incident to one of my current colleagues, a Catholic woman who’s an expert on medieval literature, she asked how I prevented myself from running into the next room and yelling to the students that they were being misled. My answer: with difficulty.
The sad fact is that this is the story most of the students have been told in classrooms all their lives. And strangely this common academic narrative, aside from presenting Catholicism in a derogatory light, asserts the exact opposite of what I heard from many rural Protestants while growing up: the Western Civ instructor was presenting an essentially liberal narrative wherein science and political liberty are the ultimate goods (and basically Protestant) and fundamentalism and intolerance are the only evils (and basically Catholic). Another way to put this: for old-fashioned Bible Belt Protestants, the problem with the Catholic Church is that it seems too worldly and sophisticated; for the secular teachers who generally rule public classrooms, the problem with the Catholic Church is that it doesn’t seem worldly and sophisticated enough. This latter story is basically the one I had heard in my public high school in Columbia. But it began much earlier.
Let me shift to another classroom, seventh-grade South Carolina History, at Wade Hampton Academy in Orangeburg. I’ve forgotten 90% of what we covered in there – I don’t think we got much past the Civil War (little surprise). But the beginning of that course fascinated me, learning about the native tribes and the first Europeans who arrived here: mainly the Spanish, who famously gave us Hernando de Soto, but who also made several failed attempts at permanent settlement – up around Georgetown and down around Beaufort, from 1526 through 1585. I guess my interest at the time was partly romantic, a fascination with a history that seemed completely vanished, an attraction to lost causes that might sound almost Confederate. But our textbook, as I recall, asserted that the Spanish were radically different from those British settlers who would later give rise to the Confederate South. The Spanish, the book suggested, were basically doomed to fail; the English who came in the 1660s had occasional problems but were destined to succeed, dealing efficiently with both the troublesome natives and the Spaniards themselves – whose successful settlement just down the coast in St. Augustine, Florida seemed to pose a threat to British Charles Town.
The conflict between Spain and England at this time had clear religious dimensions, of course: England since Henry VIII had been officially Protestant, with Spain its Catholic rival, and their conflict carried over to the New World. The British colony that became South Carolina therefore feared not only Spanish attacks from the south but also Catholicism itself: as the historian Walter Edgar has recently written, “the only limits to [colonial] South Carolina’s official policy of toleration were that Roman Catholics were not welcome and African religious forms suppressed” – a policy that effectively lumped Catholicism together with non-Christian religions.
I didn’t grasp all of this in the seventh grade, of course. But at the same time I was reading early colonial history in that classroom I’d also been reading the books of Irish history that my father’s family had accumulated at home. And the question occurred to me: what was I doing pulling for the English when my last name was O’Gorman? According to the (flawed) nineteenth-century ethnology I’d been reading, the Celts who ended up in Ireland had come by way of Spain; then there was the matter of the Black Irish, supposedly descended from sailors of the Spanish Armada who shipwrecked in Ireland. Furthermore, if the Irish were somehow akin to the Spanish – most obviously in their Catholic faith – weren’t they also somehow like the Carolina natives, or even the slaves brought from Africa, victims on the wrong end of British colonization (Ireland being in fact the very first “overseas” colony of the British)? Much later, in graduate school, I would learn that some of the British nobles who had orchestrated the settlement of Carolina – men simply revered for their great names in our seventh grade history book – were men of quite questionable character. The Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper – namesake of the rivers we sit between today – was a political opportunist whose 1681 attempt to ensure that a Catholic never held the British throne again led the great English Catholic poet John Dryden to satirize him in a long poem entitled “Absalom and Achitophel”. There Cooper, one of the Lord Proprietors of the colony of Carolina, is depicted as the false prophet Achitophel from the Second Book of Samuel, and a figure akin to Satan himself.
The fact is, of course, that in the story of European colonization of the New World there is plenty of blame to go around, to supposedly “Catholic” powers and supposedly “Protestant” powers alike. But I think colonial South Carolina, with its conflict between the British and the Spanish, is worth calling to mind today for several reasons. Most obviously: much as Anthony Ashley Cooper might be appalled to see it, South Carolina looks more and more like Florida – and, to some extent, more and more like Latin America – every day. And that is not a bad thing. While the legacy of the British seems to have provided the United States with worldly goods – material prosperity and political stability – that we should be thankful for, I believe it has also fostered the split between faith and reason that I mentioned earlier. And it has fostered another split as well: that between races. Latin America, by comparison, has done a better job of avoiding such dichotomies, and it’s hard not to attribute this to its Catholic identity.
In the U.S. South, Catholicism has traditionally been interpreted with regard to race -often by non-Catholics – in two diametrically opposed ways. One the one hand, some so-called conservatives who defended slavery and, later, segregation sought to compare their vision of Southern social hierarchy to a kind of romanticized feudal social order wherein slaveholders functioned as chivalrous lords, and slaves as the serfs they benevolently protected. But such thinkers failed to recognize fundamental flaws in their analogy between medieval feudalism and the essentially modern system of New World chattel slavery. And insofar as such thinkers seemed receptive to Catholicism, they tended to be only superficially so. As the writer Walker Percy noted, what they really admired was Catholicism as presented in the works of the British Presbyterian novelist Sir Walter Scott, “a Christianity which was aetheticized by medieval trappings, and a chivalry abstracted from it sacramental setting” [Percy’s words]. Percy seems to me a particularly powerful spokesman on this point. Born into an aristocratic Mississippi family in 1916, he was raised a nominal Protestant, but later observed that upper class Southerners in fact tended to practice virtues and vices more properly associated with pagan Rome than with any Christian ethic. Raised a segregationist himself, he became an advocate of integration only after he became a Catholic – under the guidance of the Jesuits of New Orleans, in the 1940s.
Percy’s experience might have seemed to confirm the fears of those who associated Catholicism not with supporting established racial barriers but with somehow undermining them – including the Ku Klux Klan, whose assertions that Catholicism was somehow “un-American” were in part tied to fears about its impact on established Anglo-American notions about race. A colleague of mine recently reminded me of this when he showed me a Klan speech delivered in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the 1930s, wherein the speaker expresses his fear that the Pope, that “foreign potentate” intends to plant an Italian priest in the White House and subsequently place Alabama under the control of an African cardinal.
Irrationally as the fears of the Klansman are expressed here, it’s worth asking: what was their source? There are many answers, but one is the fact that he saw to his south – to the south of the U.S. South, in the Caribbean and in Mexico and blending into places like Texas and lower Louisiana – predominantly Catholic cultures which had different ways of thinking about race, cultures which didn’t divide people neatly into the binary categories of “black” and “white”.
Now, I believe that racism itself is a sin, and – like pride, envy, and all the rest, of which it is simply one expression – it can, unfortunately, be found to some extent in all places and at all times. So it would obviously be incorrect to say that there’s no racism in Latin America. But I’m simply following the lead of a number of informed thinkers when I say that Latin America has generally had a more fluid conception of race and a more relaxed attitude toward it than the United States has. Gregory Rodriguez, a prominent journalist and fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., who has been investigating changing conceptions of race in California, observes: “the fact that Latin America is far more heavily populated by people of mixed ancestry than Anglo America, is the clearest sign of the difference between the two outlooks on race.” Rodriguez goes on to assert that this difference is partly attributable to the Protestant theology which has historically shaped the United States (with its emphasis on sectarian purity and divisive individualism); and the Catholic theology which has historically shaped such countries as Mexico (with its emphasis on community and its ability to integrate degrees of difference within an overarching unity).
Such an equation of Catholicism with views of race that might generally be called “progressive” goes against the conventional wisdom put forth by the Western Civilization instructor I mentioned earlier: in his narrative, the Church is often portrayed as supporting slavery and as having spawned worse racial brutality in the New World than did Protestant England. This particular story has been traced back to the time when Queen Elizabeth ruled England and fostered what has been called “the Black Legend” of Spanish cruelty (and English innocence). But recently a prominent sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, has defended the Church vigorously in this regard in his book “For the Glory of God” (this book, I’m pleased to report, is published by Princeton
University Press). Stark painstakingly documents both St. Thomas Aquinas’ thirteenth-century deduction that slavery was a sin and the upholding of his position by a series of popes, beginning with Eugene IV in 1435 and including multiple bulls denouncing New World slavery – and imposing the penalty of excommunication on slave traders – by Paul III in the mid-1500s. As Stark puts it, the practice of slavery by nations such as Spain and Portugal reveals “[only] the weakness of papal authority at this time, not the indifference of the Church to the sin of slavery. … The problem wasn’t that the Church failed to condemn slavery [of Native Americans and Africans]; it was that few [Catholics] heard [the condemnations] and most of them did not listen.”
Yet, “even though the papal bulls against slavery were hushed up in the New World, the antislavery views of the Church did have a significantly moderating effect in the Catholic Americas by means of” the French and Spanish codes regulating the treatment of African slaves. Stark contends that these were far better than the “Code of Barbados” which was eventually copied in all the British West Indies – and, in 1696, in British South Carolina (which itself began as an outpost of Barbados). While the French and, especially, the Spanish codes clearly recognized the essential humanity of slaves, integrating them into the life of the Church and preparing the way for their eventual integration into society, the Code of Barbados – formulated with no ecclesiastical input and approved by the Lords of Trade in London – “was at least as brutal as any formulated by [the pagan Roman Empire]”, Stark observes. It defined slaves as “brutish” and as mere pieces of property. So: diluted as the influence of the Church in the New World was, Stark concludes, it was nonetheless primarily due to the Church that Spain “sustained the most humane slave laws, followed by the French with the British guilty of enacting by far the most brutal practices into law” – a fact reflected in the substantially higher death rates of slaves in British colonies such as South Carolina (312-14).
Stark further documents how the British government acted to silence even English Protestant groups, such as the Quakers, who actively protested against slavery. And a case can even be made that the forces of pure reason, separated from Christian faith, which spurred the Enlightenment in Europe often supported the views on race underlying New World slavery. Even Thomas Jefferson – an Enlightenment man if ever there was one – revealed as much in his 1781 book “Notes on the State of Virginia”, wherein he asserted his belief that “there are varieties in the races of man, distinguished by their powers both of body and mind … as I see to be the case in the races of other animals”. The supposedly objective view of humanity Jefferson tried to cultivate famously led him to utter great humanistic truths such as “all men are created equal”, but it also encouraged him to observe and categorize human beings in the same way that he might observe mere “animals” – a reductive and proto-Darwinian view of the human person that, taken to its extreme, would later serve as one foundation for the Holocaust. And, as we all know, Jefferson’s primary faith in reason alone never led him to free his own slaves.
And – shifting into ecumenical mode here – in our own time we find increasingly that our greatest allies in combating such reductive views of the human person are those conservative Protestants who historically set themselves so much against the Church, Rodney Stark now teaches at Baylor University in Texas – a Baptist school that also employs Ralph Wood, a professor of theology and literature who is a leading expert on Flannery O’Connor. If you’re at all interested in Catholic fiction, and in finding common ground with evangelical Southern Protestants, I highly recommend Wood’s book “Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South”. Here’s a Baptist who knows his Catholic theology better than many Catholics do.
So in some respects maybe we are moving toward a more ecumenical future – even as we’re moving towards a South Carolina that will look more and more like the place the Spanish might have founded here, with their early missions at places like Edisto Island, where, as a boy, I went to the beach every Fourth of July. I never knew or thought much about those missions until I was in the military in California and saw the missions still standing there; I never anticipated then that I’d see what I see in the Carolinas today, first in central North Carolina, where I went to graduate school, but now even in Blackville. At Sacred Heart Mission, there is a new Spanish Mass, and most of the recent baptisms have been of children whose parents were born in Mexico. My father assists in maintaining the church that his own immigrant great-grandfather helped build even as it is bolstered by a new generation of immigrants.
And my father, who’s sitting here today, will tell you this is something he could never have predicted – a surprise only God could have come up with. He’d also tell you that the ideas I’ve been talking about today were communicated to him, in some form or another, by priests, particularly those at Belmont Abbey, who were shielded from local prejudices by their monastery walls. The baptismal font at the entrance of the basilica there, for those of you who might not have seen it, is hewn into a rock once used as an auction block at a local slave market. The plaque upon it reads: “Once upon this rock, men were sold into slavery. Now upon this rock, through the waters of baptism, men become free children of God.” This is a powerful symbol; but more powerful still has been the presence of the Benedictines themselves. It was they who, in the 1950s, organized a social gathering of Belmont Abbey students with students from Johnson C. Smith, the historically black college in Charlotte; it was they who, when my teenage father told them that he didn’t socialize with colored people, told him – with authority – that today he would.
Much of what I’ve said today might seem abstract and like it has little to do with your pastoral responsibilities – of which, I know, you have all too many. But I wanted to tell you that story as just one way of stressing how, for rural parishioners especially, the international nature of the Church, and its ability to transcend the racial and political divisions common in South Carolina, can provide such clear signs of its divine origins. For me growing up, those signs were often as simple as seeing a racially mixed congregation or – more strikingly – having a priest from the Caribbean, of African descent, visiting at St. Peter’s in Columbia. At my current parish in Mississippi, I led the confirmation class last spring, and our students received the sacrament together with a group from another parish that was entirely Hispanic; good as that experience was, I wish we had spent more time with them than just that one day.
Layman that I am, I always look to priests and sisters to provide the leadership in such endeavors. And so I rejoice in the Holy Father’s reflections on caritas, on the practice of love by the Church as a “community of love”, in his recent encyclical, where he also reminds us emphatically of these words from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (6: 10). Where better can Catholics long resident in the U.S. South put these words into action than in welcoming those Catholics coming to us from the Latin South? And might not that welcome somehow also extend to those African-Americans who have been a part of South Carolina for so long? Given the Church’s progress in Africa itself, I like to imagine a South Carolina where the old colonial suppression of Catholicism and “African religion” might one day amount to the same thing.
I should end by noting that, while the rivers we sit between today are indeed named for Anthony Ashley Cooper, the city of Charleston is named for Charles II, the pro-Catholic British king who outlasted Cooper. We are not strangers here, and local churches can flourish here if we educate our youth by letting them know the universal Church, by calling them to participate in charity and therefore more fully in the Eucharist that brings God into the World – that finally sees no essential division between spirit and body, faith and reason, or black and white. The young hear so much about diversity these days – in schools, in the media, from their friends – and some of this is good but much of it shallow. Show them the true diversity of the Church, which transcends national and racial boundaries, and also the essential moral and spiritual unity that can be found only there. Help them learn to be counter-cultural in a way that benefits and transforms the larger culture, to know the Church and bring it home to South Carolina.