Editorial | Father Tolton stands at the vortex of slavery and Catholicism

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In the majority of the 1800s, some Americans considered it American to own people. Even a Supreme Court chief justice legitimized the abhorrent idea of human beings as property to be bought and sold.

Bishop Edward K. Braxton from the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., recently wrote about this unfortunate reality in "The Horizon Of Possibilities — The Catholic Church and the Racial Divide in the United States: Old Wounds Reopened."

Bishop Braxton reported that on March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who was Catholic, wrote the majority opinion in the 7-2 Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sandford decision, which Bishop Braxton described as "generally considered to be the most odious and shameful ruling in the Supreme Court's history."

Taney "declared that people of African ancestry living in America had absolutely no legal standing before the court and could not sue for their freedom because they were nothing more than the property of their 'owners,'" Bishop Braxton wrote. "It is stunning to think that a Catholic, who surely was taught the Law of Love, could pen these words concerning Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet Robinson Scott."

In addition, Catholic leadership — bishops in the United States and popes at the Vatican — signed off on it. In fact, a beatified pope, Blessed Pius IX wrote, "It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given."

The Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments abolished slavery and granted citizenship to Americans of African descent, whom Bishop Braxton calls, "the first African Americans."

Catholics recognized the sin of slavery and racism. Father Peter Claver devoted his life ministering to human beings from Africa sold as slaves. Later, then-Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter integrated schools in the archdiocese seven years before the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education made it the law of the land. And at the request of Cardinal Ritter, Charles Vatterott chartered two planes to Selma, Ala., for clergy and religious to participate in the voting rights marches. Priests in collars and women religious in habits walked and stood with their brothers and sisters and helped Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prevail.

Still, the racial divide remains in this country as Americans painfully acknowledge the past and discrimination that still exists today. Archbishop Robert J. Carlson has been a leader in bridging the divide, as has Bishop Braxton in eloquent writings over the past three years.

In "Horizon," which Bishop Braxton delivered in October at The Catholic University of America, he gave suggestions of what the Church can do to bridge the divide, including living and practicing the Gospel directives of Jesus Christ to "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" (Luke 6:31).

Among other things, he suggests learning about "Father Augustus Tolton (April 1, 1854-July 9, 1897) of Chicago, and pray and work for the cause of his canonization. He would be the first American saint of African ancestry and the story of his heroic virtue in the face of racial oppression would expand the horizon of possibilities for Americans of all backgrounds striving to live by the Law of Love."

A story in the St. Louis Review this week details a drama about the life of Father Tolton and 91-year-old Frankie Maddox, whose late husband's family owned Father Tolton among their 60 "enslaved free human beings," as Bishop Braxton calls them. The family also aided in Augustus' formation as a boy.

The stark juxtaposition of slavery and Catholic formation shows "why it's so difficult for us to heal," said Father Don Wester, the pastor at All Saints Parish of St. Peters.

But heal, we must, to move forward. It's as simple as acknowledging the sin of enslavement of human beings, standing up against and bridging the divide, and treating everyone as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It's telling that Father Tolton, a Servant of God, is on the road to sainthood. At the vortex of slavery and Catholicism, despite everything he and his family endured, Father Tolton persevered in answering the call to priesthood. Frankie Maddox, who married a descendant of the family who enslaved him, prays every day for his intercession, hoping for a miracle toward his cause for canonization. 

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