When Jesuits Ignore Papal Decrees


September 9, 2016

On September 1, John J. DeGioia, the president of Georgetown University confirmed and published the recommendations of the university’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. For almost a year the members of this group have been studying the ties of the Georgetown Jesuits with black slaves, and particularly, with the sale of 272 slaves in 1838. Among a number of recommendations, the president resolved to engage descendants of the slaves sold by the Jesuits and give them “consideration in the admissions process of the university.” There is also a memorial to be set up “to insure their memory is honored and preserved” and campus buildings that had once bore the names of Jesuits associated with the scandal of the sale will be renamed.

On the same day the DeGioia document was published, David Collins, S.J., the chairman of the Working Group and a member of the History Department at Georgetown wrote an op-ed, “Georgetown University, Learning from its Sins,” that appeared in the New York Times. Collins told how every year he takes groups of Jesuit seminarians to visit the one-time Maryland tobacco fields where slaves “were rounded up by the churchmen and their hired agents and transported first by wagon, then by ship to plantations in Louisiana.” He does so because, “I am convinced that the past matters in the present.”

Many people are surprised and shocked to learn that the American Jesuits in the nineteenth century were slave owners, and those sentiments are exacerbated when they learn that, literally, the very existence of Georgetown depended on the money that was realized by the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved blacks to plantation owners in Louisiana, and that the archdiocese of Baltimore shared in the proceeds. The feud between Georgetown and Baltimore that had existed since 1818 was at last resolved, thanks to the money from the sale, sealing a bond of friendship between the archbishop and the Society of Jesus.

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Slavery as an institution should be condemned. This was precisely the position of Pope Paul III, when in 1537, he outlawed slavery and condemned those who owned or sold slaves. Three years later he approved the rule of Ignatius of Loyola and his companions constituting them as a religious order. Of course, not many paid much attention to the pope’s strong statements against black slavery. It was too advantageous for black chiefs who sold their people and for white traders who purchased them and transported them to the New World. But then in 1639, at the insistence of the Jesuits in Paraguay, where the Spaniards where enslaving the indigenous peoples, Pope Urban VIII issued another bull confirming what Paul had decreed and adding strength to it. Then, less than fifty years later, the Jesuits in Maryland were slave owners. So, in order to put into its proper perspective the historical fact that the 1838 Georgetown Jesuits were owners and sellers of slaves, it is important to see that disobedience to papal teaching was the point of departure from which Georgetown and other Jesuit colleges in the United States plotted their course.

Early in the sixth century St. Augustine dealt with a dilemma similar to what the Jesuits had to face in Maryland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Here was the question: Does human law have to repress all vices to achieve justice? Augustine cited the scandal of prostitution. Granted this was an evil. Should it be condemned, outlawed by a Christian society? Would the consequences bring on a worse evil–lust over law? (De Ordine, 2,4,12). Thomas Aquinas took up this question in the thirteenth century. He agreed with Augustine when he said that the purpose of human law is to lead to virtue, not suddenly but gradually. Thomas then gives a homely example. If one blows his nose too violently blood, not the intended mucus, is spewed forth. Thomas’ conclusion is that the law must be proportionate to the community; that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Law should not “lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz., that they should abstain from evil” (ST 2. 2. 10. 11). Hopefully those Jesuit scholastics sitting in the former tobacco fields where Jesuit-owned slaves labored knew their Augustine and Aquinas well enough to have made a nuanced judgment on the right and wrongs in history they were contemplating.

It is important to appreciate the problem the Maryland Jesuits had in divesting themselves from the albatross of slavery placed upon them by the objective disobedience of their predecessors. But practically speaking how were they to rid themselves of the slaves? Manumission was hardly a moral solution for the slaves. Although there were exceptions, and although it is not politically correct to say so, as a group the blacks were not on an equal par socially, economically, politically and religiously with the whites at that period of history. So, as the contemporary Jesuits argued, to free all their slaves and have them fend for themselves would be an injustice to the blacks. Life for free blacks in Maryland was not easy and paternalism at that time was not derisory. Moreover, the Jesuits had to live with their neighbors and manumission would be a confrontational assault against the community, and that would be an injustice. Mixing free blacks with slaves was a cocktail designed to encourage rebellion. That is what happened to the blacks after instant emancipation in Haiti, and in some of the English colonies in the Caribbean. It ended up with the bloody nose about which Aquinas wrote. And were the freed slaves transported to Liberia better off than the slaves in Maryland? Read the history of what former black slaves had to put up with when they returned to Africa!

There is no scarcity of documentation to learn how the Jesuits treated their slaves, and hopefully it will be made more available to give balance to what appears to be a mea culpa mea culpa cry on the part of the present administration at Georgetown. Looking after the welfare of the slaves was not only a matter of justice. It was also a matter of Christian charity. As one Jesuit advised his superior, “good and sufficient clothing” along with a plentiful amount of food should be provided to the slaves, and this was at a time when the food on the table of the Jesuit community was scarce. Another letter writer at the time noted that slaves in general, not only those owned by the Jesuits, were far better off than the Irish workers on the Erie Canal. But given the fact that manumission was an injustice, how were the Jesuits, who were so financially strapped, able to get rid of the slaves? At the time the Louisiana solution seemed the best way out. Jesuit-owned slaves were Catholics, and compared with slaves owned by other groups, had strong family bonds. Would not the best solution be to place them in that Catholic part of the South where their faith would be nurtured? The agents that sold them to plantation owners had to promise that no families would be separated. The fact that this part of the bargain was not kept is another story. Also, selling human beings for a profit can hardly be justified. But could not the lesson here be to show those young Jesuit scholastics the consequences of not following papal decrees?

Perhaps a hundred years from now, another group of scholastics will huddle up against the walls of one of the newly named Georgetown buildings and learn that the university was once a Catholic institution, but during the last part of the twentieth and first part of the twenty-first century it gradually became undifferentiated from other high-tuition secular institutions. On that occasion will any reference be made to another forgotten document: Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ad Tuendam Fidem in which he asked theology teachers to take an oath of fidelity to the magisterium of the Holy Roman Catholic Church? No one at Georgetown paid attention to it at the time. Paul III, Urban VIII, John Paul II? Does history matter much when it goes against fashionable conceits?

Editor’s note: The image above is a nineteenth-century engraving of Georgetown University circa 1850.


  • Fr. Cornelius Buckley, S.J.

    Fr. Cornelius Buckley, S.J., is Professor Emeritus (history) at the University of San Francisco, and presently a chaplain at Thomas Aquinas College, Santa Paula, CA. He has translated and written a number of books, the latest of which is Stephen Larigaudelle Dubuisson, S.J. (1786-1846) and the Reform of the American Jesuits.

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