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Reprinted from Consortium News
Anti-war prophet Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., was onto something with his "hunch" -- in his 1987 autobiography, To Dwell in Peace -- that "the fall of a great enterprise," the Jesuit university, would end up "among those structures whose moral decline and political servitude signalize a larger falling away of the culture itself."
Berrigan, a Jesuit himself, lamented "highly placed" churchmen and their approval of war, "uttered ... with sublime confidence, from on high, from highly placed friendships, and White House connections. Thus compromised, the Christian tradition of nonviolence, as well as the secular boast of disinterested pursuit of truth -- these are reduced to bombast, hauled out for formal occasions, believed by no one, practiced by no one."
But that "moral decline" among Jesuit institutions of higher learning may have had deeper roots than even Berrigan understood. One of those deep roots is drawing national attention, an 1838 decision by the Jesuit leaders of the Jesuits' Maryland Province and Georgetown College to improve the school's financial health by selling 272 African-American men, women and children as slaves into the Deep South.
As New York Times writer Rachel L. Swarns described the scene in Sunday's editions, "The human cargo was loaded on ships at a bustling wharf in the nation's capital, destined for the plantations of the Deep South. Some slaves pleaded for rosaries as they were rounded up, praying for deliverance. But on this day, in the fall of 1838, no one was spared: not the 2-month-old baby and her mother, not the field hands, not the shoemaker and not Cornelius Hawkins, who was about 13 years old when he was forced onboard."
Rev. Thomas Mulledy, S.J., the Provincial (head) of the Maryland Jesuits, sold the 272 enslaved African-Americans to Henry Johnson, the former governor of Louisiana, and Louisiana landowner Jesse Batey for $115,000, the equivalent of $3.3 million in today's dollars, according to the Times account.
Documents show that $90,000 went to support the "formation" of Jesuits (the preparation of candidates spiritually, academically and practically for the ministries that they will be called on to offer the Church and the world); $17,000 to Georgetown College; and $8,000 to a pension fund for the archbishop of Baltimore.
There is now a campaign among Georgetown professors, students, alumni and genealogists to discover what happened to those 272 human beings and whether Georgetown can do anything to compensate their descendants.
An Earlier Alert
But there is also a sad back story to this telling slice of Jesuit history, in which I became personally involved after I first learned of this scandal two decades ago from Edward F. Beckett, a young Jesuit who had the courage to speak out and summon his superiors to conscience. Beckett published his research in "Listening to Our History: Inculturation and Jesuit Slaveholding" in the journal Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits (28/5, November 1996).
Beckett and I became friends while working at the Fr. Horace McKenna Center where I volunteered at the overnight shelter for homeless men in the basement of St. Aloysius Church in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. The Jesuits were quick to exult Rev. Horace McKenna, S.J., as "Apostle of the Poor" after he died, but -- while alive -- not so much. Fr. McKenna was known for being something of a pain; he once even wrote a letter to the Vatican complaining -- using a sports analogy -- that his superiors were "not throwing enough forward passes to the poor."
During the Great Depression, Fr. McKenna set up a food distribution system and other assistance to struggling farmers, and advocated vigorously for racial integration in churches and schools. He expressed "passionate impatience" toward go-slow approaches which were favored by some of his fellow Jesuits and priests.
After I got to know Beckett as we worked nights with the men in the St. Aloysius Church shelter, he gave me a copy of his booklet relating the history of how -- in the 1800s -- the Maryland Jesuits rebuffed ethical calls from other religious leaders who were pushing for the abolition of slavery. Instead, the Jesuits were more interested in how much money they could get for selling slaves.
It was, you see, an economic issue since the Jesuits no longer needed the proceeds from slave labor on their plantations in southern Maryland because they had received permission from Rome to reverse their longstanding tradition of free education and start charging tuition to the wealthy sons of plantation owners to attend Georgetown.
So, no longer needing the slaves to work the fields, the Jesuits decided to sell them into the Deep South to turn a tidy profit and invest the money in the "moral education" of young Jesuits while also providing a pension to the Baltimore archbishop.
A Chance to Repent