Jesuit Father Thomas Murphy Presents on Catholic Attitude Towards Slavery

By Savanna Kearney

“First, and most importantly, is to admit that things happened.”

Father Thomas Murphy proved this point on Monday evening during his talk titled American Catholicism, Slavery and Verot at Holy Faith Catholic Church in Gainesville. The talk, which appropriately overlaps with both the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of St. Augustine and Black History Month, acknowledged the role that American Jesuits played in the slave trade, as well as the role of our diocese’s first bishop, Augustin Verot, in supporting slavery.

“Secondly, we need to look for opportunities for racial justice,” said Father Murphy, a Jesuit himself and an associate professor of history at Seattle University. “Helping people in general to create a better racial climate.”

According to Father Murphy, Jesuits justified their defense of slavery in their pursuit of religious freedom against Puritans, their fear of nativism and by claiming that it was a secular issue.

“Just like war, Catholics regarded slavery as one of the ‘unavoidable evils’ of life. They were thought to be consequences of original sin… people who found themselves enslaved should just accept slavery as their cross to bear,” he said.

It may sound rather hypocritical, but Augustin Verot, the first bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine (1870-1876), opposed the slave trade but supported slavery. Murphy speculated that the church “just distanced itself enough from the slave trade that it was able to rationalize people giving them slaves without looking into it too deeply.”

Despite his support of slavery – he even gave a pro-Confederate homily that was widely quoted by the Confederacy throughout the Civil War – Bishop Verot had a reputation for catechizing slaves and treating them well, even after they were freed.

“I don’t find him to be an original thinker when it comes to slavery; he was very much a ‘man of the church,’” said Father Murphy. “That being said, I think the records prove that Bishop Verot was one of the most compassionate of the bishops of that time towards the slaves.”

When Georgetown University was founded by Jesuits in 1789, its tuition was “free” thanks to seven plantations staffed by hundreds of slaves. Finally, in the 19th century, when Rome recommended that the Jesuits distance themselves from slavery, they sold all 272 slaves rather than setting them free. Rome insisted that the “blood money” be used only to train new priests so that they could offer Mass in repentance for how the slaves were treated. But Father Thomas Mulledy used the money to expand Georgetown’s campus instead.

Today, the Jesuits of Georgetown University have attempted to make amends for the crimes of their predecessors. They’ve renamed Mulledy Hall and other buildings on campus to denounce the past supporters of slavery. They also provide free tuition to Georgetown students who can prove they are descended from slaves once owned by the Jesuits.

In a current climate of racial tension, it is important that we do as much as we can to acknowledge past sins of the church and the United States as a whole.

“African American Catholics know the story. They’ve handed it down through generations,” said Father Murphy. “It’s a very painful wound that needs to be healed. We need to get the truth on the table, talk about it and heal it at long last.”

Click here to view a video of Father Murphy’s full presentation.