Dr. Constance Carroll: "The American Catholic Church in the Shadow of Slavery"

Dr. Constance Carroll: "The American Catholic Church in the Shadow of Slavery"

Constance Carroll, PhD, provides leadership with her words, by example and actions. There's perhaps no better indication of combining all three than when she drives to southeast San Diego to visit St. Rita Catholic Church.

It is where a significant piece of her vision of Martin Luther King Jr.’s "beloved community," a blueprint for how our nation can exist as a more perfect union, resides.

"St. Rita's is the most diverse parish in the Diocese," Carroll said. "I love it. When I moved to San Diego in 1993 I was looking for a church and what I found was a church rich in diversity. Filipino, Samoan, White, Latino, Mexican, African American, everyone is represented. The church’s masses celebrate diversity, through their choirs and others. We have a gospel choir, a Samoan choir. We have all types of different celebrations. The whole church mobilizes when there is a feast day for the first Filipino saint, for example. The parish is rich in that regard. The church tends to attract many types of people that other churches don’t. It has emphasized diversity and is a welcoming environment for different types of people. It’s a drive for me to get there, but that's where I feel most at home."

She's a lector and a eucharist minister in this church, roles giving her a true sense of belonging. "Those were not permitted when I was growing up in Baltimore," she said.

Her association with her childhood church, St. Pius V Catholic Church in Baltimore, while meaningful, produced a difficult visual, especially given Maryland's large Black population, the state’s history with slavery and segregation.

“The American Catholic Church in the Shadow of Slavery”

Carroll addressed many points as the leadoff speaker Sept. 3 for a semester-long University of San Diego series, "Catholic Perspectives on Racism and White Supremacy." Hosted by the Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture, University Mission and Ministry and the Franciscan School of Theology, Carroll's Zoom talk, after an introduction by USD President James T. Harris, was titled, "The American Catholic Church in the Shadow of Slavery."

Carroll has been president of three California community colleges, including San Diego Mesa (1993-2004) before her current role as San Diego Community College District chancellor. She is involved with other local organizations, including her 10th year on USD's Board of Trustees where she is its vice chair and as a new board member for the Franciscan School of Theology on the USD campus.

Carroll cherishes her participation in the church. "I'm a practicing Catholic, I come from a deeply Catholic family. But it was difficult in Maryland and Baltimore due to public institutions and churches being segregated.

"The Catholic Church, for me, has been a paradoxical institution with a mixed history of inspiration promoting the values and teaching of Christ while also subscribing to the evils of the past. The church, while promoting beautiful, inspiring religion of love and selflessness, is also flawed by an organization of men who are grounded in their culture customs and heritage. As a practicing Catholic from Baltimore and as an educator, I've experienced both the good and the bad."

Carroll knows history and understands the past. She did not hold back discussing the Catholic Church's involvement in slavery as far back as the 1600s. History still fuels frustration. She used an artistic reference, a "pentimento," to describe slavery's deep and connected bond to the present. A pentimento is a visible trace of an earlier painting beneath a layer or layers of paint on a canvas.

"You still see the history that leads to the work of the original art. In my view, race relations in America is exactly like that. One cannot understand or fully appreciate the racial dynamics of this country unless one understands the prominence of those dynamics. Unfortunately, history is not as robustly presented as it should be in schools, which is why everything seems so new to our students and there are professors here who are aware of that. As for African American issues, today's issues are firmly rooted in the past and lead us to the ultimate pentimento in race relations — the institution of slavery."

Democracy in America: A Tocqueville Reflection

She spoke of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political strategist, sociologist, historian and diplomat, and his published work, Democracy in America, to describe challenges that slavery has posed for America. He came here to study and compare our democracy with what was happening in France in the wake of the July revolution of 1830.

"He was impressed by much of what he saw, but was concerned and disappointed by issues related to race and to Indigenous people and enslaved African-Americans," Carroll said.

"The most formidable evil threatening the future of the United States is the presence of Blacks on their soil," Tocqueville wrote. "From whatever angle one sets out to inquire into the present embarrassment or future dangers facing the United States, one is almost always brought up against this basic fact. No African came in freedom to the shores of the new world. Consequently, all of those found there are either slaves or free men. The negro transmits to his descendants at birth the eternal marks of his ignominy. The law can abolish servitude, but only God can obliterate its traces. I see slavery is in retreat in America, but the prejudice from which it arose is immovable. And race prejudice seems stronger in states that have abolished slavery than those where it still exists."

How would Tocqueville view current such events in Kenosha, Minneapolis and states where protests have erupted following police brutality? Would he be surprised? "No, he would not," Carroll said.

Slow Action Proves Costly

“America has taken a long time coming to terms with the essential law. The year 1619 is associated with African-American slavery in the U.S. with 12.5 million African American men, women and children. The slave trade began in the 1500s and Latin America and the Caribbean were greatly assisted by the Catholic Church,” Carroll said. “The order of priests, primarily Jesuit and nuns, owned slaves to use them in the sugar cane fields in Latin America and the islands. Later, they worked in the cotton and tobacco plantations in the United States. Slaves built most of the buildings and were subjected to horrible conditions, such as beatings, rape, dissolution of families and loss of freedom. During this time, the Catholic Church was the largest owner of slaves. It was rationalized by white supremacists' notions that Blacks were sub-human and the Church was improving their lives by introducing them to Catholicism. Managing them, they believed they were incapable of managing their own lives in a non-savage manner. Maryland and Louisiana were the largest populations with enslaved people who worked on plantations."

Maryland, Carroll noted, was a haven for people escaping religious persecution in Europe because of their affiliation and beliefs. Baltimore was the largest and oldest diocese in the U.S and had the first Catholic Cathedral. "It still has a balcony where there was seating for freed slaves," Carroll said.

Catholic schools enslaved people, too. Brown, Columbia, Harvard and the University of Virginia opened their books to show they had worked with slaves. One incident, Carroll said, was that in 1838, Georgetown College sold 272 enslaved people to retire major debt.

How was the Catholic Church positioned during the Civil War? Carroll said it was entrenched on both sides.

Turnaround, Hope for the Better

In the 1800s and 1900s, the Catholic Church began to take a different turn publicly to support the undoing of the past for African Americans. One bold step to denounce slavery came in a letter by Pope Gregory XVI.

"We have judged that it belonged to our pastoral solicitude to exert ourselves to turn away the faithful from the inhuman slave trade in negros and all other men. Desiring to remove such as shame from all the Christian nations ... we warn and adjure earnestly ... that no one in the future dare to vex anyone, despoil him of his possessions, reduce him to servitude, or lend aid and favor to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men, but rather animals, having been brought into servitude, in no matter what way, are, without any distinction, in contempt of the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold and devoted sometimes to the hardest labor. ... We reprove then, by virtue of our apostolic authority, all practices above mentioned as absolutely unworthy of the Christian name. By the same authority, we prohibit and strictly forbid any ecclesiastic or layperson from presuming to defend as permissible this traffic in Blacks under no matter what pretext or excuse of from publishing or teaching in any manner whatsoever, in public or privately, opinions contrary to what we have set forth in this apostolic letter."

Carroll shared additional exemplary examples, including Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange of Maryland who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence; Josephites of the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart; Father John LaFarge Jr., who was dedicated to equality for African Americans and founded the Catholic Interracial Council of New York; and St. Louis Archbishop Joseph Ritter who sought to end segregation in Catholic Diocese schools a decade before the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Carroll also praised Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis as outspoken critics.

"It's been quite a journey and a difficult journey that continues to this day," she said, emphasizing ongoing violence against Black Americans, re-emergence of white supremacy and efforts to suppress the African American vote. "Like many of you, I'm very worried about the state of our nation, we're clearly at a crossroads regarding race relations and, especially, the fate of African Americans."

Carroll recited John 13:34, as solace: "Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other."

She expressed gratitude for the Catholic Church’s efforts to be "openly on the side of those who reject the legacy of slavery and who are committed to ensuring equality."

Q&A Thoughts, Concerns

But Carroll did address concerns and potential actions for the church to take in a post-talk Q&A.

"I watched a talk that said, ‘Hatred is not destroyed, it simply hides.’ Equality has not been addressed. There wasn’t a national apology for slavery. It's a festering problem. I'm not surprised when I see instances," she said. "I've experienced them; there's not one African American person I've met who hasn't on a daily basis been subjected to it, whether it's slight or very traumatic. It's a battle, a struggle, as Martin Luther King Jr. said. We must continue the struggle to realize a better outcome."

She'd like the Catholic Church to address it in an encyclical. Seeing the Black Lives Matter movement extend beyond the U.S., she thinks the church can take a stronger global role. Women should be seen as major representatives of those who believe in Catholicism.

How do we move forward? "The first step is to find out what people know and what the notions are, just as with prerequisite courses. Involve them in systemic dialogue to share ideas and those ideas should be well-informed of the past. A university should translate what it has learned. Curriculum should contain information for students to learn about the actual past and to better appreciate other cultures. College curriculum is still Western-centric and eliminates much of the material that would be helpful."

Indigenous people, African American and others are part of the fabric of American life but aren’t well understood, she said. The Catholic Church has older, aging parishes and needs to re-engage with African Americans, connect with immigrants from South America and other countries. Connect with millennials and relate better to new populations. Pope John XXIII took a positive step by allowing native languages to be spoken in church.

So, what sustains Carroll? "Our young people. Students I work with make me hopeful. They protest, they are concerned about the earth, concerned about Black Lives Matter and have a great deal of hope, energy and passion for making things better. They are demanding a better world and protection of what is good in the world. It's a new generation that, moving forward, doesn't want America to rest on its laurels."

Her vision of a beloved community? "Honest dialogue, a good grasp of history and a true sense of commitment to the values we all espouse."

— Ryan T. Blystone

There are six more talks in this series — Sept. 10, 17, Oct. 8, 15, 22 — each scheduled for 12:30-2 p.m. on Zoom. For more information, please contact the Harpst CCTC at (619) 260-7936, email, or visit the website. Theology and Religious Studies Professor Karen Teel, PhD, hosts conversations for the Sept. 10 and 17 events.

Dr. Constance Carroll, San Diego Community College District chancellor and USD Trustee for 10 years, gave a Zoom talk, "The American Catholic Church in the Shadow of Slavery," on Sept. 3.Dr. Constance Carroll, San Diego Community College District chancellor and USD Trustee for 10 years, gave a Zoom talk, "The American Catholic Church in the Shadow of Slavery," on Sept. 3.

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