Role of the Catholic Church During Segregation

A diverse group sitting together in church, though common today, was not always possible.
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Racial segregation was an official legal policy throughout the American South from the end of the 19th century to 1965, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. In the largely Protestant South, the Catholic Church, itself a minority religion, at times faced overt hostility. Nevertheless, on the issue of race, Catholics, in general, followed the laws of their respective states by maintaining racial segregation. Most Catholic parishes, or church congregations, remained segregated along racial lines during the first half of the 20th century. On the other hand, there were always Catholics that questioned the racial status quo, and the Vatican, the headquarters of the faith, never sanctioned the practice. In sum, the Catholic Church’s role during segregation was quite ambiguous, or unclear, because while Catholics tolerated a degree of separatism between blacks and whites, they also condemned the practice as immoral.

1 Official Vatican Policy

There was not much direction from the Vatican on the issue of American racial segregation. There was a moment when it seemed the pope would issue an encyclical, which is an official directive to his bishops, denouncing the practice. In 1938, John Lafarge, a Jesuit Catholic intellectual, published "Interracial Justice," which decried racism. Moved by the book, Pope Pius XI asked Lafarge to help draft an anti-racism encyclical. After Pope Pius XI died in 1939, his successor, Pope Pius XII, refused to release the document.

2 American Bishops

There were some actions taken by bishops, leaders chosen by the pope, against the practice of racial segregation. In 1958, American bishops declared racial segregation a moral wrong in conflict with the Catholic faith. Most notably, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans, the diocese, or district, with the largest population of black Catholics, asked followers, in 1951, to end segregation in the church. Rummel, in a pastoral letter, told New Orleans Catholics to end all vestiges of racial separatism within their churches. Two years later, Rummel officially declared the end of racial segregation in all New Orleans Catholic institutions in a pastoral letter entitled “Blessed are the Peacemakers."

3 Segregation Practiced in Church

There was no set standard for segregation inside churches. Though some dioceses created separate parishes for blacks, that was not always the case. In many areas, blacks could attend any Catholic church. Usually there was some degree of racial separation of the parishioners. In New Orleans, blacks had to sit in certain pews, usually in the rear. Some churches also placed screens between the two races. In this manner, the Catholic Church demonstrated its unclear stance on segregation. Though blacks faced some degree of humiliation, Catholic officials, forced to adhere to the prevailing racial laws, nevertheless allowed the races to attend services together, something not at all common in southern Protestant churches.

4 Anti-Segregation Lay Catholics

There were always lay Catholics, members with no official titles, who refused to accept segregation. The Southeastern Regional Interracial Commission, founded in 1948 by students of Loyola and Xavier universities, held interracial masses on college campuses. The Commission on Human Rights, organized in 1949, held integrated masses and sent petitions to church officials demanding integration in southern parishes.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.