The Complicated History of American Jesuits and Racial Justice

Content Warning: This essay contains racist and racialized language used in its historical settings but quoted here.

American Jesuits bear a long, complicated, painful, and often enraging history regarding racial justice. As a Jesuit brother, this history is my inheritance, leaving me with both a sense of sadness and responsibility. Yet our past and present also offer a hope in the Holy Spirit.

As a historian-in-training, I believe that we must study our past so to build a more just future. The study of history can be painful for any number of reasons. For some, it may reignite trauma; for others, it may shock and discomfort. But we must study history.

Perhaps our most glaring sin as Jesuits is our slaveholding, which will be addressed by others in this symposium. Here, I want to look at why we Jesuits have not more effectually pursued justice.

In November 1967, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ (then head of the worldwide Society of Jesus) wrote a letter to American Jesuits, entitled “Interracial Apostolate.” The letter arrived following “the long hot summer” of fights for racial justice. Arrupe suggested to America’s Jesuits that “It would be wholesome practice for each of us, individually and as members of Jesuit communities, to examine our consciences and to inquire why so little of our effort in the past has been expended in work for and with the Negro.”

The following July, Woodstock Letters (our internal-use periodical) offered a series of responses and reflections. Editor Fr. Richard Blake, SJ opened the summer 1968 volume of Woodstock Letters by stating, “Jesuit involvement in race relations is not new; its history is marked by Peter Claver and John LaFarge. It is marked as well by slave holdings and segregated schools. Through the centuries our treatment of the Negro in this country has been conditioned by the times; we were no better and no worse—and this perhaps is a terrible indictment.”

Blake’s statement represents a change in Jesuit language and demeanor regarding racial justice. Just 35 years earlier, in these same Woodstock Letters, Fr. Peter Guilday said of American Jesuit slaveholding, “Jesuit ministry with these unfortunates [slaves] was the most truly Christian of all the nascent colonies in the New World.” Admitting our shortcomings was a step in the right direction, even if it was a small step.

In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King states, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.”

I believe that we white Jesuits were and often still are that stumbling block. We have frequently confused the Neo-Scholastic understanding of order found in Quadragesimo Anno with the American sense of racial order that is structural racism. We have too often been, and too often remain, King’s moderates, more committed to order than justice.

Jesuit efforts for racial justice had two key underpinnings: clerical leadership and unwillingness to challenge status quo.

The Jesuits who were on the front lines of organizing for racial justice simply could not fathom not being in charge. Jesuits in charge of institutions (especially universities) often feared reprisal for upsetting a racist status quo. These sentiments emerged from both their clericalism and their whiteness.[1]

Thomas Wyatt Turner, 1877-1978

Take for example Frs. John LaFarge and William Markoe. Both men were exceedingly dedicated to their vision of racial justice. They could not envision a program, however, that did not have white, clerical leadership. Early on, they collaborated with Thomas Wyatt Turner, a Black layman who started the Federated Colored Catholics (FCC), a Black Catholic group dedicated to racial justice in the Church and society at large. Turner abided by clergy-approved membership, but insisted on Black and lay leadership. In response to both his leadership and the FCC’s name, Markoe and LaFarge pushed Turner out. The two Jesuits demanded the group must be named “interracial” both in their vision of justice and to ensure white Catholics felt included.

These and other Jesuits struggled to see that they and the Church were often willing participants in racism. Rooted in Neo-Scholasticism, the Jesuits believed that all order came from God. The Church, being God’s hands in the world, could not be disordered. Yet our commitment to clericalism, segregation, and racist missionary beliefs were deeply disordered.

Arrupe continued his letter by suggesting reasons for our failures, including: “a failure to appreciate fully the practical implications of the Christian concept of man; an uncritical acceptance of certain stereotypes and prejudices regarding the Negro…an unconscious conformity to the discriminatory thought and action patterns of the surrounding white community; an unarticulated fear of the reprisals sometimes visited on those who participate in the active Negro apostolate…”

I believe these listed failures ring true today. I also believe we must acknowledge something equally insidious. Prior to 1970, Jesuits frequently discussed “the Negro problem,” treating our siblings in Christ as merely a problem to be solved. While we (thankfully) no longer use this language, we often maintain the sentiment behind it.

We white Jesuits frequently love finding communities to fix instead of love, to change instead of stand alongside in solidarity.

As Jesuits have sought people to fix, we have simultaneously ignored how our institutions have reaped the benefits of redlining, gentrification, white flight, and more. Not only have we reaped the benefit, we have actively pursued these practices. In doing so, we have sought a half justice, one that begins to improve lives but never taking a step far enough to vacate our own authority and comfort. We fear reprisal. We maintain order. We are moderate.

Yet we Jesuits are taking strides toward authentic justice. We have begun forming anti-racism committees with concrete, actionable steps. We are moving toward reconciliation and reparation. We are listening and learning. We seek to follow the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, calling us into deeper relationships with God and neighbor. To honestly heed the call to relationship, we must also heed the call to reconciliation.

I believe that we white Jesuits have a great deal of reconciliation to seek with all persons of color, including our fellow Jesuits of color. I believe that we—Jesuits, our co-laborers, Catholics, and Americans more broadly—are in the midst of a reckoning. This reckoning will be painful for white Jesuits, forcing us to examine our own roles, as well as those of Jesuit institutions. We are being called to abandon our moderation in favor of the radicality of Christ, and I, among many, am trying to answer.  

Ken Homan is a Jesuit Brother of the Midwest Province who is working on a doctorate in American history. Dr. Martin Luther King challenged white moderates to choose the radicality of Christ, the radicality of justice. Br. Ken hopes an honest reckoning with his Jesuit heritage will help him reconcile to that vision.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of Daily Theology’s Symposium on Racism, White Supremacy, & the Church. Click here for more information or sign up for our email list below to be notified of new posts!

[1] It is always dangerous to assume that Catholic clergy are white, or any historical figure for that matter. In this case, there were very few Jesuits of color at the time, and none of the major Jesuit racial justice figures were men of color.

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