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Shall We Forget All the Confederate Catholics?

“We now see movements to remove statues and names given to monuments and schools of southern figures — Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and others,” observed one of the last few real Jesuits a few years before his death. “What we are witnessing in these actions is the rejection of the honorable and dignified peace that Lincoln, Grant, and others insisted on making to end the war.”

Father James Schall then explained why he thought the attempt to entirely purge the South of the Confederate legacy represented an injustice that boded ill for the future:

What I see appears to be a vengeful elimination of any memory or dignity in the South, a dignity the peace after the Civil War thought it wise to allow. … It was crucial to the peace after the Civil War to leave the South with a sense of dignity, with their lost cause. The South was not seen to be so totally vilified that only moral monsters could remain. Lee was not a moral monster. As his colleagues in the Northern forces recognized, he had his nobility.

Today, that delicate peace to which Father Schall referred seems to be unraveling swiftly, as the Antifa purge that began with spray-painting and toppling Confederate memorials has now reached numerous other targets, from Christopher Columbus to Junípero Serra. In retrospect, it is easy to see how an unlimited anti-Southern purge turned into an anti-American purge, as Southerners from Patrick Henry to William Faulkner have been fundamental figures in American history and culture both before and after the Civil War.

For Catholics as Catholics, there are even more pressing issues at stake than the preservation of civil society. There is, for instance, a question of religious integrity, along with an obligation of some minimal gratitude owed by us to our Catholic forefathers, such as Bishop Martin J. Spalding. Having already distinguished himself by facing down a Know-Nothing mob at the steps of Saint Martin of Tours Church during the Bloody Monday riots of 1855, Louisville’s Bishop Spalding went on to unambiguously support the Confederacy during the War between the States. In the Dissertation on the American Civil War he sent to Rome while the war was still raging, Spalding insisted that the tariff question was just as significant an issue as slavery. For “the interests of the North and of the South have always been antagonistic,” explained Spalding, since “those of the South are concerned primarily with agriculture” in contrast to the industrial North.

Those interests especially clashed regarding the tariff question:

For more than fifty years, this controversy has been fiercely agitated in the national Congress and sometimes with such violence as to menace the integrity of the Union — as in fact happened in the year 1832, when a part of the South was already making preparations for separating, but it ended peacefully by some opportune concessions on this point of the tariff, which was from that time for some years greatly modified. The inhabitants of the South have always accused those of the North of wanting to get rich at their expense and they say that the evil has now become so great that they are no longer able to tolerate it, now that in Congress the North has the great majority of votes and a political preponderance so as to be able to pass whatever laws it wishes for its own profit and at their expense.

Spalding went on to argue that even with respect to emancipation, the militant Northern approach was misguided. “It is generally admitted,” he wrote:

… by all good and moderate men, even in the South where slavery exists, that slavery is a great social evil left to us, as a sad heritage by Protestant England, more than two hundred years ago — and about a hundred and fifty years before our existence as a nation. But how can we free ourselves of it without ruining the country and causing injury to the poor slaves themselves? What can be done to free them in such a way as not to worsen their sad condition? — This is the real problem for which a wise and practical solution is very difficult.

In my diocese, for example, there are from two to three thousand such Catholic Negroes, who are among the best and most devout of all my flock. Now, I am convinced that if these were suddenly emancipated in the present circumstances of violence and of war, they would all be lost to the Church and to Heaven; and so also would be the sad result with the others. Our experience and observation shows us the evidence that those who are in such a way liberated ordinarily become miserable vagabonds, drunkards, and thieves; it would seem a curious thing, but nevertheless true, that such emancipated ones are lost in body and soul.

In Spalding’s view, emancipation — desirable in itself — had to be achieved through gradual, lawful means rather than suddenly via the chaos of war. Otherwise, it would in the long run lead to more spiritual harm than good.

The point here is not whether we would endorse, rebut, or merely reflect quietly upon the arguments Bishop Spalding made in 1863. The point is that it is one thing to disagree with an argument and quite another to insist that the man who made it must be a “moral monster” — so utterly wicked and inhuman that he deserves being purged from public memory. Yet this is precisely what political correctness now demands regarding Confederates and Confederate sympathizers, to say nothing of an ever growing, increasingly preposterous list of other subjects. And just to be clear, Spalding was hardly an eccentric, isolated voice among the American Catholic population. All of the South’s bishops and virtually every last one of its priests identified themselves as Southern patriots when secession came. For that matter, Southern rhetoric regarding states’ rights won over even a few Northern supporters, such as the fiery convert and newspaper editor James McMaster.

Moreover, many Catholics actually took up arms and wore the gray. The first shot upon Fort Sumter came under the command of Catholic Creole Pierre Beauregard; the secretary of the Navy was the devout, Jesuit-educated Stephen Mallory; Raphael Semmes of the famous commerce raider CSS Alabama diligently sought out Masses during the port calls that punctuated his career terrorizing Yankee shipping and dodging Union patrols. As for General Longstreet of Gettysburg fame, while it was only after the conflict that he swam the Tiber and became involved in promoting civil rights for freed slaves, there is no reason to think that either his conversion or his new politics signified in his mind a total repudiation of his comrades-in-arms. “I yield to no one as a champion of the Southern soldier,” proclaimed Longstreet in his postwar memoirs. As it happens, Longstreet’s conversion was facilitated by Father Abram Ryan, AKA “the poet-priest of the Confederacy.”

In considering these and the numerous other Confederate Catholics, it is crucial to think long and hard about the fact that neither during nor after the war was there ever a schism. Nor were there cries for excommunicating any of the aforementioned individuals for the sin of having stood upon “the wrong side of history.” No doubt, Antifa would just as soon “cancel” Bishop Spalding today; back then, Blessed Pius IX promoted him to the archbishopric of Baltimore.

On this question, no serious Catholic can accept conventional wisdom, which says that the Civil War was some kind of adolescent Marvel movie wherein good Union superheroes defeated moral monsters. What those who agree to throw Catholic Confederates under the bus of political correctness are ultimately conceding is that social justice warriors have the authority to dictate to us whom we do or do not remember as a fellow Christian. Yet given the kinds of things some priests and even bishops openly promote today, the idea that Catholics of the Old South are better off forgotten seems downright obscene.

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