MCC Assembly: Priest lauds Civil War bishops

Father Michael Witt speaks with Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert W. Finn following Father Witt’s keynote address at the annual Missouri Catholic Conference Assembly Oct.1 in Jefferson City. (Kevin Kelly/Key photo)

By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor

JEFFERSON CITY — So how volatile was the climate in Missouri at the dawn of the Civil War?

Exactly 150 years to the day that he delivered his Oct. 1 keynote address to the 2011 Missouri Catholic Conference Assembly in Jefferson City, historian Father Michael Witt said there had been 13 battles and skirmishes between Union and Confederate forces.

“Five of them took place in Missouri,” said Father Witt, professor of history at St. Louis’ Kenrick-Glennon Seminary.

“Only Virginia, at the center of the struggle, had more,” he said.

Father Witt’s keynote set the theme of the assembly that drew some 600 Catholics from across the state to the Missouri capital — “‘With malice toward one; with charity for all . . .’ How do we unite a divided nation?”

There are lessons from the bloodiest conflict on American soil, and in particular, in the way that the American church and its leaders conducted themselves despite history’s criticisms of reticence and neutrality on the greatest moral question of the day — slavery.

Father Witt pointed to the examples of Bishop John Hughes of New York and Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston, S.C.

Each were dispatched to plead their government’s case to Pope Pius IX — Bishop Hughes for the Union, Bishop Lynch for the Confederacy.

The pope received each as bishops, but not as diplomats.

“Bishops Hughes and Lynch kept up a vigorous correspondence with each other during the war, each arguing their respective positions,” Father Witt said.

“Yet when they met in 1866 at the Second Baltimore Council, they met as friends,” he said. “Their correspondence was eventually published in a New York newspaper and Americans marveled at the even temperament with which the discussion had unfolded.”

The civility with which Catholic leaders could debate the issue stood in contrast to Protestant congregations which were “split asunder under the debate about slavery and secession, and the discord in their ranks contributed to the general discord of the country.”

The Presbyterian Church tried to remain neutral, it’s national body hammering out a policy that said that slavery was a matter for legislatures, not churches.

“Wide spread abolitionist dissent to the official position expressed itself in various forms and was openly advocated at the New Albany, Ind., Seminary until that body was brought back into obedience in 1859,” Father Witt said.

“When in May 1861, the (Presbyterian) General Assembly met to make a mild statement of loyalty to the Union, Southern commissioners bolted to Augusta, Ga., and broke into schism,” he said. “By that time, some 15,000 Presbyterians had left the congregation and formed their own body, the Presbyterian Church of the United States.”

Despite the fact that some 25,000 Methodists held slaves, the Methodist General Conference of 1836 condemned slavery as an evil while at the same time condemning the abolitionist movement for its violence.

“This pleased no one,” Father Witt said. “In 1848, the General Conference was a brawl when the Southern fraternal delegation was not recognized. Fraternal relations would not return to the Methodists until an 1872 reconciliation.”

Lacking the national organizational structure of the Methodists and Presbyterians, Baptists formed into denominational clusters, Father Witt said.

“In 1845, some 293 delegates from nine states met to form the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said. “This was an ecclesiastical innovation for a Christian body that abhorred hierarchies and authority.”

In contrast, Missouri’s Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of St. Louis told his priests — also divided on both sides of the issue — to increase prayers for peace and to “inculcate the necessity of cherishing feelings of mutual charity and forbearance and avoiding all causes of unnecessary excitement of the laity.”

On May 10, 1861, 8,000 Union soldiers whose ranks were swelled by German immigrant recruits, reclaimed an arsenal on the western edge of the St. Louis from a Confederate-leaning unit of the Missouri militia.

As the militia prisoners were marched down Olive Street, crowds gathered along the way and began throwing stones at the Union troops.

“The Federals responsed by firing a volley over the heads of people,” Father Witt said. As more shots rang out, Union Capt. Bladowski was shot in the leg and fell from his horse, wounded by one of his own men.

“At this, the troopers fired volleys into the fleeing civilians, killing two dozen and wounding many more,” Father Witt said. “The Civil War had come to Missouri.”

Archbishop Kenrick’s response to the bloodshed was not condemnation, but a call for civility and prayer, as he remained neutral.

“Archbishop Kenrick did not preach for the first two years of the war for fear that some would parse his words and find justification for one side or the other,” Father Witt said.

But Archbishop Kenrick’s courage could not be doubted, the priest said.

In the waning days of the war, radical politicians took control of the Missouri General Assembly and passed a law requiring all clergy, among others, to take an oath that they never sympathized with the Confederacy.

“Archbishop Kenrick refused to take the oath and as a sign of solidarity with their archbishop, every priest in Missouri refused,” Father Witt said.

The radicals decided to arrest two priests — Father John Cummings of Louisiana in Pike County and Father John J. Hogan of Chillicothe, soon to be the founding bishop of the Diocese of St. Joseph and later the Diocese of Kansas City.

“Father Hogan played to the theatrics of the moment,” Father Witt said.

“When the sheriff sent a deputy to arrest the priest, he put on a cassock and surplice, complete with stole and biretta and walked to the jail house with a large Bible,” Father Witt said. “Catholics of the area rose in protest and Father Hogan was released on bond and not harassed again.”

Father Cummings, however, was tried, convicted and sentenced to six months in prison, which he served while Archbishop Kenrick assembled and paid for “a first-rate team of lawyers” that took the priest’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court where it was eventually reversed.

“The private opinions of Peter Richard Kenrick on the two burning issues of the day, slavery and secession, went to his grave, while his courageous stand on this constitutional issue, and his support of Father Cummings, spoke eloquently of the civic nature and civil nature of this man,” Father Witt said.

By constantly pleading for civility in public discourse, Archbishop Kenrick was following “a long-standing tradition for Catholics to respectfully disagree with each other and seek accommodation,” Father Witt said.

That call for civility rings loudly today, the priest said.

“As America balkanizes into red states and blue states, red counties and blue counties, red families and blue families, the Catholic tradition of civility and accord would be all the more helpful to us today,” Father Witt said.

“The question is begged: What kind of a war would be a civil war if the opponents treated each other civilly?” he said.

“Rather than rush to arms, fly off the handle or ‘go nuclear’ at every disagreement, let us follow the counsel of Archbishop Kenrick which he gave St. Louisans after the May 10 (1861) bloodbath.

“He called for ‘a generous sacrifice of every feeling incompatible with that spirit of brotherhood with which all men, and especially the inhabitants of the same city, should be animated,’” Father Witt said.

“Such putting aside hatreds and animosities would be, in his words, ‘more efficacious in restoring public tranquility and maintaining order than the promptings of vindictiveness which will surely increase and aggravate evil,’” Father Witt said.

“It is intriguing to think that we can use our reason and our charitable disposition to address the great issues of the day without resorting to violent words in the pulpit or violent actions in the street,” Father Witt said.

“Was there no way to redress the injustice of American slavery than to sacrifice 650,000 American soldiers and then condemn millions of African-Americans to a century of discrimination and mistreatment?” he said.

“Maybe, just maybe, civil discourse could have found a way,” Father Witt said. “If opponents honored the human dignity of each other, they may have discovered the human dignity of the object of their argument, the slaves of America.

“And here, the Catholic community can be of greatest service to our nation torn in strife,” Father Witt said. “After all, it is acts of civility which actualize the highest ideal of a society — civility tempering civil strife, civility creating civilization.”


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October 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph