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Interview: Fr Chris Kellerman, SJ on his new book 'All Oppression Shall Cease', covering Catholic slavery and abolitionism

A Jesuit priest discusses his new book, covering a familiar topic and including the perspectives, stories, and holy resistance of Black Catholics.

(Orbis Books/Amazon)

Earlier this fall, Fr Christopher Kellerman, SJ released his first book, "All Oppression Shall Cease: A History of Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Catholic Church,” covering topics of great interest in the modern age with incredibly controversial historical twists and turns. From the complicity of popes and priests and sisters in the slave trade, to the surprisingly prescient developments among some Catholics—Black and White—in the early centuries of the era, the new text is sure to fascinate.

Nate Tinner-Williams recently sat down with Kellerman to discuss his work and his journey toward seeking an accurate and accessible rendering of such a complex issue—especially as a Jesuit priest.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nate Tinner-Williams: There's been an ongoing debate, as you know, concerning what the Catholic Church supported, condemned, or allowed as it concerns slavery. I personally am familiar with one side of the debate, which could be represented by Fr Joel Panzer. Another side, by Fr Pius Onyemechi Adiele. You cite both of them in your book, which is really interesting. I'm curious how you got involved in this in this dialogue.

Fr Chris Kellerman, SJ: Well, I’ve been I've been interested in the history of slavery since I was little. I was always a pretty nerdy kid and I would go to the library and bring home a ton of different books about different things. But at one point I just became really interested in African-American history and the history of slavery. I read it all at first just confused. Like, how did this happen?

At some point in college, as I started getting interested in my faith and started learning more about Church history, I thought, “How is it possible that there were these American bishops in the 19th century that allowed this to happen? And how is it possible that there were priests that were owning enslaved people? This is crazy.” At that time, I started doing a little searching around online. This was when I was in undergrad at Texas Tech, probably around 2008 or 2009.

What I saw when I searched the Internet was that what was happening in the US was: “Catholic slaveholding was approved by disobedient bishops, all against the will of the Church.” That these bishops, these Americans, were being disobedient to Church teaching.

NTW: In the United States? No.

CK: It sounded really believable, right?

But I was also asking, “Well, hold on a minute, why didn't they get in trouble?” So that just sort of stayed in the back of my mind for a long time. I wrote my master's thesis on the work of Cardinal Avery Dulles while I was at the University of Dallas and he wrote an article once about slavery. It was a review of a book by John T. Noonan and in it, Dulles argued something that really shocked me. He said that the Church has always allowed slavery—and still did!

NTW: Oh snap.

CK: He said that the Church never changed its teaching but he argued that the Church had always been against the African slave trade.

With that setup, there was this idea that the Church’s teaching never changed but we were always against this thing that we know of today as slavery. That when we think of slavery today, we think of the Atlantic slave trade, and the Church was always against that but it was always OK with some kind of abstract form of slavery that happened 700 or 800 years ago that you've never heard of. That was the kind of way that Dulles talked about it. And that, too, sort of made sense.

But again, why didn't those American bishops get in trouble? We know stories of popes putting whole cities under interdict. They would excommunicate like crazy. So why didn't this happen? It was really in the years prior to my being ordained a priest that I was like, “I want to really dig into this.” So in about 2018, I started just digging a lot more into the history of slavery and that's when I started to have every hypothesis that I had overturned.

NTW: Really?

CK: Just one at a time. Every time I had a new idea, it just kept getting tossed out the window as I dug more deeply.  I think that the truth ended up being much worse than I feared.

NTW: And you felt no one had really covered it in depth in English, I guess.

CK: There was a book in 1975 written by John Francis Maxwell. It was called “Slavery and the Catholic Church,” and he was a priest. I think he was British. I've looked all over for a little bit about his history and I can't find anything. But the book was really good, it's extremely concise, and it it had a good layout of the Church's teaching on slavery throughout the centuries, but it didn't ever include any perspectives of enslaved people or talk at all about them. So it didn't really go into abolitionism at all. It didn't talk about any Black Catholics. They just didn't exist in this history.

I also found a much bigger book, much more specifically geared toward the slave trade. Fr Pius Adiele’s work, which is a tremendous resource for documents about the Church's involvement in the trade. But it's such a big work that it's not accessible to the average reader at this point. It's great, though. It's really good.

So what I really wanted to see was, like, “What's the continuity and what's not? Did Catholic theology and tradition prior to the Atlantic slave trade set the table for it? Did it support these beginnings of the trade and what happened, or was the slave trade this thing that happened fully in opposition to that prior tradition?” I wanted to try to like get a vision of this in its full context. And that is something especially, including the voices and the theology of abolitionists and Black Catholics that I couldn't find. That's why I decided to write my book.

NTW: Who are some of those abolitionists and Black Catholics who are included?

CK: Yeah, so one of the things that shocked me the most in my research was that it is quite true that, in the first 1200 to 1300 years of the Church, almost every Catholic theologian who wrote about slavery defended it.

NTW: Wow.

CK: And by that, I mean chattel slavery: the treatment of people as movable property. They had all different reasons for why they thought it was defensible. However, there were some, such as St. Gregory of Nyssa, and an abbot during the Carolingian Empire named Smaragdus, who I'd never heard of before. Then Blessed John Duns Scotus around the time of Aquinas. The three of them were full-on abolitionist theologians. They wrote about slavery as being completely opposed to the will of God.

NTW: Mm. Preach.

CK: That’s right. Gregory of Nyssa said to his congregation, “Today is Easter: Slaveholders need to release their slaves.” And he even says at one point, “And when you go home today with your slaves who were in the congregation, don't start saying that the bishop was exaggerating.”

I mean Nyssa was the real deal.

NTW: That desert did him some good.

CK: I think that's exactly what happened! That's my personal opinion, that he was kind of exiled and when he came back, he was like, “All right, I'm gonna say what I want now.”

He and the others were, to some extent, at least among written sources that we have, lone voices in the wilderness. But they said it. They knew it was wrong and that's amazing to me. And they knew it was wrong based on what they believed was [taught by] their faith. They used their Catholicism to be abolitionists.

Then, when the slave trade begins, we see from really the very beginning—even before the transatlantic trade begins and there's just the movement of enslaved Africans from Africa to Portugal—almost immediately we see Black Catholics start to revolt. They're all being baptized as Catholics at that time. Some of them, especially in the Congolese region, probably already were Catholics.

NTW: Right.

CK: We're immediately seeing them start to revolt, starting to organize into confraternities which were facilitated by religious orders. But in those confraternities, they are requesting permission to fight for the freedom of their members in court. They're doing all these things that show us that people weren't happy being enslaved, that this was a terrible experience and they wanted to be free.

And then, as the decades went on in the slave trade, there were several important Catholic theologians that wrote against it, that said, even according to the Church's own tradition, this is unjust.

The pinnacle of that, if you ask me, was in the 1680s, with a man named Lorenzo Mendoza and another man named Pascal Diaz. Both of them, I believe, were formerly enslaved. They were part of these confraternities and they go as representatives of their confraternities, in Brazil and Portugal, to Rome with documents asking Pope Innocent XI to condemn the trade. To condemn participation in it under pain of excommunication, and require that anyone who has been baptized cannot be enslaved.

NTW: “Drop the hammer.”

CK: Unfortunately, instead the Curia dropped the ball and they didn't do it, which is tragic in a billion ways. But it's also inspiring to see the great lengths to which these confraternities and these men were willing to go, based upon their faith, to fight against this evil.

NTW: Yeah, I know there's a new book out by Dr. Jeroen Dewulf of UC Berkeley. It's called “Afro-Atlantic Catholics.” He talks a lot about the confraternities, which I didn’t really know about as being part of, like, ancient Western Black history. I definitely didn't know anybody went to the pope.

CK: Yeah, it's not a story that's told a lot. Honestly, I think it's not told a lot by Catholics because it makes us look really bad as a Church. It's a shameful moment and yet it's like, man, those guys need to be canonized.

NTW: Or literally any Western Black person.

CK: Yeah, that's exactly right.

It was just so interesting to continue seeing things like that, like the Haitian Revolution, another example of Black Catholics saying “No.” Toussaint Louverture establishes this government in which the constitution says slavery is illegal and Catholicism is the official religion. So Black Catholics are giving us this example of an abolitionist Catholicism well before the church adopts it.

NTW: In light of the fact that there's this strong undercurrent of Black Catholic resistance, and I'm sure other Catholics as well—some of whom you've mentioned—are Americans still justified in saying that the Catholic Church is basically to blame for the transatlantic slave trade?

CK: I would say that the popes, beginning especially with Nicholas V but even some of the popes previous to him were already encouraging the Portuguese in their colonial efforts.

NTW: He was the one behind “Dum Diversas”?

CK: Yeah, the big ones that in 1452 and 1455 say the Portuguese can basically engage in slave-raiding. Just kidnap whomever they want that's not a Christian and enslave them and take their land, as long as they're not Christian, and could have exclusive trading rights with the people of—well, at first he kind of says “Central Africa and the West African coast,” and then he's like “Anywhere you find anywhere.”

NTW: Remarkable.

CK: In the second bull of these two, he's like, “Oh and by the way, this has been happening. The Portuguese have bought some enslaved people and have taken some by force and brought them back to Portugal and some of them have become Catholic.” So he knew exactly what was happening and those permissions were renewed by at least three popes.

NTW: Lord.

CK: The really disturbing part of that is—well, all of it is disturbing, but that permission was not withdrawn until almost 400 years later when Pope Gregory XVI publicly condemns the trade. Pius VII right before him had written some private letters, which I discovered from Fr Adiele’s great book, but Gregory XVI was the first one to publicly do it.

And here's one of the things that's really painful about that document—in many ways it's a great document but there's a couple of shortcomings to it. But all of the reasons Gregory gave for why the slave trade was evil, Servant of God Bartolomé de las Casas had already said 300 years earlier. All those theologians that were opposed to the trade were saying it was wrong because people were not being justly enslaved according to the Church's tradition, that they were being kidnapped, that the ships were, you know—

NTW: Hellholes.

CK: Yes, “carriages of hell.” All these unjust things were happening, and theologians were saying that in the 16th century. Abolitionist theologians. And that's exactly what Gregory gives. So it's not like he had new information available to him that the previous popes didn’t. He was just the first one to have the courage to write the document.

So yeah, I think that the Church had a very serious role in the trade and that needs to be examined and reconciled with.

NTW: And what year did Gregory issue that bull?

CK: That was in 1839.

NTW: Well, that's a good year because it brings me to my next question. The previous year was when Georgetown University sold the 272 slaves from Washington, DC. I saw that your novitiate was in Grand Couteau, Louisiana, which is just about an hour west of where most of those enslaved persons sold from Georgetown ended up.

For you, as a Jesuit, how have you come to terms with the fact that your order—the largest in the world—was so deeply involved in the slave trade, right up until and beyond 1838?

CK: To be honest, I have not come to terms with it. When I was writing this book, doing the early research in particular, it really challenged my Catholicism in a lot of ways. Thankfully, though, I had the great privilege of, as a deacon and then for my first year as a priest, working at a Black Catholic parish in Baton Rouge, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.

Through their witness and through reading the writings of abolitionist Christians and of Black Catholics, I was able to see this beauty of—you know that phrase, the “uncommon faithfulness” of Black Catholics. That there was this way forward that people like Lorenzo Mendoza and others had from early on. That helped me recover my Catholicism, that there were abolitionist Catholics. There were Black Catholics who were able to see this, and that's the teaching of the Church today. That's beautiful.

The problem is the Society of Jesus was the big defender of the Atlantic slave trade. It was our theologians who, when people like Las Casas or Fr Domingo de Soto, OP or other theologians said, “The trade is evil,” we were the ones who wrote texts saying, “Yes, that's right, but here's morally how we can get around it.”

NTW: Hmm.

CK: There were two Jesuits in the 1580s in Brazil who kind of pulled a Las Casas and said, “This is crazy. We should not own any slaves in our community. We should not be forcing people into unpaid labor. This is evil. And we are not going to hear the confessions of any of our Jesuit brothers—”

NTW: Who enslaved people?

CK: “Until our community frees their enslaved people.” And the superior general of the Society of Jesus at the time, Claudio Acquaviva, had them pulled from Brazil and sent back to the Iberian Peninsula. I don't like to use the word complicit, because I feel like the word sometimes just makes it seem like you sort of see something happening and you're like not really paying attention to it; you're like, “Yeah, that happened.” No, we were active, active participants and defenders of the trade. And Jesuit slaveholding started during the time while sending St. Ignatius was still alive. That's really painful for me.

NTW: Why do you think there's resistance to authentic reconciliation on this?

CK: Well, on the one hand, some of it is that beginning in the 19th century, the Church in its documents condemning slavery and the trade also put forth a rewriting of history, saying that the Church had been against this the whole time. You see that in Gregory's document. You even see it in those letters of Pope Pius VII and you especially see it in Leo XIII’s documents, such as in 1888 and 1890. All those documents, we should thank God for them, but they sort of retell the history.

And they weren't the only ones. At the time, it was actually British abolitionists who did that a lot because they wanted to argue that Christianity had been an anti-slavery force in history, so they wrote these histories like that. And I think the popes just kind of bought that history because people weren’t talking about those early papal bulls much anymore. It was like, “That's really embarrassing now.” So today, if a Catholic looks at some of the best anti-slavery and anti-slave trade stuff written by popes: Gregory XVI, Leo XIII, even Pius X and John Paul II. It's going to look to them like the Church was always against this.

The Society of Jesus did the same thing. In 1866, they published this article in La Civiltà Cattolica, which is the Roman journal of the Jesuits, and they said, “Oh, this trade was the fault of Jansenists and the Protestants…”

NTW: Oh boy. Yikes.

CK: “...and it was the Jesuit theologians who were always against the trade.” And they used that space to uplift people like Peter Claver. It was all this kind of rewriting. So if you're a Jesuit today or a Catholic today and you read any of that stuff from the past, let's say, 150 years, you're very likely to think, “Why would we be paying reparations? The Church was always against this. There's no history that needs to be reconciled with.”

So that might be one part of [why there’s resistance]. But the other part of it is that there's this impression among some people that conversations about reparations are the product of a very contemporary Critical Race Theory, “woke mob” kind of thing.

NTW: Well, well, well.

CK: And that is crazy. One of the things I certainly didn't know about and I think most Catholics don't know about, that I found in my research, was that those theologians who were denouncing the slave trade and the 16th and 17th centuries were already talking about reparations. In 1682, two Capuchin priests are already saying, “People say that reparations will be too complex.”

NTW: Whew!!

CK: And they said, “Well we can we can take money from the estates of the descendants of slaveholders and give them to the descendants of the enslaved.”

NTW: Wealth redistribution? Wow.

CK: They are saying that in 1682. So to say that reparations are some modern concept, it’s a lie.

NTW: A useful lie.

CK: Useful because it keeps us from having to examine the past, it keeps our Church and our country with its continual structures of power, and it keeps us from really looking at our sinfulness. Because once we start really looking into this, we’re going to have to ask a lot of hard questions.

NTW: Oh yeah.

CK: And those are tough. There were nights when I was doing the research that I could not sleep. I started crying in the bathroom one day at school.

NTW: Lord have mercy.

CK: It was just so painful to be thinking about all of this and reading all of this for me. So I understand the feeling of resistance, but we have to believe at the end of the day that the Holy Spirit is going to take care of us if we entrust ourselves to God, including in this process.

NTW: Amen.

CK: And that, you know what? Even if it does mean that the Church has to pay a ton of money, even if it does mean that we have to change the way that we operate and the way that we form papal documents—even though that might just sound crazy to us—it's worth it because the truth is worth it and goodness is worth it and justice is worth it.

But we aren't there yet.

NTW: So you mentioned our guy, St. Peter Claver. I'm aware that he did not own slaves, but several American saints and saints-to-be did—even one of the six African Americans who are venerated. Obviously, Peter’s not American but he is Western and he's part of the Black Catholic narrative. What should people make of the fact that people we have literally canonized and are trying to canonize were involved in the trade?

CK: Yeah, well, I'll just tell you: the original interviews done right after Claver died, for his beatification process, actually show that he directly participated in the slave trade. He gave money to Portuguese merchants and said “Buy me some slaves that can serve as interpreters.” It is absolutely heartbreaking. And this is in his beatification process notes.

NTW: So they knew.

CK: They knew. It is really painful. There were at least nine enslaved people he owned and was the master of on behalf of his Jesuit community, and he could be violent.

NTW: Now the violence part, I knew about, but I didn't know he owned slaves.

CK: Yeah, it's very strange and sad. And as I'm sure you were talking about, Venerable Henriette DeLille apparently had an enslaved woman at her death named Betsy.

All I can think is that when the Church says that somebody is a saint, all they're saying is that they are in heaven now and that something about the way they lived is worthy of Christian imitation.

NTW: Something.

CK: You know, some of the saints committed terrible errors that caused enormous pain in people's lives and did not, it seems, ever recognize that. And that's just something that is a difficult part of our history. Thank God there's purgatory in our Catholic faith, you know.

But yeah, we have to come to a deeper realization that when we say the saints weren't perfect, we don't mean, “Every now and then they lost their temper and said something mean to somebody,” or that they cursed or didn't pray evening prayer one day. No, they committed sins that were destructive just in the way that we can commit sins today that are destructive, and yet God is merciful and there was something about those people, at least—and maybe for Claver, it was his willingness to go to the Americas and his desire to be among the enslaved people But there are real complexities there and it's and it's tough to know what to do with them.

NTW: In light of the tragic nature of this story, even with the good guys, is there a bright side? Not to slavery but just to where we are today and the potential for the future.

CK: There are a few things that I think are hopeful. Number one is that when Pope Leo XIII condemned slavery, as incompatible with Christianity—he used the phrase “a monstrous perversity”—slavery was not over in the world and he really started a long tradition that continues today against human trafficking, one that was carried on in a really strong way by especially by our recent popes, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis.

So I think we can see hope in that today, the Church is unequivocal in its denunciation of human trafficking and works in so many parts of the world—especially religious sisters—against it and with the victims. That to me is really a beautiful sign. I think it's also a good sign today that some religious orders are at least starting to look at this issue and their relationship with it.

I think that Pope Francis’ trip to Canada and his apology to the victims of the residential schools was a nice sign as well, and the many apologies that Pope John Paul II gave on different issues in history. I think these are all signs that our Church can withstand engaging in its own processes of reconciliation and its own belief in how good reconciliation can be for us.

That's another thing that I think is hopeful is that we have the pathway— and we've had it for 2,000 years: the sacrament of reconciliation. We know the steps, you know, and we can do it. There's still some strong resistance in certain quarters of the Church to conversations about racial justice. but it does seem that there are more Catholics today that are interested in learning about this issue—and by that I mean more White Catholics today that are committing to learning more about this.

So I am hopeful that eventually, one day—maybe at some future synod, maybe Vatican III. I don't know—we'll see a document that talks about the Church’s involvement in the slave trade and a pathway for moving forward.

NTW: From your mouth to God's ears.

CK: We hope.

NTW: Well, Father, I appreciate your very thoughtful responses and for writing this book. I think it'll be a powerful tool and, as you said, an accessible tool for people to deal with this issue—Black, White, whatever the person may be. So many people need to dive into this.

CK: Thank you, Nate.

All Oppression Shall Cease: A History of Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Catholic Church

Fr Christopher J. Kellerman, SJ

Hardcover ($26) or ebook (varies)

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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