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The Black Pope and slavery: silence amid the madness

The Jesuit's top priest paid a mostly secret visit to the US last week, and one Black Catholic academic says African Americans deserved much more.

(Jesuits Australia)

Suffice it to say that a visit to the United States from the head of the world’s largest religious order could be expected to bring a certain amount of pomp and media attention.

That is, of course, when such a visit actually announced to the public.

Fr Arturo Sosa, SJ—the superior general of the Jesuits, also known as the “Black Pope”—paid a visit to Boston College last week for a conference and general meetings, and one Black Catholic academic says the trip comes off as slight to those concerned about the order’s ongoing historical controversies concerning African Americans and slavery.

“To those outside the Catholic Church, this trip by Father General won’t be news,” wrote Dr. Anthea Butler of the University of Pennsylvania, president of the American Society for Church History, in an op-ed for MSNBC on Sunday.

“But to those who have both benefited from and been hurt by the order, it is extremely significant.”

Butler refers, of course, to the Jesuits’ ostensible efforts to atone for their infamous involvement with the Translatlantic Slave Trade, including slaveholding at various American institutions and the particularly odious sale of 272 enslaved African Americans from Georgetown University in 1838.

Thus far, apologies have come on various occasions for these abuses, and the Jesuits even established a $100M foundation last year to address concerns that the order owed more than just lip service to the descendants of those they sold as human chattel. That said, at their largest scale, these overtures came only from the Jesuits’ local operations, namely its province covering the US and Canada—not from the leadership of the order overall.

The most seen from Sosa so far has been a response to select descendants who reached out after the discovery of their connections to the 1838 sale, and his subsequent endorsement of the foundation upon its establishment.

With Sosa's appearance this week in Massachusetts, muted as it was, Butler contrasts his silent rendezvous with the recent in-person apologies to First Nations peoples from the Holy Father—himself a Jesuit par excellence.

“I can't help but wonder why Father General did not accompany Pope Francis on his visit to Canada, or schedule a meeting with African Americans whose family members were both enslaved and sold,” Butler wrote.

“Surely that merits an apology from the head of the religious order that would not have been able to keep a key institution running without selling human beings.”

Ironically, Sosa’s trip was for the annual meeting of the International Association of Jesuit Universities, of which Georgetown is perhaps the most prominent member. Founded in 2018—just two years after Sosa’s election as superior of the order—the IAJU describes itself as promoting “the development of a more just and humane world for the greater honor and glory of God” and desiring “to advance the search for truth in the promotion of faith, justice and reconciliation”.

It is unclear whether the conference’s proceedings included any discussion of the aforementioned Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation—specifically its weaknesses, including the fact that it has been roundly criticized by descendants themselves as cronyist and financially externalized.

The foundation has also been characterized as shortsighted, if not intentionally limited in scope. (It does not, after all, deal meaningfully with the descendants of those enslaved by Jesuits and not sold downriver from DC to Louisiana in 1838.)

Various other topics, including Jesuit business education, “mission integration”, migrants and refugees, Africa, environmentalism, and secularism were on the agenda for the IAJU meeting, and these are all good things. They are not, however, what has landed the Jesuits in international headlines repeatedly over the past year.

“As a former professor at a Jesuit institution, I know it is important for Father General to speak and preside at a Mass that leaders in Jesuit higher education have come to from around the world,” wrote Butler.

“Perhaps there is no harmful reason for a quiet visit. But the timing of this particular visit, kept tightly under wraps, is suspect.”

As it is, Sosa has kept a busy schedule as of late, but his various other stops seem to have been well publicized. Among them was his re-consecration of the Society of Jesus to the Sacred Heart of Jesus on July 31 in Spain, marking the end of the Ignatian Year (which celebrates the quincentenary of Jesuit founder St. Ignatius’ reversion to the Catholic faith).

In May, Georgetown convened a conference at the Villa Malta in Rome under the theme of “The Culture of Encounter: An Imperative for a Divided World.” There, Sosa was perhaps prophetic—albeit unwittingly—about his order’s need for bold action to right their own injustices.

“Intercultural encounter seeks to build bridges and promote fluid exchange among all cultures in a complex process that involves confirming and enriching one's own identity while also enriching the identity of others,” he said in his conference address.

“Encounter always runs the risk of provoking conflicts.”

Butler, it seems, would agree.

“Shouldn’t the superior general of the Jesuits on a visit to America at least take the time to meet with some of the descendants of the enslaved sold to keep the first Jesuit university in America running?” she said.

“Would it hurt to extend an apology and have a conversation?”

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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