Why Does This Topic Matter: Thinking About the Big Issues

Issues of continuing relevance


This page describes some of the general ideas that the Catholic Church, Bishops, and Race in the Mid-20th Century website can illuminate in the classroom.


Church Teachings on Race

Throughout this exhibit, countless voices expressed opinions and dogma regarding race relations. Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle and others saw the opposition to segregation as being a moral issue, though O’Boyle’s support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 certainly proves that clergy were not above championing politics to achieve equality as well. One component of this issue is the contradictions often brought out between teaching and practice. Archbishop Thomas Toolen of the Archdiocese of Mobile-Birmingham, Alabama (now Archdiocese of Mobile) agreed with the teachings on equality, but prohibited priests from challenging Alabama’s Jim Crow laws and from confronting segregationists, preferring instead to work at a gradual pace to eliminate segregation. Toolen also strongly requested that no priests or nuns from outside Alabama come to participate in the Selma-To-Montgomery March in 1965, believing that they could not understand the situation within the state. Toolen’s quandary was not unusual, particularly in the Deep South, where clergy face the morality of the Church’s teaching versus the white-dominated political structure that was determined to preserve white power.

1. Why was it significant that the Church in the U.S. cast the struggle for equality as one that was moral in nature?

2. What reasons might there have been for Southern clergy to not fully embrace civil rights ideals?


Getting Involved

Since the issue of civil rights was cast as a moral issue, it is little wonder that so many Catholics did become actively involved in it. Levels of involvement would vary depending on the area of the country and the temperament of the leadership. O’Boyle, Archbishop Ritter in St. Louis and Archbishop Rummel in New Orleans would use decrees to end segregation in parochial schools (even if it meant by gradual means). The bishops as a group would release pastoral statements outlining the Church’s opposition to segregation. Interreligious conferences were held to promote cooperation between Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish leaders on the issue of civil rights. Father Raymond McGowan of the Social Action Department even testified to committees set up by President Harry Truman on the work being done by Catholic agencies to assist in the movement toward equality. Some priests, however, took direct action. Father James Groppi in Milwaukee organized demonstrations aimed at ending segregation in schools and housing, and joined other priests in the March on Washington and the Selma-to-Montgomery March. Father Geno Baroni in Washington, D.C. initiated a community center near his church to meet the various needs of the African Americans living nearby, as well as becoming a vocal and active supporter of civil rights demonstrations in Washington and elsewhere. The article detailing the experiences of Madelyn Bonsignore proves that the desire to show solidarity with those feeling the effects of unequal treatment was not limited to clergy. Catholics of all backgrounds seemed to take to heart the words of Pius XII in Summi Pontificatus that one of the great errors of the time “is the forgetfulness of that law of human solidarity and charity which is dictated and imposed by our common origin and by the equality of rational nature in all men, to whatever people they belong ….”

1. What may have been the effect(s), positive and/or negative, on Catholics and non-Catholics of seeing clergy taking direct action in the Civil Rights Movement?

2. Did the issuing of decrees by some clergy conflict with the direct action of others, or did the two work in concert to promote Church ideals?


A Lasting Contribution?

From the 1930s through the 1960s, the Catholic Church in the U.S. had the opportunity to impact social history in various areas. Social action, particularly in the arena of labor, was a predominant aim throughout the late 19th and into the 20th centuries, and had a strong basis in encyclicals from Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum) and Pius XI (Quadragesimo Anno). This work is well documented; the work in the area of civil rights is not. Labor history is rife with alliances between the Church and the CIO, as well as other organizations, in addition to Catholics in leadership positions (Philip Murray, James Carey, Mother Jones); the civil rights area showed the Church allying with others, but the role was not as prominent and there were fewer leaders in prominent places. The faces of the movement were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X; Groppi, Baroni, O’Boyle, and Father John LaFarge are known to few today. This does not, however, diminish their importance, particularly within the auspices of the Church. While their support for the secular movement may be overlooked (regrettably), it is their work in desegregating parochial schools, as well as the church pews, which is most in mind. This, coupled with the actions taken to affect society at large, help the Church to carve its own niche in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement.

1. Besides the lack of names know to the general public, what other reasons might account for the Church not receiving as much credit for its work during the Civil Rights Movement?

2. Is it important for the Church to receive such renown for its work? Why or why not?

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