CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 16 February 2019

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Pay day for the slave trade

GEORGETOWN (SE): While the Jesuits have been known to be involved in an extremely wide variety of endeavours, in 1838 in the United States of America (US) they had their fingers stuck in one that today they cannot hold their heads up about—the slave trade.

CWN reported on September 9 that the descendants of 272 slaves that were sold by the founders of Georgetown University have approached the governors of the prestigious academic institution requesting that it put up US$1 billion ($7.75 billion), today’s equivalent of the US$115,000 ($891,250)—about US$420 ($3,255) each—that the Jesuits realised from the sale 178 years ago to put towards the setting up of a foundation to promote peace, harmony and reconciliation among races.

While the amount gleaned from the sale of the slaves shows that they were a valuable commodity, the descendants of the Jesuit sell off have symbolically raised US$115,000 to serve as seed money for the new foundation and Father Cornelius Buckley sj said the current governors are happy to enter into talks over its creation.

Writing in Crisis, Father Buckley observes that the Jesuit ownership of slaves in the 19th century was a clear violation of papal decrees condemning the practice.

He says, “It is important to see that disobedience to papal teaching was the point of departure from which Georgetown and other Jesuit colleges in the US plotted their course.”

The scandal of yesteryear came to light when the university issued a report saying that it was seeking to redress its historic ties to slavery, including the profit that was made.

The call for setting up a foundation was made within a week of it being published.

The Washington Post described the proposed foundation as being of the highest calibre and a national leader in the issue of truth and reconciliation.

“The foundation can only be a reality if we can establish a partnership with Georgetown University,” a spokesperson for the descendants said. “We want to work with them on a greater vision that’s not dependent on the day-to-day educational mission of Georgetown, a separate foundation that we all have a role in.”

Historically, the Church has been inconsistent over slavery. With the coming of the Roman Empire it was generally agreed that Christians should not be enslaved, or at least that certain restrictions should be applied.

Even the keeper of theological orthodoxy, St. Thomas Aquinas, gave his approval to the shameful practice in general, citing its utile nature and original sin, although he did insist that certain restrictions should be placed on it.

The Papal States at times sent out its ships to capture Muslims to act as slaves in its boats.

What has become known as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade began in 1517 at the request of Bishop de Las Casas, from Chiapas in Mexico. However, later in life, the Spanish Dominican became a great protector of Indian rights and railed against the buying and selling of slaves.

By the time Georgetown University was being established, there was quite clear disapproval.

Pope Gregory XVI had made a strong condemnation of the trade in 1839. However, in 1866, Pope Pius IX softened his statement somewhat, clarifying that divine law did not prohibit the trading of slaves for money.

The Americas mostly chose to heed the later instruction rather than the earlier more restrictive one and, in all events, these directives were often ignored, with bishops and parishes using slave labour readily. It was also common for slaves to be used to facilitate the function of Catholic charitable outreaches.

Although going back to the Middle Ages, a succession of religious organisations were founded specifically for the emancipation of slaves, it took centuries for the practice to be absolutely condemned by the Church.

But slavery has always and still does exist in various forms. The foundations of the wealth of what are termed the New World and the Old World are built on slavery, either through colonisation or forced labour.

Australia had convicts and used Aboriginal labour in developing its vast cattle and sheep stations. New Zealand ganged the Maori people and the Americas imported African labour.

In this day and age, new and inventive ways of enslaving people are around and are evident in child labour and human trafficking, as well as many forms of indentured labour, international labour contracting and legal systems that ignore the rights of people in some sectors of the economy.

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