Pastoral Letter of Bishop Dupanloup (Orléans, France) to His Clergy on the Subject of American Slavery (April 6, 1862)

[Félix Dupanloup (1802-1878) was ordained in 1825 and consecrated bishop of Orleans in 1849. […] He […] introduced the cause of Joan of Arc’s beatification. He advanced the rights of the Church to establish primary, secondary and institutions of higher learning. […] He founded the Catholic daily L’Ami de la religion. He supported Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” but he worked against the definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I.

On Passion Sunday 1862, the bishop issued a rousing and forthright condemnation of slavery as it was practiced in the United States and elsewhere in the world. His point of view was representative of many European Catholics but was dismissed in America as untheological. No American prelate ever took so unambiguous and forceful a stand on slavery. Dupanloup gets right to the core of the issue: it is not the physical conditions of slavery that matter. It is the state of slavery that is so radically wrong that nothing good can be said for any aspect of it.] – American Catholics and Slavery, 1789-1866 (1994)

[This text can be found in the Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia (Volume XXV, 1914).]

April 6, 1862

GENTLEMEN AND COWORKERS: You seldom allow the far distant echoes of foreign politics to reach you. Your presbytery, which I so love to visit, is the resting place of peace, of contemplation, of prayer, and of charity. During Lent you do not dwell in your parsonage, all day you dwell in your church; holding yourselves, so to say, upright before men, and on your knees in the presence of God to preach and to pray, invoking for men the notice and pardon of God, beseeching men to think with you upon the death of Jesus Christ, and to unite with the sufferings of his cross the sufferings of their lives.

I do not come to withdraw your attention in the midst of your pious engagements. I come to beg for a prayer. Prayer! that is our politics; that is our great interest in the events of this world. To speak of God to men, and to speak of men to God, that is our mission. And surely it is no small matter, even in the order of earthly interests, so ardently contended about amongst men; for in it is God, who holds in his hands the hearts of people and rulers, and bends them as He will; it is He who now sorrowfully abandons them to their course, and now stops them on the verge of the precipice and draws them back, willing or unwilling, through his mercy; whether a lightning flash of what is happening comes to show at a glance the depths of sin into which they are precipitating themselves, or that a holier light endows them with true wisdom.

Be it as it may, gentlemen, the most unthinking know well that affairs do not move on here below without the powerful concurrence of circumstances, which they call the hits of chance, but we call the direction and the act of God. They too often look upon them as blind men. More enlightened, we do not cease to raise to Heaven a voice trustful and peaceful for the happiness, the progress, and future of the whole world.

We have heard praying for Syria and for Poland, for England and for Russia, for China and for Africa; for the victories of France, and for the victories of the Faith; for those who suffer, who weep, who hope; for those who groan and who pray with us, and also as well for those who do not pray, who do not groan, who close their eyes, who forget!

This day, Sabbath of the Passion, at this hour, when the standard of the cross is hoisted over all our temples, at the sight of this holy emblem of deliverance and of safety, I say to myself, My God died upon the cross for all mankind, and yet there are men who still are crucified. He died to deliver all from bondage, and there are men the noise which is now making about this great question painfully recalls to me there are millions of men who are still in slavery.

Good Friday is approaching. That day, the Catholic church, standing at the foot of the cross, with eyes fixed on those extended arms which embrace the world, will commend to our Lord, in sublime prayer, Christians, Heretics, Jews, Pagans; and we will utter with her these noble words: ”Let us pray God the Father, omnipotent, that he may cleanse the world from all errors; may remove disease, keep off famine, open the prison doors, and break the chains in sunder.”

That is the true spirit of the Gospel and of Jesus Christ; is not that what the divine Redeemer of mankind announced as his mission to the world? “The Spirit of the Lord is bestowed on me,” said he, “to teach the gospel to the poor, to console those who weep, to cure the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and to those who are in bondage, liberty.”

And, after the Divine Master, is it not Saint Paul, one of his most fervent disciples, who shouted forth to the Pagan world the sublime outcry, “There exist no longer either masters or slaves, for we are all brothers in Jesus Christ.” Well, even at this day, in Christian lands, after eighteen centuries of Christianity, after those words of Jesus Christ, after that cry of St. Paul, there still are slaves!

Gentlemen, it is for this miserable and cruelly oppressed portion of humanity that I come to ask your prayers. Yes, let us pray; let us pray for those poor slaves. And if I feel myself impelled, at this hour, to commend to you this sad and holy cause, and to beg your prayers, it is because of the holy season in which we are, and also of news recently received from distant countries, where this grave question is sorely agitated, and towards which the attention of all Europe is directed.

The truth is, that the old and the new continents are disturbed. Politicians harangue for and against; trade is interrupted; blood flows in civil war. We, gentlemen, pray. In great social crises, in which we cannot remain indifferent lookers-on, it is prayer alone that becomes our great duty.

Do not suppose, sirs, that I may take part in the lamentable quarrel which divides the United States of America. I am told the North merits little more of sympathy than the South; that questions of commercial tariffs, or of political predominance, have had more influence than the question of slavery on the secession, out of which the civil war has issued. I am assured that the abolition party has rendered itself odious by its extravagances, while the slave-owners often are men of good faith and of good hearts. I am told of more Catholics at the South than at the North, and of citizens enlisted in both armies, animated by equal patriotism, who, on either side, sincerely believe that they are acting justly.

It is said if the Union be reconstructed the emancipation of the slaves is not certain, and if the separation becomes complete, that emancipation is not impossible. It is wished to persuade me that the interests of our manufacturers are with the South, of our commerce with the North; that we ought to desire the upholding and the union of a people whom we aided to set free, and which serves to counterpoise other nations; or, on the other side, that we should fear the aggrandizement of a people whose example and encroaching spirit menaces the world.

I don’t know all that. But what I do know is, that there are still four millions of slaves in the United States, two millions in the rest of America, together six millions of slaves in Christian countries eighteen hundred years after the Crucifixion. What I do know is that the horrors of civil war have been let loose by this fearful question, and that the peace of the world is threatened, and is already disturbed.

And what I am more happy to know is, that by a recent and important act message of the 8th March, sent to Congress by the President of the United States, and adopted by a great majority measures prudent, equitable, peaceful, have been proposed to put an end to slavery, and passed.

Compensation is proposed to all the States which agree to undertake in their territory the gradual abolition of slavery. No one can tell what will be the consequence of this proposition, because it depends on the responses of the States. No one is under compulsion; a limit is assigned to the evil, and a vent is opened to it. For the first time in sixty years the Central Government takes part and commits the whole nation to a vigorous effort against the evil.

Without being solved the question is then seriously under consideration, the step has been made, a hope is opened. That makes another motive for me, and an inexpressible need to pray God that he may deign to bless an enterprise, the pacific solution of which must be ardently desired.

I understand the objections of those who plead for slavery; I do not desire to discuss them at length. Not that they do not tell me that slaves are happy, and besides that established facts become lawful through duration of time. Slaves are happy. Yes, perhaps, under good masters; they eat, they sleep, they have some hours of repose, perhaps even may be dissipated at pleasure; but have they the domestic hearth, have they the family, have they freedom. Poor disinterested ones of the human family, they have lost not only the right of primogeniture, but all rights, and because they are sometimes allowed a plate of lentils, proclamation is made that they are happy.

As for the doctrine of established facts I have too often attacked it, in its applications to the temporalities of the church, to accept its extension to its spiritual domain, which it most cherishes. Immortal souls! Ah! the church knows the price of souls; and if she has sometimes made sacrifice of part of her rights, even the most incontestable, when the higher interest of her mission has not made it her duty to maintain them it has been to reserve the right of saying to all the world, with all the ardor of her love, “Your souls, give me your souls and keep the rest.” Da mihi animas, caetera tolle tibi.

Nor let me be asked either to discuss the theoretic questions of slavery; let me not be reminded that all ancient social conditions have rested upon that; do not seek to demonstrate to me, by force of hypothesis that can never be realized, that slavery is not lawful in itself, considered in a certain way, under certain conditions.

I let alone abstract theories and I look at the facts. I look at the numbers of times those conditions have been met in history, and why humanity being constituted such as it is, they might occur. I look not at the exceptional case, but at the state, the foundation even, of life and of human dignity, condemned by slavery to remediless abasement.

I do not trouble myself about abstractions and hypotheses. Certainly, I would have much to say upon the origin of this obstinate and protracted universal plague spot. How did man reduce man to slavery? I defy its explanation to me unless by original sin. How did the slave again become the equal of his master? I defy its explanation unless through the Redemption. Slavery is so odious that its beginning cannot be comprehended, and it is so convenient that its ending cannot be comprehended.

If I touched upon the theory, I would show that the unity of the human family, which with us is not an opinion, but a dogma let it be well understood, a dogma; and even one of the grounds of our faith has become also a dogma of science I would show that the unity of the human family, the principle of dignity, of equality, of freedom, of humanity among mankind, condemns and rebukes slavery; and I would refer to the works of Blumenbach and of Tiedemann, of Humboldt and of Geoffrey St. Hilaire; I would call upon my learned brothers M. de Flourens and M. Quatresages, and the celebrated report of the Duke de Broglie on this great subject. I would refer also to the admirable work of Mr. Wallon upon the “Slavery of Antiquity,” and to the great and liberal work of M. Augustin Cochin upon “Modern Slavery.” Here are men and writers of other authority than those vain sophists who alone at this time, through hatred of Christ and His Church, attack, with all the efforts of science in desperation, this Christian dogma of the unity of our race. With our dogma must perish the dignity, the fraternity, the liberty of mankind. But let us pass from the theory.

I do not wish to answer any thing that may be objected in favor of this sad cause. I do not wish to dis- cuss doctrinal subtleties; but I ask that the truths of experience be not rejected. Because, it is shown by experience, that slavery has never been the initiation and the training of liberty; the longer it endures the more it oppresses; the wider it extends the more it degrades: and never unravels itself by its sole action. You refuse to set slaves free, because you say they are incapable of liberty, and I, I tell you that this incapacity is kept alive by servitude, if not created by it, and that it causes the slave to stagnate under it.

It is also the teaching of experience that the slavery of the day the slavery of blacks has an origin, and a consequence, equally detestable. Its origin was the treaty, the ignoble and cruel bargain condemned by Pius IIId in 1482, by Paul Hid in 1557, by Urban VIIIth in 1630, by Benedict XIVth in 1741, by Gregory XVIth in 1839. The consequence is the destruction of the family tie, condemned by the curses of every humane heart; the destruction of liberty, not only of the slave but the master, for it goes the length of forbidding the master to teach the slave to read and to write in favor of liberty.

There are, then, on the same earth with myself children of God and children of men like myself, saved by the same blood that I am, destined to the same Heaven that I am, five or six millions of my fellow-beings, in the United States, in Brazil, in Cuba, in Surinam, who are slaves; aged people, vigorous men, women, young girls, children. Just Heaven! Is it not yet time, after eighteen centuries of Christianity, for us all to begin to practice the ever enduring law, “Do not to another that which you would not he should do to you: and that which you would your brothers should do for you, do ye for them?” Is it not at length time that we should lend our ears to that great teaching of our master, “Love ye one another; by this token shall ye be known as my disciples, if ye love one another?”

After eighteen centuries we repeat these expressions to slaves to calm their angry feelings, we shall do so again; but apparently this gives us the right to remind the masters of them in order to move them to do justice.

Since Jesus Christ, St. Paul, and the Apostles, laid down the principles of universal emancipation, the most illustrious preachers of the faith, the most distinguished bishops, the most enlightened of the pontiffs, have spoken in their order. Understand thoroughly, you who daily calumniate the church, that if the church rebukes the outbursts of licentious minds, human liberty is dear to it; for liberty, in the scheme of God, who has not created man an imbecile slave, liberty is the source from which issues every social virtue; the source of all moral greatness; of all civilization; of all progress; and the church, true mother of human civilization, the church which has built up modern social organizations, deplores all that injures or impedes the march of humanity, daughter of God, and blesses all that aids, improves, and elevates her. Behold the spirit of the Gospel, and the spirit of the Church! and the fascination of interest, which alone explains the continuation in Christian lands of the plague which I deplore, cannot prevent me from reminding the world of the pure and true inspiration of Christianity.

We have a right, also, we priests, to lift up our voices, and to complain of the part which in this matter has been forced upon other priests. You priests, of my diocese, who offer the Gospel to families formed by the Gospel, in the midst of a well regulated and free social condition, on which Christianity daily spreads its benefits, you who unceasingly remind those who surround you of the sacred equality of duties, of rights, and of hopes, do you imagine the situation of the Catholic missionary between the masters and the slaves?

Suspected by the one class, or suspected by the other, preaching to masters that justice which his interest counteracts; submission, to those whose chains he should desire to break; attempting to elevate the purposes, the dignity of beings without liberty, abased in their own eyes, the preacher there fills a very sad mission. Ah? most truly, faith is good for all; I pity those, whoever they may be, whose life tends to its decline without this light; with faith we can at least say to slaves, there is no condition which has not Heaven for its end. Religion softens even the lot of the poor slave, by softening the heart of the master, but groans over a condition which keeps the man in a state of brutal abasement.

We are ready to preach to the condemned to follow them on to the scaffold, to live among galley slaves, to evangelize the idiot, to dress the sores of the wounded and the sick; we are ready to console the slaves, we love them, and they love us, but we abhor slavery. I regard with admiration the bishops and the priests of countries where slavery exists, because I have confidence in them, in their courage, in their conscientiousness, in their worth, in the honor of their sacerdotal character. They suffer because they know, as I do, that our religion is the religion of the free man.

Let us, therefore, be allowed to pray. Pray, sirs, pray earnestly, that a specific solution of the lamentable problem of slavery may be devised, matured, consummated. I am not ignorant that this work is at once less advanced, and still more difficult than it seems. Those masters, they should be indemnified; those slaves, they must be civilized. I acknowledge, among the masters (God save me from blaming them too much) many act in good faith ; many are humane ; they have not made the situation; they regret it; they deserve to be indemnified, and now that is proposed to them. Those slaves, when they shall be freed, their social organization will be a question, and slavery is in nowise prepared for that; but the priests of Christ Jesus, and all Christians men of good hearts will occupy themselves with that. In a word, I know the difficulties, but they are exaggerated; we forget that interests, mutual wants, produce among men relations, ties, needful agreement ; but difficulties exist nevertheless, and are serious. But it is exactly because the work is not plain, and is not easy of accomplishment that we must pray that it may be simplified and may be achieved.

My reverend brethren, the Bishops of the province of Bordeaux, assembled in council at La Rochelle in 1853, with the new Bishops of the colonies, three years after the emancipation of the slaves in the French possessions, pronounced this solemn declaration, approved by the Holy See:

The Catholic Church has ever deplored the cruel slavery in which a multitude of men are detained, to the great detriment of their souls, and has never ceased to labor to remedy so great a calamity.

I place under the protection of these noble words, and of so many other apostolic utterances, the ardent vow which I offer that this cruel slavery may cease at length throughout all Christian countries.

Alas! sirs, I know it, slaves are not the only oppressed among men. There are countries even in Europe there is Ireland, a Poland, there is a Syria where oppression takes a different form without being a smaller evil. My compassion for one does not exclude compassion for others. I do not understand those men who resign themselves to an evil from the embarrassment of choosing between the different reasons for indignation. No, do not let us take one mischief as the excuse for another mischief. Let us labor to destroy the one, then afterward the other. For me, I will never yield to anything that is evil in fact; I deplore all, and would I had power to remedy all; and if my life be long enough, with God’s grace, I will consecrate it wholly to contributing my feeble efforts and labor to cause the disappearance, one by one, of the plagues which afflict the human race. If I could act, I would act. If I could speak, I would speak. If I can only pray, at least I will offer up my prayer to God. Here, sirs, you have the reason of my asking you to pray, especially for those in slavery.

In those touching universal prayers which you read each day in the evening exercise, and in which the church commends to God the traveler, the sick, the agonized, the afflicted of every kind, after the afflicted commend in your hearts the slaves. I ask it of you, sirs I ask it of all my diocesans. The moment seems propitious. Pray God to accomplish the work begun, and if your prayers are not heard to-day repeat them tomorrow, until at last they be accepted of Him whom we do not vainly call the most merciful the God on high.

Accept, cherished coworkers, the fresh assurance of my deep and affectionate devotion to you in the Lord.

FELIX, Bishop of Orleans.

ORLEANS, Sunday of Passion Week, April 6, 1862.