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Auguste Martin, The Vatican and Slavery

Back in 2018 I posted an article about the Church and Slavery It was a little bit out of our usual “Indiana” Catholic History, but it dealt with Bishop Auguste Martin, a Frenchman who came to Indiana and the Diocese of Vincennes as a missionary priest about 1839, after the death of Servant of God, Bishop Simon Brute. Martin was, according to many, including historian and archivist, Fr. Robert Gorman, who wrote:

Martin, without question, was the most distinguished cleric in the diocese. Born in 1803 in St. Malo, he had studied in the College of Rennes. As a seminarian he was a protegee of Jean Marie de la Mennais and was employed at the great Almonry in Paris under Cardinal Prince de Troy. In Paris he came in contact with some of the most outstanding Catholic leaders and scholars in France, particularly Felicite de La Manuais and the LâAvenir group, including Montalembert. Ordained in 1828, he had done pastoral work in the diocese of Rennes and had served on the faculty of the Royal Col1ege.

Martin had become the Vicar General of the diocese under Bishop Hailandiere and like many of Halandiere’s priests, he had his difficulties dealing with the Bishop. When Hailandiere decided to resign as Bishop of Vincennes, he prepared to go to the Provincial Council in Baltimore and plead his case. Again, according to Fr. Gorman:

By this time the interest of everyone, the bishop included, was directed toward the forthcoming Provincial Council to be held in Baltimore during May 1846. Although it was only seven months after his return from Rome, Hailandiere seems to have fully determined to present his resignation to the gathering and there was apprehension among several groups in the diocese that their reputation would suffer because of the way in which it would be presented.

To make a long story short, Martin apparently decided to do an end run around Bishop Hailandiere and went to Rome and to Baltimore to plead his case and the case of many of the clergy who thought Hailandiere was prepared to blame them for the problems in the diocese.

After Martin left Rome and Baltimore he never returned to Vincennes and went to New Orleans where Archbishop Blanc (who had once served in Vincennes) welcomed him and eventually named him as his Vicar General. In 1853 Martin was name Bishop of Natchitoches Louisiana, (now the Diocese of Alexandria) In 1861 he issued a pastoral letter entitled “œThe Defense of Slavery: The Pastoral Letter of Monsignor the Bishop of Natchitoches on the Occasion of the War of the South for Its Independence In it, he said, among other things, that slavery was the “will of God”.

It was mentioned in the article, written in 2008, 1 that Martin’s pastoral letter had found its way to Rome. There is a new book out, entitled “All Oppression Shall Cease: A History of Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Catholic Church” written by Jesuit Father Christopher J. Kellerman SJ. Father Kellerman dedicates a portion of his book to this episode where he writes:

A behind-the-scenes rebuke in November 1864 gives further indication of Pius’s opposition to American slavery. Bishop Auguste Martin of Natchitoches, Louisiana, had written a pastoral letter in August 1861 stating that Africans were the children of the race of Canaan, that the African slave trade was part of God’s plan to entrust black people to the care of the privileged ones of the great human family, and that freedom would kill them.

The pastoral made its way to Rome, and Vincenzo Gatti, OP, the librarian of the Casanatense Library in Rome, was asked by the Congregation of the Index to assess its content. Gatti prepared a learned response criticizing Martinâ’s letter along several lines, including his application of the curse of Canaan, his racist comments about black inferiority, and his defense of the Atlantic slave trade. But remarkably, while Gatti suggested that the Church had not and should not condemn all slavery (such as when it resulted from a just title), he wrote that the popes had condemned not only the African slave trade but also any black slavery that had occurred as a result of it!

As evidence for this claim, he quoted Gregory XVI’s bull at the point at which it quoted Urban VIII forbidding retaining the Indians slavery. This misapplication was either a brilliant sleight of hand or just a misreading of Gregory’s document, but nevertheless, Gatti made it clear at several points in his assessment that he thought the popes had been against the continuance of slavery in the United States and that Gregory XVI had condemned anyone who defended the trade or the slavery resulting from it.

Remarkably, Pius IX agreed with Gattiâ’s assessment and asked that Bishop Martin be informed that he needed to correct his letter’s errors. It is unknown whether Martin received the letter or how he responded to it. But for the first time, a pope had corrected someone, albeit privately, for defending the slaveholding of black people in the Americas. 2 3

Here is an excerpt from the article that appeared in Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia: 4

Not until November 15, 1864, did Father Gatti finish writing his report. It consisted of a lengthy quotation from Bishop Martin’s letter, the full text of Pope Gregory XVTs letter of 1839 condemning the
slave trade, and an analysis contrasting the bishop’s thoughts with those of the Pope. Gatti found fault with all parts of the pastoral that he quoted except for the final paragraph in which Bishop Martin hesitatingly revealed that, despite his willingness to accept slavery as a social fact, he nevertheless had reservations about it as living evil.” The consultor concluded that “this pastoral letter should not be read”, but, perhaps because of the saving section showing the bishop’s sounder instincts, he recommended that he be given the opportunity to correct his views before a condemnation was pronounced.

The Congregation accepted the consultor’s views when they discussed them in the Vatican on December 12. On the 17th the matter was laid before the Pope himself. Pius concurred in the judgment expressed and seconded the recommendation that accompanied it Under date of December 30, 1864, the Secretary of the Congregation of the Index wrote the following memorandum to Cardinal Barnabo, Prefect of the Congregation of the Propaganda:

Most Eminent Prince : In obedience to the reverend command of His Holiness, the undersigned Secretary of the Index has the following communication for Your Most Reverend Eminence. During the audience of the 17th day of this month the proceedings of the general meeting held on the 12th in the Vatican were reported to the Holy Father. In view of the wish expressed by the Most Eminent members of that Holy
Assembly, His Holiness instructed the Father Secretary to inform Your Eminence of his opinion concerning the pastoral letter of Mgr. Martin, present Bishop of Natchitoches. The said Prelate is required to correct the errors and inaccuracies which occur in that letter at the earliest possible time lest, should there be undue delay, further and harsher measures be taken by the Holy See. In accordance with the mind and benevolent intentions of His Holiness, here are the commend on the said pastoral letter…

Subsequent events are not known. Whether or not Barnabo communicated the Index’s evaluation of his pastoral to Bishop Martin, the issue had actually been taken out of the hands of the theologians by
President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the course of the war. The Louisiana prelate, who obviously entertained private misgivings about slavery even while accepting it as a fact of life in his
diocese, easily adjusted to the dissolution of slavery at the command of the government of the United States.

Our Indiana Catholic history is full of good and bad stories. We should always remember both. As always remember to pray for all the dioceses in Indiana and the People of God who make them up.

  1. Church History 77:2 (June 2008), 337-370[]
  2. Kellerman Christopher J. 2022. All Oppression Shall Cease : A History of Slavery Abolitionism and the Catholic Church. Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books. p.167[]
  3. See Also: Father Gattiâ’s Brief to the Congregation of the Index, in Maria Genoino Caravaglios,”A Roman Critique of the Pro-Slavery Views of Bishop Martin of Natchitoches, Louisiana, Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 83, no. 2 (June 1972): 71.[]
  4. “A Roman Critique of the Pro-Slavery Views of Bishop Martin of Natchitoches, Louisiana” by Maria Genoino Caravaglios. Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, Vol. 83, No. 2 (June, 1972), pp. 67-81[]

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