Rebels in Rome: The Catholic Church and the Confederacy in Civil War America
Philip Gerard Johnson
REMNANT GUEST COLUMNIST
(POSTED 01/09/07 www.RemnantNewspaper.com) Over the past few decades the number
of mainstream historians who have begun taking a more sophisticated look at what
really transpired before, during and after the War Between the States has been
on the rise. This is welcome news since in the case of the so-called Civil War
(in reality, it was no such thing!), the victors certainly were allowed to write
the history books. Fourteen decades after General Robert E. Lee surrendered the
Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at
Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865, many Americans still think
of Confederates as little more than an obstreperous band of racist hillbillies…
hardly surprising since American school children ever since have been dutifully
taught that the bloody conflict, which exacted over 1 million American casualties,
was all about one thing—ending the gross injustice of Slavery. But if this
is so, why is it that the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 applied only to the
Southern States and not the North where there were, in fact, a number of slaves
still hard at it?
Hardly a principled act of moral reform, the “freeing of the slaves”
was President Lincoln’s attempt to level an economic sanction against
the South. Thus the Emancipation Proclamation freed only those slaves residing
in territory “in rebellion” against the federal government. It did
not apply to slaves in states fighting on the Union side or to slaves in southern
areas already under Union control.
At the time, Abraham Lincoln himself insisted that Slavery was not the issue
which motivated him first to refuse to negotiate with the Confederacy and later
to invade the South. In an August 22, 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, Lincoln
writes: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and
it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without
freeing any slave, I would do it.”
Aside from being a lifelong advocate of colonization—an initiative whereby
all blacks would have been shipped back to Africa and Haiti—Lincoln was
a separatist as well, declaring on July 17, 1858, that what “I would most
desire would be the separation of the white and black races.”
These comments must be taken within the context of the day and age in which
they were made, of course, but so must the societal attitude towards the institution
of Slavery itself, which had become so commonplace in America that even to this
day no real stigma is attached to the heroes of our own Revolution who were,
like it or not, slave owners. George Washington (the Father of Our Country),
Thomas Jefferson (the principal author of the Declaration of Independence),
James Madison (the Father of the Constitution)—these "champions of
liberty" all owned slaves!
Obviously, then, society’s attitude towards Slavery has changed a great
deal since the Revolution and indeed since the Civil War itself. So, we might
ask ourselves: Since Slavery was a long-established but by then aged and decrepit
institution clearly in its death throes—certainly in the North but also
in the South—what was the real driving force behind the Civil War?
After all, thousands of slaves had already been freed in the South before the
War. On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, Slavery, even in the antebellum
South, had much less to do with the Civil War than a growing financial concern
in the North over the prospect of massive decreases in tariff revenue from a
South eager to go it alone. “Save the Union,” went the slogan, but
it could have been “Save the Union’s Cash Cow.”
Thus the Catholic Church had no compunction in supporting the South’s
bid for secession; she did not identify the Confederacy’s legitimate aspirations
with dogged defense of Slavery as is usually the attitude these days on the
part of a society whose opinions on history (if considered at all) have largely
been formed by Hollywood movie studios. At the time, however, the Church knew
very well that the invasion of the South at Fort Sumter in 1861 was certainly
not motivated by the North’s moral indignation over Slavery.
The sticking point in all this, of course, is the certain double standard whereby
America’s secession from British rule must be considered by all patriots
as a divinely ordained event in the salvation history of all mankind while the
South’s effort to do essentially the same with respect to Northern rule
must be forever regarded a defiant act of diabolical rebellion. Where is the
logic? There is none, which is why most Americans simply accept the federal
government’s official version of the facts, and conclude that the Civil
War must have been a consequence of the North’s keen sense of moral outrage
in the face of grotesque human rights violations in the South. Please!
In some ways the issue of Slavery was to the Civil War what 9/11 was to the
war in Iraq—a legitimate tragedy that nevertheless had far less to do
with the war fought in its name then those who beat the war drums care to admit.
Any child reading the life of the gallant General Robert E. Lee, for example,
(“one of the noblest Americans who ever lived,” according to Winston
Churchill) knows very well that there was much more to the Civil War than the
South’s alleged love affair with Slavery.
“There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age,” wrote General
Robert E. Lee, “who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution
is a moral and political evil.” Whereas even some Union generals owned
and kept slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation, Robert E. Lee never owned
any and those he inherited were immediately freed. This is a man who was clearly
not fighting to keep black people enchained.
So, fairytales aside, what was really at issue? Just as Blessed Pius IX implicitly
acknowledged when he recognized Jefferson Davis as the Honorable President of
the Confederate States of America, soldiers defending the Confederacy were as
justified in their cause against a foreign invader as were any American soldiers
serving in any conflict before or since. And yet to this day, expressions of
empathy with the South (chivalry’s last bastion) are immediately identified
with closet racism, sexism, treason and other ugly crimes. Clearly, the war
against the old order in America still rages on.
Thankfully, the tide is beginning to turn, and, though the violently reconstructed
South will likely never rise again, the truth of what really happened to the
South just might. The following article raises pertinent questions that get
to the heart of what transpired south of the Mason-Dixon Line just 150 years
ago when an army of God-fearing Southern gentlemen, encouraged by a saintly
Pope and explicitly supported by Catholic bishops and priests, made America’s
last stand against an overreaching centralized federal government that would
go on to lead our nation into the political, moral and spiritual morass of today.
Read it carefully and note the alarming extent to which we all have been deceived.
Pius IX and the Confederacy
Throughout its short history, the Confederate government sought earnestly and
repeatedly to gain some kind of foreign support. The closest it ever came was
in 1863, when His Holiness Pope Pius IX sent a letter addressed to the “Illustrious
and Hon. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, Richmond,”
and concluded with a hope for a union in “perfect friendship.”1
Davis interpreted this communication as a form of recognition, even though
some measure of his interpretation was subject to false expectations. The letter
was reported in Southern newspapers with the implication that Pope Pius IX supported
the Confederacy.2 The President hoped that this letter would be the first step
towards widespread European recognition of the Confederate government, but it
proved to be the only such communication, and within two years, the Confederacy
would be dead. Still, the letter does raise the question of why the Holy Pontiff
would express public friendship to the Confederacy.
When the Civil War erupted in America, pitting the North against the agrarian
society of the Confederacy, social, political, and even religious organizations
were forced to take sides. Two of the country’s major churches, the Baptists
and the Methodists, divided over the issue of slavery – the Baptists remaining
separated to this day. The Catholic Church, however, did not break in half,
though its unity was severely strained. Instead of dividing, Episcopal alliances
were virtually along geographical lines, and the Holy See took the curious position
of showing sympathy for the slaveholding Confederacy. The reason for this was
that the pope, Pius IX, saw the same kinds of threatening tendencies in the
American North that had driven him from his papal throne in Italy in 1848. These
tendencies in both Italy and America came in the form of progressivism towards
a more centralized democracy, economic reform, and opposition to aristocracy.
They were considered to be liberal in both Catholic and Southern society, and
were viewed as dangerous to the spread of Catholicism. Furthermore, the Church’s
own political weakness in America severely hindered her ability to attempt to
change anything about slavery other than the hearts of those who condoned it.
The Catholic Church considered the tendencies of the North to be more dangerous
than slavery, and considered the conservative Southern society to be more suitable
to the spread of Catholicism than the North.
Pope Pius IX ascended to the papacy in 1846. After the death of Pope Gregory
XVI, the College of Cardinals faced a difficult decision in electing the next
pope. Many Cardinals in the Conclave supported Cardinal Lambruschini, whose
extreme opposition to liberalism would have kept Gregory XVI’s conservative
and prudent Church policies alive. Others sought to elect a liberal and conciliatory
pope in order to counter Pope Gregory XVI’s confrontational policies with
the government. The Conclave chose the latter, and elected Cardinal Giovanni
Maria Mastai-Ferretti, who chose the name Pius IX. Cardinal Mastai-Ferretti
had been well-liked by Pope Gregory XVI despite the Cardinal’s liberalism
in terms of Church reform and relations with the secular Italian government.
Indeed, Pope Gregory XVI once declared that even Cardinal Mastai-Ferretti’s
cats were liberals.3
Pope Pius IX appeared to live up to his liberal and progressive reputation
immediately following his election to the Chair of Saint Peter. The Papal States
were dangerously close to revolution due to Italian nationalism, and he promised
reforms and changes in order to restore stability.4 He was responsible for the
introduction of railroads into Rome and the reformulation of tariff laws in
order to improve trade. He installed gas-powered street lighting in Rome, apportioned
a share of the papal charities for the Jews, and abolished the law which required
Jews to attend weekly Catholic sermons. He coupled this program of economic
and social reform with political reforms of the same magnitude. The pope incorporated
democracy into the governing of the Papal States by appointing lay persons to
the government of the Church. He allowed exiled revolutionaries to return to
the Papal States, and even approved a new constitution that gave an elected
body of laymen the power to veto the pope. Protestant leaders from all over
Europe congratulated Pius IX, and Italian nationalists dubbed the pope “the
most important man in Italy.”5
The pope seemed to be conceding to the wishes of Italian nationalists who cried
in thanksgiving for his reforms: “Viva Italia! Viva Pio Nono!”6
Liberal Italians expected these policies to continue so that the secular government
could gain more power and ultimately become completely separated from the Church.
However, Pope Pius IX considered these changes to be the completion of his reforms.
When the pope rejected further demands, his popularity waned. He had excited
the Italian nationalists with his promises of reform, but he was not prepared
to fulfill all of their expectations.7 The consequence was disappointment and
In 1848, revolutions erupted throughout Europe. Italy went to war in order
to expel Austria from Italy, but the Italians treated the war more like a crusade
than a political war. When the Italians called for the Pope to lead their “crusade,”
he gave an address in which he explained papal policy in relation to Italy.
His new policies took a sharp turn and began to resemble those of his conservative
predecessor, Pope Gregory XVI, causing the Italian people to feel betrayed.
In his address to the College of Cardinals, Pius IX stated that he would have
no part in this war and that he would send no troops to Austria:
When there was revolution over Europe, I sent troops to guard the frontiers.
But when some demanded that these troops join with other [Italian] states to
war against Austria, I must say solemnly, that I abhor the idea. I am the Vicar
of Christ, the author of peace and lover of charity, and my office is to bestow
an equal affection on all nations.9
According to one authority, this statement to the College of Cardinals “was
a douche of icy water on the overheated enthusiasm which had surrounded his
first two years as pope.”10
Pius IX went from being one of the most loved men in Italy to one of the most
hated, and this public resentment eventually led to exile. He lost all control
over Rome, and Pellegrino Rossi, his Prime Minister, was murdered in November
of 1848. The Pope sensed grave danger and, disguised as an ordinary priest,
fled to Gaeta in the Neapolitan territory. As revolution continued in Rome and
an anti-clerical regime took control, Pius IX called for the Catholic powers
of the world to reclaim Rome on his behalf and to restore the power of his office.
In July of 1849, French troops re-conquered Rome for the Pope, and he once again
took power in April of 1850.11
On his return to Rome, Pius IX blamed tendencies such as liberalism and centralized
democracy12 for the Italian Revolution and for his exile. As a result, he believed
for the rest of his life that conceding in good faith to the political ideals
of democracy only paved the way for revolution.13 The revolution of 1848 caused
the pope to turn against constitutionalism, and he also condemned many of his
past reforms which the Italian nationalists had praised.14 After his return
to power, his “liberal honeymoon was over.”15
Pope Pius IX subsequently issued the Syllabus of Errors in which he listed
the modernist errors of his time, including the separation of Church and State.
He also condemned the notion that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to,
reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”16
In addition to condemning these errors, he tightened his reins on the government
of the Church with the definition of the dogma of papal infallibility in the
First Vatican Council. No longer would he embrace the modernist and liberal
tendencies in the world, but he would condemn and oppose them wherever they
A decade after Pope Pius IX’s renunciation of liberalism, the United
States was being torn apart by a similar clash of ideals. Industrialization
and technology widened the gap between the progressive North and agrarian South
to the point where the two seemed incompatible. To some, and especially to Pope
Pius IX, the clash between these two cultures resembled the revolution which
had taken place a decade earlier in Italy, where those who favored democracy
vied for control of one of the oldest and most conservative institutions in
Europe: the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, there were direct political ties
between post-revolution Italy and ante-bellum America in that Pope Pius IX’s
reforms were welcomed by progressives in the United States.
Sympathy and support for Pope Pius IX’s reforms in the early years of
his papacy were main factors for America’s recognition of the Papal States.17
Additionally, the increased Italian support of the concepts of democracy, liberalism,
and a free Church in a free state excited secular Americans and aligned many
of them with the agenda of the Italian nationalists.18 In a Philadelphia public
meeting addressed to Pope Pius IX, Robert Tyler, a vice president of the meeting,
offered the following resolution concerning the changes that were taking place
in Italy: “The liberal movement now in progress in Italy under the example
and auspices of the Papal Sovereign, awakens in the breasts of the American
People, the deepest interest, sympathy, and respect.”19
In a letter addressed to this public meeting, the Honorable Lewis Cass stated
that if Pope Pius IX were to continue with his liberal spirit, “he will
become the man of his age.”20 Similar to the North’s approval of
the Italian reforms, the Italian nationalists also sympathized with many Northern
ideals. With the exception of the Catholic clergy, nearly all of Italy rallied
behind the Union and their ideals during the Civil War.21
Though the North often celebrated what the Catholic Church considered to be
liberalism, many Southerners feared these tendencies. As a Charleston newspaper
of the time explained, the South believed that a centralized, liberal democracy
would destroy their agrarian culture and way of life through rampant industrialization:
There can be no doubt in any sound mind that the North and the South require
a different government. The conservative elements of Southern society would
be in too small a minority to control the aggressiveness of the wild and wanton
democracy, which is found ever and anon to seize the reins of government at
the North, under the most propitious circumstances.22
The South believed that Northern society was radical and in direct opposition
to their conservative and orderly society. Southerners realized that to remain
a part of the Union may have meant the destruction of the Southern way of life
and a concession to a Northern-controlled centralized democracy: “Under
the existing Union, the theory and institutions of Southern society, or that
of Northern society, will eventually give way. For both to exist, continue and
work out their own ends, they must be separated.”23 And separate they
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States, even though
he did not appear on any Southern ballots and thus received no votes from any
state in the South. Many Southerners realized at that moment that the North
controlled the Southern society and that the South no longer had any effective
voice in the Union. As a result of Lincoln’s election, South Carolina
formally withdrew from the Union, followed immediately by six other states.24
Although slavery played an important role in the hearts of many Americans in
deciding which side to support, Catholics in America had to reconcile Church
teachings with their own sectional philosophies, which often proved to be a
difficult task.25 The issue of slavery did not divide the Catholic Church in
half, but it did pose a grave threat to the Church’s unity in America.26
While many Americans were able to remain ambivalent to slavery, the Catholic
Church had to take a stand on the issue while also attempting to avoid the same
sectional disputes within the Church that caused most Protestant denominations
to divide. Because of the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church, as
opposed to the lack of central authority in most Protestant denominations, obedience
to her teachings and to the pope was enough to maintain Church unity. However,
the issue of slavery, as well as the division of the country, complicated this
Catholics in the South found themselves in a situation very similar to the
early Christians in terms of political influence. Both constituted a minority
group with practically no political power in a society that advocated slavery.
Although the Catholic Church avoided permanent division in the United States,
American bishops differed in their opinions about where the loyalty of Catholics
should lie. Northern bishops tended to support the Union, whereas Southern bishops
generally aligned themselves with the cause of the Confederacy.27 However, while
Southern bishops supported the South with little or no reservation, Northern
bishops often had trouble justifying the Northern position because Church teaching
often clashed with the North’s policies. Bishops on both sides generally
supported the section in which they lived, which strained the Church and often
pitted bishop against bishop.
Archbishop William Henry Elder of Natchez was one of the most prominent Church
leaders in the South. He was a rare native Southerner among his fellow bishops
and was the leader of all Catholics in the state of Mississippi. In a letter
to the Bishop of Chicago in 1861, Bishop Elder made it very clear that Catholics
in the South were to give their allegiance to the Confederate government:
I hold it is the duty of all Catholics in the seceding states to adhere to
the actual government without reference to the rights or the wisdom of making
the separation – or the grounds for it – our state government [and]
our new Confederation are de facto our only existing government here and it
seems to me as good citizens we are bound not only to acquiesce in it but to
support it [and] contribute means [and] arms [and] above all to avoid weakening
it by division of counsel without necessity.28
Although Bishop Elder did give recognition to the Confederate government, he
was careful not to give the impression that he was aligning the entire Catholic
Church with the secession movement; to do so would cause much division in the
Catholic Church in America. He did make it very clear, however, that one could
personally support the Confederate secession and still remain in good standing
with the Church. He explained his position in a letter to the Archbishop of
Baltimore: “…if [Catholics] were satisfied, dispassionately that
secession was the only practical remedy … their religion [does] not forbid
them to advocate it.”29 Bishop Elder also stated to a priest-friend that
Catholics could support the secession movement because Confederate secession
itself was in accordance with Catholic morality:
Some say the Union was a kind of free association which any state had a right
to forsake whenever she judged it to be conductive to her interests: the right
of secession. Others say…we were released by the right of self preservation
– because it was impossible for us to live in the Union [and] we had a
right to provide for our safety outside of it…. Now any of these positions
is perfectly consistent with Catholic morality – with the highest patriotism.30
Though skeptical of the Southern cause at first, Bishop Elder later changed
his views. In an 1863 letter to a friend in Rome, the bishop voiced his fears
that the South’s actions were too rash and that they should have relied
on “Constitutional Remedies.”31 However, he later viewed the South’s
actions as necessary: “The scornful treatment of all attempts at compromise
in Congress seemed to confirm the sagacity of their views [and] I must confess
that the progress of events in the north has persuaded me the constitution would
have afforded little or no protection.”32 The bishop saw Northern troops
use brutal tactics in his homeland of Mississippi and stated it “shows
how little reliance [could] be placed on the power of constitutions or even
of the universal laws of Christian nations, to protect us against fanaticism.”33
Bishop Elder was very sympathetic to the Southern cause and believed that the
South had no other choice than to secede.
Bishop Elder taught that Catholics in the South owed their allegiance to both
the Confederacy as well as to their individual state governments. He recognized
these governments as the de facto governments, but was careful not to officially
support secession in order to maintain Church unity. Although he attempted to
stay neutral, his actions and words caused him many troubles with Northern authorities
who considered him to be disloyal to the Union government. During the Northern
occupation of Mississippi in 1863 and 1864, Union authorities attempted to force
Bishop Elder to direct all priests under his jurisdiction to pray publicly for
President Lincoln at every Mass. Refusal to do so would have constituted disloyalty
and would have been punished. Bishop Elder refused to comply and as a result,
was ordered to remain inside Federal military lines, which included Mississippi
at that time. The Union took control of his cathedral, as well as every other
church that refused to offer prayers for President Lincoln. Lincoln eventually
ordered Bishop Elder’s release, but these experiences gave the Southern
bishop even more reason to support the Confederate cause.34
Other Catholic bishops across the South held positions similar to those of
Bishop Elder. Jean Marie Odin, the Archbishop of New Orleans, was extremely
loyal and devoted to the cause of the South.35 In Savannah, Bishop Verot joined
Archbishop Odin as an outspoken advocate of the Confederacy. In 1861, Verot
preached a sermon which caused many in the North to label him as a rebel bishop
and a supporter of slavery. He condemned the slave trade, but laid out a code
of rights for the treatment of slaves.36 A Frenchman by birth, Bishop Verot
believed that intervention from the French Emperor was the best way for the
South to be victorious:
It appears to me that a solemn embassy to the emperor of the French imploring
him to interfere in the name of humanity, civilization, [and] liberty, [and]
another to Maximilian offering him an alliance offensive [and] defensive with
the Confederacy would do more good.37
Bishop Verot was confident in his positions and assured Southern Catholics
that “the justice of our cause is clear; clear enough to admit of no doubts
in our mind.”38 In addition to being a staunch supporter of the Confederacy,
he did not understand how the Northern bishops could oppose the South: “I
often hear that Bishop Hughes [of New York]…speaks against the South.
I do not believe what I hear. Still I would like to hear his arguments against
the justice of the Southern cause.”39
Although a supporter of the Confederate cause, Verot was not an apologist for
slavery. Indeed, the abolition of slavery was one of his wishes and goals. Religious
education was the Church’s primary concern with slavery in America, and
Bishop Verot believed that the spiritual needs of the slaves were not being
met.40 He was certain that abolition would eventually come by spreading the
teachings of Catholicism, even with a Confederate victory. Therefore, he was
able to support the Confederate cause in good conscience and counsel Southern
Catholics to do the same.41
In the North, the response of Catholic Church leaders to secession and slavery
was not as clear as in the South. Archbishop John Hughes of New York was an
Irish immigrant, a staunch nationalist, and one of the most well-known and important
Northern bishops during the Civil War. He held a high position in the Catholic
Church in America and was also respected in Rome, so his opinions were held
in high regard by all Catholics who had difficulties responding to the war.
The teachings of the Catholic Church did not agree with many popular Northern
opinions, especially the violence of abolitionism, so Archbishop Hughes had
trouble taking a stance on many sectional issues. Southern secession saddened
the Archbishop, but his views on slavery were ambiguous – a recurring
position on slavery among Northern Church leaders.42 This is seen very clearly
in an 1854 sermon which he gave in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral:
While we all know that this condition of slavery is evil, yet it is not an
absolute and unmitigated evil; and even if it were anything more than what it
is – a comparative evil – there is one thing, that it is infinitely
better than the condition in which this people would have been, had they not
been seized to gratify the avarice and cupidity of the white man.43
This opinion that Negroes were better off as slaves than they would be had
they remained in Africa was one of the South’s primary justifications
for slavery, causing Archbishop Hughes to be accused of being a supporter of
the institution in America. However, his positions seem to more closely resemble
those of a man who struggled with the issue himself and attempted to justify
it in order to avoid having to condemn it.
Though he believed in his heart that slavery was very wrong, he condemned the
acts and beliefs of abolitionists and stated that it was an error to think that
slavery could end immediately. Instead, he taught that the slave owner had an
obligation to be kind to his slave and provide for all of the slave’s
physical and spiritual needs. He maintained that with the spread of Catholicism,
slavery would eventually be unthinkable in society and that emancipation would
come not from the government, but from the charity of the slaveholder, following
the Scriptural example of Saint Paul. 44 In his Epistle to Philemon, Saint Paul
sent an escaped slave back to his owner, but urged the slave owner to have a
change of heart and to accept him back not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ.45
Similarly, Bishop Elder believed that only through the spread of Catholicism
and Christian charity, not through laws or violence, could slavery be truly
abolished and the distinction between master and slave be truly removed.46
The most important Catholic opinion on the American Civil War was that of the
Bishop of Rome, Pope Pius IX. As noted, after surviving the Italian Revolution
over a decade earlier, the pope rethought his past tendencies and adopted conservative
policies that reinforced the constant tradition and teachings of the Catholic
Church. For the Pope, the situation in America was all too familiar. Liberalism
was thriving in the North and progress towards a centralized liberal democracy
seemed to remove traditional values from American society. In the South, the
pope saw a society that clung to traditional religious and family values, which
he believed to be more conducive to Catholic principles despite its support
Until he became President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis
attended Baptist churches. After becoming President, he was baptized into the
High Anglican Church. He developed a great respect for the Catholic Church,48
however, probably due to his attendance at a Dominican Catholic High School
in Kentucky for two years. He kept this respect throughout his life and developed
a personal, although distant, relationship with Pope Pius IX during the Civil
War. In Roman Catholics, he saw friends in whom he could trust and who would
not turn their backs on the “oppressed.”49 In 1863, Jefferson Davis
penned a letter to Pope Pius IX in which he acknowledged the concern that the
Holy Father had shown for America in the letters the pope had written to the
bishops of New York and New Orleans. In these letters, the Pope conveyed his
sadness over the Civil War, and voiced his desires to see it end quickly. Davis
assured the pope that the Confederacy wanted the war to end as soon as possible
and that they were merely fighting so that they could live in peace under their
That Pope Pius IX referred to Jefferson Davis as the “Illustrious and
Hon. President”51 could have been merely formal and respectful language,
but behind the Pope’s words in the letter seems to lie a hint of implied
recognition of the Confederate government, or at least a desire to recognize
it. Curiously, Cardinal Antonelli, the papal secretary of state during Pius
IX’s pontificate, claimed that the pope had not yet recognized the sovereign
independence of the Confederate States, but had in fact recognized their belligerency
– the first step towards formal recognition.52 In his letter, Pope Pius
IX showed his gratitude that the Confederacy was eager for an end to violence,
while acknowledging that the North did, in fact, have separate rulers and a
separate government and that Southerners were not merely rebels: “May
it please God at the same time to make the other peoples of America and their
rulers…receive and embrace the counsels of peace and tranquility.”53
Pius IX concluded the letter with a subtle hint that he saw a bright future
for relations between the Vatican and Confederacy, were it to become a sovereign
nation: “We, at the same time, beseech the God of pity to shed abroad
upon you the light of His grace, and attach you to us by a perfect friendship.”54
What the pope meant by “perfect friendship” is unknown, but it indicates
that the pope saw something attractive in the Confederacy – so attractive
that he was willing to stand alone as the only European leader willing to formally
associate himself with its government.
Pius IX’s correspondence with Jefferson Davis implies that he favored
the South during the Civil War and recognized values in the South that were
uncommon in the progressive world. The South’s respect for religion, rejection
of rampant industrialization, emphasis on family, and opposition to strong centralized
secular government were very similar to traditional Catholic principles, so
the Pope easily could have considered the South the fertile place in America
to spread the Catholic Faith. He may have also seen the South as a sovereign
nation which would perhaps one day faithfully follow the Church’s teachings.
What is for sure is that by 1863, the Vatican understood that the Lincoln administration
seemed less interested in returning the South to the Union than in punishing
it into complete submission. When the Emancipation Proclamation reached Rome
in the fall of 1862, the Vatican reaction was negative. L’Osservatore
Romano condemned it as a desperate and hypocritical measure which freed no slaves
but encouraged rebellion in the South. The Jesuit Journal, La Civiltà
Cattolica, portrayed the war as a hopeless and unjust struggle of the North
to punish the South.
During President Davis’ imprisonment following the defeat of the Confederacy,
Pope Pius IX sent a picture of himself to Jefferson Davis with the hand-written
inscription: “Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and
I will give you rest.”55 Along with this picture, the pope sent a miniature
crown of thorns which the Sovereign Pontiff had woven with his own hands.56
Such a gift, said a great niece, was “never before conferred on any but
crowned heads.” Robert E. Lee, pointing to his own portrait of Pius IX,
told a visitor that he was “the only sovereign…in Europe who recognized
our poor Confederacy.”
The Civil War proved to be one of the most trying for the Catholic Church in
America, and the involvement of Pope Pius IX shows that the war had many international
effects. Because of the affinity between Catholic and Southern moral and social
principles, one could argue that Pope Pius IX believed that the Southern culture
provided a more suitable atmosphere for the spread of Catholicism, despite the
issue of slavery. Spreading the Catholic Faith was the primary mission, and
the American bishops believed that the necessary abolition of slavery would
eventually follow. The report of Bishop Martin Spalding to Pope Pius IX in 1863
(serialized in L’Osservatore Romano) warned that the immediate emancipation
of the slaves would not only force them into an inferior class, but would also
make it more difficult to bring them into the Church. He noted that in heavily
Catholic New Orleans, almost half of the slaves had been freed by 1860 through
a change in their masters’ hearts, and had become some of the most devout
Catholics that he had ever seen.57
As late as August, 1864 (eight months before General Lee’s surrender
at Appomattox), Rufus King, a Federal liaison to Rome, was admitting that papal
offices remained unenthusiastic about the Union cause and Cardinal Antonelli
was still concerned over the dangers of untimely emancipation. Pope Pius IX
himself had recently confessed to a British diplomat that his real sympathies
were with the Confederacy.58 The Pope and Cardinal, however, suppressed their
feelings in the face of rising Federal fortunes on the battlefield and the promise
of a quicker end to the bloodshed. But the evidence exists to believe it plausible
that Pope Pius IX would have liked to give official recognition to the Confederacy
in its beginning, and mourned its defeat in its demise.
1 Letter of Pope Pius IX to Jefferson Davis from Varina Davis, Jefferson Davis:
Ex-President of the Confederate States of America: A Memoir By His Wife Varina
Davis, (Baltimore: The Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America,
Inc., 1990), Vol. 2, 448.
2 “Telegraphic. From Richmond,” The Charleston Mercury, 23 January,
3 Eamond Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1997),
4 Frank J. Coppa, “Papal Rome in 1848: From Reform to Revolution,”
in the Proceedings of the Consortium on Revoultionary Europe: 1750-1850, session
2 (Athens, [n.p] 1979), 93.
5 Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, 222
6 Ibid., 222.
7 Coppa, “Papal Rome in 1848: From Reform to Revolution,” 95.
8 Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, 222.
9 Pope Pius IX quoted in Owen Chadwick, A History of the Popes 1830-1914 (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1998), 77.
10 Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, 223.
11 Coppa, “Papal Rome in 1848: From Reform to Revolution,” 99.
12 In 1848, Pope Pius IX urged Italians to stay loyal to their local princes
and condemned the notion of a centralized Italian government. For more see Owen
Chadwick, A History of the Popes 1830-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
13 Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, 224.
14 Coppa, “Papal Rome in 1848: From Reform to Revolution,” 99.
15 Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, 224.
16 Pope Pius IX, “The Syllabus of Errors Condemned by Pius IX,”
http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9syll.htm, 26 April, 2005.
17 David J. Alvarez, “American Recognition of the Papal States: A Reconsideration,”
Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia (Philadelphia:
American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, 1980), 49-50.
18 Samuel J. Thomas, “The American Press Response to the Death of Pope
Pius IX and the Election of Pope Leo XIII,” Records of the American Catholic
Historical Society of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: American Catholic Historical
Society of Philadelphia, 1975), Vol. 86, 43.
19 Robert Tyler, Esq. quoted in Raymond H. Schmandt, “A Philadelphia
Reaction to Pope Pius IX in 1848,” Records of the American Catholic Historical
Society of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: American Catholic Historical Society
of Philadelphia, 1977), Vol. 88, 72.
20 Lewis Cass quoted in Raymond H. Schmandt, “A Philadelphia Reaction
to Pope Pius IX in 1848,” Records of the American Catholic Historical
Society of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: American Catholic Historical Society
of Philadelphia, 1977), Vol. 88, 76.
21 Luca Codignola, “The Civil War: The View From Italy,” Reviews
in American History, Vol. 3, No.4 (Dec., 1975), 458.
22 “Reconstruction and Subjugation One and the Same.” The Charleston
Mercury, 1 October 1864. http://www.accessible.com/accessible/text/civilwar/00000103/00010360.htm.
23 “Union With the Northern States Necessarily Destructive of Southern
Liberty.” The Charleston Mercury, 18 January 1861. http://www.accessible.com/accessible/text/civilwar/00000001/00000181.htm.
24 Four other states withdrew from the Union after hostilities began.
25 Chattel slavery did not become widespread in the world until the 15th century,
and the first formal papal condemnation of it is seen around the same time.
In 1404, Spanish explorers discovered the Canary Islands and enslaved its native
peoples in the process of colonization. In response, Pope Eugene IV issued his
bull, Sicut Dudum, in which he condemned their enslavement and ordered all slaves
to be freed. Those who chose to keep their slaves incurred ipso facto excommunication.
One hundred years later, Pope Paul III encountered similar struggles with slavery
in the world and issued the bull Sublimis Deus in which he describes enslavers
as friends of the devil. Popes Urban VIII and Benedict XIV both condemned the
slave trade, as did Pope Pius IX’s conservative predecessor, Pope Gregory
XVI, in his 1839 bull In Supremo Apostolatus. For more, see Mark Brumley, “Let
My People Go: The Catholic Church and Slavery,” This Rock (July/August
26 Willard E. Wight, ed, “Letters of the Bishop of Savannah.” The
Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Athens: Georgia Historical Society,
27 Willard E. Wight, “Bishop Elder and the Civil War,” Catholic
Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 3 (1958), 290.
28 Letter of Bishop Elder to the Bishop of Chicago, quoted in Wight, “Bishop
Elder and the Civil War,” 290.
29 Letter of Bishop Elder to the Archbishop of Baltimore quoted in Wight, “Bishop
Elder and the Civil War,” 293.
30 Letter of Bishop Elder to Father Napolean J. Perché quoted in Wight,
“Bishop Elder and the Civil War,” 292.
31 Letter of Bishop Elder to William G. McGloskey quoted in Wight, “Bishop
Elder and the Civil War,” 294.
32 Letter of Bishop Elder to William G. McGloskey quoted in Wight, “Bishop
Elder and the Civil War,” 294.
33 Ibid., 295.
34 Wight, “Bishop Elder and the Civil War,” 304-306.
35 Willard E. Wight, ed, “A Letter From the Archbishop of New Orleans,
1862,” Louisiana History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1962), 130.
36 Wight, “Letters of the Bishop of Savannah,” 94- 95.
37 Wight, “Letters of the Bishop of Savannah,” 105.
38 Wight, “Bishop Verot and the Civil War ,”156.
39 Wight, “Letters of the Bishop of Savannah,” 99.
40 After the war, Bishop Verot considered the abolition of slavery to be a
blessing from God sent to bring peace to the country, and a cause for “joy
and congratulations.” For more see Wight, “Bishop Verot and the
Civil War,” 99.
41 Wight, “Bishop Verot and the Civil War,” 162.
42 Walter G. Sharrow, “John Hughes and a Catholic Response to Slavery
America,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Jul., 1972),
43 Ibid., 255-256.
44 Sharrow, “John Hughes and a Catholic Response to Slavery in Antebellum
45 Epistle of Saint Paul to Philemon.
46 Sharrow, “John Hughes and a Catholic Response to Slavery in Antebellum
47 Although written after the Civil War, Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical
Rerum Novarum confirmed the Church’s constant teachings on what constitutes
a Catholic society. In the Encyclical, the pope stated that developments in
industry and strong centralized government cause a decline in morals by eliminating
traditional values and focusing man’s mind on things other than God. For
more see Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_lxiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum_en.html.
48 Davis, Jefferson Davis: Ex-President of the Confederate states of America:
A Memoir By His Wife Varina Davis, Vol. 2, 445.
49 Ibid., 445.
50 Letter of Jefferson Davis to Pope Pius IX from Davis, Jefferson Davis: Ex-President
of the Confederate states of America: A Memoir By His Wife Varina Davis, Vol.
51 Ibid., 446.
52 Arnold Blumberg, “George Bancroft, France, and the Vatican: Some Aspects
of American, French, and Vatican Diplomacy: 1866-1870,” The Catholic Historical
Review (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1965), 484.
53 Letter of Pope Pius IX to Jefferson Davis from Davis, Jefferson Davis: Ex-President
of the Confederate states of America: A Memoir By His Wife Varina Davis, Vol.
54 Ibid., 448.
55 Davis, Jefferson Davis: Ex-President of the Confederate states of America:
A Memoir By His Wife Varina Davis, 448.
56 “Confederate Museum to Keep Its Home of 112 Years,” The Lafayette
Advertiser, 28 December, 2003. http://www.acadiananow.com/news/html/1C0E0D37-7F28-46CB-BD18-280950A8A444.shtml,
1 December, 2004.
57 David Spalding, “Martin John Spalding’s ‘Dissertation
on the American Civil War,’” The Catholic Historical Review (Washington:
Catholic University of America Press, 1966), 76-77.
58 King to Seward, Aug. 22, 1864, United States Ministers, p.315-316; O.Russel
to J. Russell, Jul. 30, 1864, The Roman Question, p.288.
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