Serving Two Masters: Roman Catholic Chaplains in the Armies of the Confederate States of America
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AuthorFiorito, David J.
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AbstractDuring the American Civil War, Roman Catholic priests and bishops found themselves on opposite sides of a great political debate. Immigrants and the sons of immigrants, they responded to the crises of their time while still striving to honor their vows and to minister to those most in need. French, German, Irish, and American-born, these men endeavored to win social legitimacy in the United States. However, despite the moral deficiencies of the Confederate cause, several Catholic priests served as chaplains to the armies of the South. The willingness of these men to subscribe to a cause which denied liberty and equality to all men clearly demonstrates the “confederatization'' of Southern Catholics during the Civil War. Some among these military chaplains sought merely to minister to those most in need around them. Others joined the Confederate armies, driven not by their zeal for God and the Church, but by their political inclinations and social expediency. Secession and slavery presented Southern Catholics with an opportunity to affirm their patriotism, and to be recognzied as something other than an outsider. While these men remained true to their sacerdotal vows throughout their ministry, they also subverted the fundamental elements of Christian belief. Fidelity to their priestly charisms of ecclesial obedience, chastity, and poverty (for some) stood separate from their fidelity to the moral teachings of the Church. By denying enslaved men and women their humanity, preaching against emancipation, and taking up arms against the United States, Confederate chaplains earned the trust and respect of their respective secessionist communities. In so doing, though, they bent their knees to temporal approbation. While not all of these individuals overtly exhibited racist ideology, the majority did. Even those men who ministered to freed persons of color still, ultimately, served a government whose existential bedrock was racial subjugation and oppression. Personal bravery, pious devotion, and 6 dutiful ministry do not excuse such behaviour. They do, however, place it into the broader context of American Catholicism in the mid-19th Century. Evangelical zeal led Catholics of the South even deeper into the prevailing tide of racism. However, far more commonly and pragmatically, “evangelization” was a gilded vestment veiling unorthodox Christian beliefs, thoughts, and practices. The ministerial service provided by these men to Southern armies certainly addressed the practical spiritual needs of the men in gray. However, it often devolved into evangelism, not of the Gospel, but of radical Confederate ideology. This adulteration of these priests’ priestly duties betrays the broader inclinations of Southern Catholics to embrace politics and social attitudes incongruous with the teachings of their faith. As pastors, teachers, and preachers, these men exerted their influence to justify the Confederate cause under the guise of piety and devotion.