On April 16, 1962, the Monday before Easter, the Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans, Joseph Francis Rummel, excommunicated three local Catholics for defying the authority of the Church and organizing protests against the archbishop’s order that the Catholic schools in the archdiocese be desegregated. The first of the three was Judge Leander Perez, 70, who called on Catholics to withhold donations to the Archdiocese and to boycott Sunday church collections. The second was Jackson G. Ricau, 44, political commentator, segregationist writer, and director of the “Citizens Council of South Louisiana.” The third, Mrs. B.J. Gaillot, 41, was mother of two, housewife, and president of segregationist “Save Our Nation Inc.”
An April 13, 1962 Time magazine article quoted Mrs. Gaillot as follows: “God demands segregation.” “She is a Roman Catholic,” the article continued, “and when Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel, 85, ordered full desegregation of New Orleans parochial schools for next fall, Mrs. Gaillot responded with picketing and loud protest. She was not alone. Leander Perez, influential political boss of Plaquemines Parish and also a Catholic, suggested reprisals against the clergy: ‘Cut off their water. Quit giving them money to feed their fat bellies.’ State Representative Rodney Buras of New Orleans “proclaimed that he would fight Archbishop Rummel’s demand for desegregation ‘even to the extreme of being excommunicated.’” At first, Rummel merely issued what he called a “fatherly warning” if these Catholics continued promoting “flagrant disobedience to the decision to open our schools to ALL.”
Interviewed by Time, Mrs. Gaillot was quoted as saying: “If they can show me from the Bible where I am wrong, I will get down on my knees before Archbishop Rummel and beg his forgiveness.” She didn’t. Three days after the Time article appeared, Rummel made good on his warning and excommunicated all three.
The rest, as they say, is history. Rummel’s decision to desegregate the Catholic schools was extraordinarily divisive at the time, as was his decision to excommunicate the three public dissenters. But he is remembered proudly now by Catholics across America, and his courage is sometimes compared favorably in comparison to the relative inaction of the German bishops during the Holocaust (even though, as is rarely reported, they issued an edict in early 1931 excommunicating all Nazi leadership and banning Catholics from membership).
Be that as it may, I am left wondering. Over the years since becoming Catholic, I have read articles about Rummel, but not one of them excoriated him for having “politicized the Eucharist.” I don’t recall any bishop saying: “Well, Rummel was within his rights to excommunicate these three, I suppose. But personally I wouldn’t have done it because I can’t know the soul of someone else.”
Plenty of people at the time seem to have been convinced that Rummel’s excommunications would be “pointless,” that he was just “making things worse” and “exacerbating the tensions in New Orleans.” Perhaps he did. But no one dares say it now. No one condemns Rummel in retrospect with the claim that “there were other equally important priorities in the Church – not just that one issue alone.”
People do say how, however, rather vehemently, that the Catholic bishops of Germany should have “done more,” been “less accommodating,” and excommunicated more people during the Holocaust. But wasn’t excommunicating the entire Nazi leadership in 1931 and banning Catholics from joining the party “politicizing the Eucharist”? They banned Catholics from joining a political party! How could they “look into the souls” of each of those German citizens to judge why they were joining the National Socialists? Perhaps they just believed in the “worker’s movement” (the Nazis were, after all, as their name indicated, national socialists)?
I sometimes ask my students, “Did the German bishops violate the ‘separation of Church and state’ when they excommunicated members of the Nazi Party?” No, they all agree. “Would an American bishop be violating the ‘separation of Church and state’ if he dared to excommunicate a Catholic politician who had repeatedly and publicly supported access to abortion up to the moment of birth – including late-term, ‘partial-birth’ abortions?” Most don’t like this. “Why one and not the other?” “It’s different,” they claim.
Is it that things are “just different” now, or are they mostly the same? There were cowards and proponents of accommodation now just as there were then – men like Cardinal Adolf Bertram whose accommodationist views dissuaded other would-be opponents of Nazism from speaking out. As ex-officio head of the German episcopate, Bertram ordered Church celebrations upon Nazi Germany’s victory over Poland and France and sent greetings to Hitler on the occasion of his 50th birthday in the name of all German Catholics.
And yet, there were a few bold bishops in Germany too, like Konrad von Preysing, Joseph Frings, and Clemens August Graf von Galen, who made themselves a constant nuisance not only by condemning particular acts of the government but also by formulating a coherent, systematic critique of Nazism.
Some bishops thought merely of their position in the Church and society; others had eyes to see an increasingly invisible group of human persons. Some men followed the siren song of not wanting to be “left behind by history” rather than heeding the Lord of History. History has judged which men acted in accord with their apostolic charge and which didn’t. I can’t look into their souls, but I assume God has.
Undoubtedly a little more attention to God’s revelation and somewhat less to what the upper crust of German society was thinking would have served them better. God has been around a lot longer than the smartest of elite German thinkers and repeatedly shown Himself to be lot wiser — something America’s bishops should undoubtedly keep in mind, along with that passage in Ecclesiastes 1:9: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” It will not be long before it becomes clear who were today’s von Galens and who were the Bertrams.
*Image: R by Michael McManus, 2018 [The drawing was commissioned by the New Orleans Times-Picayune as part of its “300 for 300” celebration of New Orleans’ tricentennial.]