John LaFarge & Interracial Justice

June 1996By George H. Dunne

The Rev. George H. Dunne, S.J., a long-time civil rights activist, is retired from university teaching, but is as feisty as ever.

John LaFarge and the Limits of Catholic Interracialism, 1911-1963.  By David W. Southern. Louisiana State University Press. 496 pages. $45.



This is the first scholarly biography of the Jesuit John LaFarge. It may also be the last. Thoroughly researched, well-written, and very readable, it answers most of the questions that one might ask about LaFarge.

According to David Southern, “LaFarge has now been largely forgotten.” This, if true, is unfortunate, for he was one of the major figures in the U.S. Catholic Church of the 20th century. Perhaps this book will reanimate interest in his career, devoted almost entirely to freeing the U.S. Catholic Church from the sin of racism and the black American from the fetters of servitude.

One could not have predicted this career from his origins. The first of his name to come to this country was his grandfather, Jean Frédéric de la Farge, an officer in the ill-fated French army that tried unsuccessfully in 1803 to put down the black revolution of Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti. His mother was the granddaughter of the naval hero Oliver Hazard Perry. John, born in February 1880, was her 10th and last child.

Among close family friends as he was growing up in Newport, Rhode Island, were Henry Adams, the James brothers, Henry and William, Teddy Roosevelt, and Edith Wharton. He was an exceptionally talented pianist, and was unusually gifted in languages, knowing 12 major languages.

From his early years, although seriously doubting his suitability, he was drawn to the priesthood. After graduating from Harvard he entered the University of Innsbruck, Austria, to study philosophy and theology. He was ordained on July 26, 1905, and entered the Jesuits later that year.

Given his gifts, one might assume that he would be assigned to academia. Instead, after a stint as assistant chaplain to the convicts on Blackwell Island, he was assigned to the Jesuit missions in Maryland. Here in St. Mary’s County, the Jesuits, who had arrived in 1663 with Lord Baltimore’s colonists, had established the first Catholic Church in America. And here, where to their immense shame they once owned slaves, they were still ministering to white and mostly black Catholics. The 15 years that LaFarge spent here, says Southern, “determined that his life work would be devoted primarily to bettering the position of African Americans within the Catholic Church and the nation.”

In 1926 LaFarge was assigned to the staff of America, the Jesuit weekly. He remained there until his death in 1963. During these years he turned out a prodigious number of articles, and a number of books, the best known of which are Interracial Justice and an autobiography, The Manner is Ordinary. In 1934 he established both the Catholic Interracial Council of New York and the Interracial Review.

Southern notes that in the 1930s there occurred a “dramatic change” from hostile to friendly in the “attitudes of the minority press and black leaders toward the Catholic Church.” He credits LaFarge. But it should not be concluded that LaFarge was a flaming liberal. On the contrary, he was in most respects quite conservative. He was intensely loyal to the Catholic Church, to the point of ill-disguised hostility to Protestantism. Not until his later years did he show signs of ecumenism.

When LaFarge began his career, the U.S. Catholic Church was, as Southern correctly says, “a racist institution.” Everywhere, not simply in the South, her schools, hospitals, and other institutions were segregated, as were organizations like the Knights of Columbus. No more than a handful of bishops were nonracist in policy. One of these few (along with Sheil, auxiliary of Chicago, Rummel, Archbishop of New Orleans, and Ritter of Indianapolis) was Archbishop Lucey of San Antonio. When my article, “The Sin of Segregation,” appeared in Commonweal in 1945, he wrote me that he “felt like throwing [his] hat in the air.” Despite the stance of the episcopacy, LaFarge was always respectful. He opposed resort to any pressure on a bishop who was reluctant to approve the establishment of an interracial council. Southern attributes to this the slow (“glacial”) development of interracial councils. I know of only one remark critical of a bishop attributed to LaFarge: When Bishop (later Cardinal) McIntyre left New York for the Los Angeles archdiocese, he is said by Southern to have remarked, “Our gain is Los Angeles’ loss.”

I have elsewhere stated that, while I share the general admiration for LaFarge, I have reservations (see my memoirs, King’s Pawn.) One of them concerns what Southern calls his habit of “hedging.” An example is a letter LaFarge sent to Zacheus Maher, the acting head of American Jesuits, who evidently had shared with him a letter from Fr. Claude Heithaus, criticizing the racist slant of a commencement speech by the President of St. Louis University. After describing the tone of Heithaus’s letter as “indefensible,” LaFarge expressed sympathy for the President, who, he said, “is wrestling with a tough situation and trying manfully to make what seems to him a wise and just decision.” Having thus disassociated himself from Heithaus and assured superiors that he was on their side, LaFarge proceeded to criticize in the President’s address the same faults to which Heithaus had directed attention.

A personal experience illustrates this LaFargian trait. In April 1945 I was summarily dismissed from the faculty of St. Louis University because of my resistance to the reintroduction of racial segregation into the University. LaFarge came to Chicago to see me. He told me that Wilfred Parsons, S.J., his predecessor as Editor-in-Chief of America, had phoned him from Washington, urging him to add me to the America staff. “I would like to do so, George,” he said, “but now it would look as if I were championing you against superiors. So we will wait until the heat is off.” Twenty-two years later I was in Brazil. I received a letter from Thurston Davis, S.J., America’s Editor, inviting me to join the staff. “The heat is off!” I cried. LaFarge, who I am sure never had any idea of bringing me to America, was four years in his grave.

One episode in LaFarge’s life was long shrouded in mystery. In 1938, during a private audience with Pope Pius XI, the Pontiff asked LaFarge to write for him an encyclical on racism. Although LaFarge never confirmed them, rumors spread that he had done so. In fact he had, working with the collaboration of a German Jesuit, Gustav Gundlach. The encyclical, Humani Generis Unitas (The Unity of Mankind), never appeared. The question of what happened to it remained unanswered for many decades. LaFarge was not talking. The question was finally answered and the mystery solved in a book published in 1993 in France (L’Encyclique Cachée de Pie XI [The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI]), the work of Georges Passelecq, O.S.B., and historian Bernard Suchecky. Southern briefly recounts the sad tale.

LaFarge was conservative by reason of background, milieu, and natural inclination. Nevertheless, as Southern points out, he moved “in a liberal direction until virtually his last breath.” That last breath came on November 24, 1963, two days after the assassination of President Kennedy. Cardinal Cushing presided at the requiem Mass two days after he had performed a like service for the President in Washington. A large interracial crowd filled St. Ignatius Church. The Jesuits soon after established the John LaFarge House at Harvard and the John LaFarge Institute to study peace, poverty, and race. The Institute established the John LaFarge Award for outstanding interracial work. “Alas,” writes Southern, “the first award went to Cardinal Spellman.” Fr. LaFarge would not have liked the interjection.



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