The decision of Archbishop Joseph F. Rummel to put an immediate end to segregation in the parochial schools of the Archdiocese of New Orleans is a particularly welcome and significant one. It is welcome because the existence of segregated parochial schools is a scandal to the Church and a disservice to the nation. It is significant because it indicates that the Church in New Orleans is quite willing to risk its temporal welfare for a basic principle of social justice.
This latter point is of special importance. The Church’s position on segregation and discrimination could hardly be more clear. As Archbishop Rummel has said, it is “morally wrong and sinful.” But what has been far less clear is the extent to which the Church in the South is willing to put into practice this basic Catholic teaching. It has often appeared as if the Church lacked the nerve or the conviction to withstand hostile pressure—as if it valued its financial security and social position more than anything else. It is quite possible that such an accusation has been an unjust one. Yet the Church always leaves itself open to this kind of charge when there is a seeming discrepancy between its principles and its practice.
Archbishop Rummel’s decision should do much to quell skepticism. There can be little doubt that the opposition will be fierce. Already a number of Catholic laymen have begun talking of a boycott of the parochial schools. Others have raised the possibility of punitive legislation against them. Still others have picketed the home of Archbishop-Coadjutor John P. Cody. In short, there is little reason to believe that the decision will be accepted gracefully or that all the old pressures will not be brought to bear once again. The impact of these pressures on the parochial schools could well be disastrous.
Can the Church, given the fact of malicious coercion, do otherwise? Naturally. It can always plead, when faced with opposition, that its first duty is survival, that it is enough to preserve the deposit of faith and to insure the education of its youth. But surely this is a narrow, demeaning conception of the Church, one which is willing to sacrifice the witness of the Church in the world for the sake o f community acceptance and a nominal, purely passive physical existence. Moreover, just as a matter of history, it may well be doubted that taking the course of least resistance serves even the temporal well-being of the Church. The Church in the South is an apt example: the rebellion of many Southern Catholic laymen and priests against the bishops has its roots in the temporizing of earlier generations of Catholics.
It may, of course, be objected that there are times when the Church must accept the culture of a society in which it finds itself. Again, there are times when the Church has to show a sensitivity to the consensus of opinion in a pluralistic society. So too there are times when it is appropriate and legitimate for laymen to differ with their bishops on matters of public policy.
Such considerations do not apply in the city of New Orleans in the year 1962. They do not apply, in the first place, because Catholics form a substantial cultural force in that city. In the second place, both the national consensus and federal law support integration. Finally, the dissident Catholic laymen are not arguing that a different means be chosen for effecting the good end of integration and racial justice. On the contrary, they are flatly opposing the Church’s moral position and the clear moral authority of the Archbishop. Their stand is a purely racist one, as harmful to the integrity of the Church as it is to the common good.In that situation, the Church in New Orleans cannot afford to back down. To do so now would simply encourage further coercion by the state an d confirm already mistaken Catholics in their belief that the Church’s teaching on racial justice nee d not be taken seriously. In addition, should the Church weaken, it would amount to a serious blow to all those Catholics who have fought long and hard for justice. Time and again, Catholic integrationists have felt that they did not have the whole-hearted support of the hierarchy. It is vital that their personal risks be matched by the hierarchy, that the Church at the highest level be as bold as the Church at the lowest.
If there is one thing that the South desperately needs today, it is decisive moral leadership. The Catholic Church, especially in New Orleans, is in an excellent position to provide that leadership. The price may be very high. But if the Church is not willing to pay it, who will? Archbishop Rummel has done his part. It is now up to the Catholics of New Orleans to do theirs.
From the April 13, 1962 issue of Commonweal. © Commonweal Foundation. All rights reserved. Used by permission.