Before Vatican II, before the race riots of the 1940s, the white Jesuit priest John LaFarge decried America’s treatment of blacks. A man ahead of his church on the race issue who nevertheless did not press hard enough in ridding it of an institutional bias against African Americans is the portrait David W. Southern paints in the first scholarly biography of LaFarge.
According to Southern, LaFarge was the foremost Catholic spokesman on black-white relations in America for more than thirty years. In a series of books and articles—he served on the staff of the influential Jesuit weekly America from 1926 until his death—he significantly improved the image of the Church in the eyes of black, Jewish, and Protestant leaders. In 1934 he founded the Catholic Interracial Council of New York, the most important Catholic civil rights organization in the pre-Brown era. His declaration in 1937 that racism is a sin and a heresy so impressed the pope that he employed LaFarge to write an encyclical on the subject.
Although lauded in his time for his achievements in race relations, LaFarge, Southern contends, espoused too gradualist an approach. Southern maintains that LaFarge was fettered by a fierce loyalty to the Church, a staunch clericalism, an intense concern with the image of Catholicism in Protestant America, an aristocratic background, and Eurocentric thinking—producing in him an abiding paternalism and lingering ambivalence about black culture, and a tendency to conceal the Church’s discriminatory practices rather than reveal them. Moreover, he was too slow to condemn segregation and approve the nonviolent direct action of Martin Luther King, Jr. Still, Southern sees in LaFarge a redeeming capacity for liberal growth, citing his inspiration of a younger, more militant generation of Catholics and his joining in the 1963 March on Washington. Based on extensive archival research, this impressive, engrossing biography fills a serious gap in Catholic social history and race relations history.
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