The Catholic Confederacy

by Church Militant  •  •  June 24, 2015   

The Confederate flag: a mixed history

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By Richard Ducayne

Google is world-renowned for having anything and everything on its website, but the best-known symbol of the Confederate States — the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, later adopted as the flag of the Confederacy — is now nowhere to be seen. On typing the search terms "Confederate Flag" under the "Shopping" tab, results turn up nothing at all — just a blank screen. In the wake of the racially motivated shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white man who's posed in photos brandishing a gun and the battle flag shot nine black victims in a church, major stores — including Wal Mart, Sears, K-Mart and e-bay — are also pulling similar merchandise.

The battle flag represents the Confederacy during the American Civil War, which is often taught as a war over slavery. But southerners claim slavery had little to do with it, and the war had more to do with preserving the South's sovereignty and with rebuffing Northern aggression. Where does the truth lie between these two extremes?

There are compelling arguments on both sides, but a few facts can be confirmed. Slavery in America was first legalized in the North — in Massachusetts in 1625 — and slavery ownership remained a regular practice in some northern states even throughout the Civil War. And it's a fact that most white southern families did not own slaves. After the South asked for the right to secede from the Union, President Abraham Lincoln's goal in launching the war was not to end slavery, as many think, but rather to preserve the Union.

In an August 22, 1862 letter to the New York Tribune, Lincoln made clear his mission was maintain the Union: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union."

In fact, Lincoln's plan was to send the black population back to Liberia, Africa. In August 1862, Lincoln met with several black leaders at the White House and said:

You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong, I need not discuss; but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think. Your race suffers very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while we suffer from your presence. If this is admitted, it affords a reason, at least, why we should be separated.

The Catholic Church has always condemned slavery as an intrinsic evil. A number of popes have publicly written against the practice: Pius II in 1462; Paul III in 1537; Urban VIII in 1639; and Benedict XIV in 1741. Pope Gregory XVI issued an Apostolic Constitution in 1839 explicitly calling the practice "a shame to the Christian name."

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was an aspiring Catholic, and was sympathetic to the Catholic cause. He was known to wear Catholic sacramentals: a St. Benedict medal, a Miraculous Medal, and a French Scapular, as well as a brown scapular. Despite the United States as a whole not being friendly to Catholicism, North and South, about 20 Confederate generals in his cabinet were also known to be practicing Catholics. And every Catholic bishop in the South supported the Confederacy.

After Davis was captured and imprisoned, he received several letters from Blessed Pope Pius IX. Not only did both men have similar political views, both men had an implicit respect for each other as "old souls." The same regard was not granted to Lincoln. Archbishop John Hughes of New York became the rallying point for Catholics who supported the Union. Lincoln requested that Pius IX elevate him to the cardinalate — but the Pope refused.

In fact, it was an 1863 letter from Pius IX to Davis that caused Congress to cut off all diplomatic ties to the Vatican. The letter had contained a signed photo of the Pope, in most significantly, addressed Davis as "Illustrious and Honorable President of the Confederate States of America." This explicit recognition of Davis as legitimate president of a separate country outraged the Union and is said to have caused Lincoln great distress.

A little-known fact about the battle flag: It takes its design from the flag of Scotland, which in turn has its origins in the St. Andrew's Cross. Known as the "saltire," it was created at the saint's request because he didn't believe he was worthy to die in the same manner as Our Lord. Thus the origin of the X design on the "Dixie" flag.

St. Andrew's Cross
Flag of Scotland
Confederate Flag

Regardless of where one stands on the debate, the words of Bd. Pope Pius IX in his 1863 letter to Davis remains as true today as they did then, and we offer them not only for the victims of the recent shooting, but for those suffering under the weight of evils presently confronting our nation:

We shall not cease to offer up the most fervent prayers to God Almighty, that He may pour out upon all the people of America the spirit of peace and charity, and that He will stop the great evils which afflict them.

[Editor's note, June 26, 2015: The original post reported that the perpetrator was wrapped in a battle flag during the shooting, which some media had reported; this has been called into question by various media reports, so we've revised the story to reflect the confirmed facts.]


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