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The end goal of the effort is $1 billion in reparations. Photo: Jesuit News
The end goal of the effort is $1 billion in reparations. Photo: Jesuit News

Jesuit Conference pledges $100 million to Black descendants of those the Catholic Church once enslaved

President of the Jesuit Conference Rev. Timothy Kensicki says the end goal of the effort is $1 billion.

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The Catholic Church and social justice movements have not always intersected in favorable ways. Unfortunately, there has been an epidemic of priests and deacons sexually abusing children, and the Church is vehemently against a woman’s right to reproductive autonomy. 

Women are still not permitted to become ordained as priests, and just recently, the Vatican refused to bless the union of same sex couples; claiming that God cannot “bless sin.” 

Although these injustices exist within the institution, it’s not an accurate reflection of the good intentions of many Catholic orders and communities. Not all Catholics subscribe to the pro-life, anti-LGBTQ, misogynistic, and even racist beliefs that hail from the Vatican. 

For instance, leaders of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the U.S., an order of Catholic priests, have pledged $100 million in funding as reparations to the descendants of Black people that the order once enslaved and sold. 

Their history of slave labor was the largest initiative of its kind by the church. 

The Jesuit Conference has promised to raise the money and then give it directly to a foundation set up with a group of direct descendants, and plan to “begin a very serious process of truth and reconciliation.” 

Rev. Timothy P. Kensicki, president of the Jesuit Conference, said that they are taking their shameful history of Jesuit slaveholding in the U.S “off the dusty shelf,” and they don’t plan on putting it back. 

“Racism will endure in America if we continue to turn our heads away from the truth of the past and how it affects us all today. The lasting effects of slavery call each of us to do the work of truth and reconciliation. Without this joining of hearts and hands in true equity, the cycle of hatred and inequality in America will never end,” Kensicki said. 

Jesuits used slave labor and sold enslaved people for more than a century to support clergy, churches and schools, including what is now known as Georgetown University in Washington D.C. 

This announcement, which came on Monday, March 15, is considered one of the largest attempts at slavery atonement by an institution, and the most substantial attempt by the Catholic Church. 

The Jesuit Conferences’ decision to take a major step towards racial healing comes amid growing calls for reparations across U.S. institutions like colleges, churches and Congress.

Last summer, Asheville, North Carolina did provide their Black residents with reparations in the form of programs that are working to close the wage gaps, grow generational wealth, level out the criminal justice system and offer affordable housing. 

Earlier this month, the quaint college town of Amherst, Massachusetts, took a hard look at the subtle and overt racism that exists within their communities, and voted in favor of providing their Black residents with reparations. 

The descendants of these enslaved people uncovered that their ancestors were among 272 enslaved women, men and children sold by the Jesuit owners of Georgetown, to plantation owners in Louisiana in 1838. Once this discovery was made, they called on the order to raise $1 billion. 

The order has committed to giving $100 million over a span of three to five years, with $15 million already deposited into a trust fund. However, Father Kensicki and Joseph M. Stewart, president of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, said $1 billion is the end goal.  

Stewart said he was glad to be a part of this much-needed cooperation between his foundation and the Jesuit Conference. 

“They did not come running to us, but because we went to them with open arms and open hearts, they responded. They have embraced our vision,” he told the New York Times

Each year, about half of the foundation’s funds will be transformed into grants for organizations working towards racial reconciliation. Around a quarter of the money will fund scholarships and educational grants to descendants, and some will be allotted for emergency needs of descendants who are elderly or ill. 

The nonprofit Georgetown Memory Project has been able to identify about 5,000 living descendants of the people enslaved by the Jesuits. 

Rashawn Ray, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, said that the move is commendable, and sends a clear message to other religious institutions, but he flatly stated that it “doesn’t come close” to bridging the racial gap. 

Shannen Dee Williams, a historian and assistant professor at Villanova University, said that the move is a crucial step in the right direction, and these continued efforts to seek atonement for sinful histories should always be applauded. 

Though Williams did make a point to mention that the Catholic Church was the first and largest corporate slaveholder in the Americas, and the largest Christian supporter of U.S segregation. 

As a result, they will “never be able to repay fully what is owed for the millions of Black lives stolen and destroyed by its own practices of slavery and segregation,” she said. 

But she added: “Hopefully, this most recent announcement will not be the end for a religious community that for well over 400 years actively participated in and financially benefitted from the slave trade, colonisation, slavery and segregation.”

As the first and largest corporate slaveholder in the Americas and the largest Christian supporter of segregation in the U.S., the Catholic Church will “never be able to repay fully what is owed for the millions of Black lives stolen and destroyed by its own practices of slavery and segregation.”

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