Peter FeuerherdJune 14, 2021
Left: Archbishop Joseph F. Rummell of New Orleans in undated file photo (CNS/Clarion Herald). Right: Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., makes the sign of the cross after receiving Communion in Washington on Sept. 14, 2011 (CNS/Leslie E. Kossoff). 

In April 1962, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans not only denied Communion to three Catholics in his archdiocese; he went a step beyond. At 86 years of age and in ill health—he would die two years later—he formally excommunicated the three, who vehemently opposed his efforts to desegregate Catholic schools.

The nearly 60-year-old excommunication controversy in New Orleans is taking on new life. While some people now cite this as an example of a church leader willing to challenge opponents of Catholic teaching, this history is also used to buttress the argument for withholding Communion from President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other public officials over their support for legal abortion.

Jackson Ricau and Una Gaillot, two of the people excommunicated by the archbishop, were leaders in segregationist organizations. The third, Leander Perez, was the political boss of Plaquemines Parish, La., a judge and a powerful figure in state politics.

The excommunication of Perez drew favorable publicity for the church in the national media, including reports in The New York Times and a CBS documentary from a young Dan Rather, then a reporter at the network’s Southern bureau. Advocates of segregation, a potent force in the Jim Crow Louisiana political world at the time, were furious.

The nearly 60-year-old excommunication controversy in New Orleans is now being used to buttress the argument for withholding Communion from President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

A Time Magazine photo of Ms. Gaillot provided a glimpse into the controversy. Days after the excommunication, she is depicted kneeling in front of the archbishop in what appears, at first glance, to be an act of supplication. But she was at the same time berating the prelate.

“Look up to heaven,” she told the archbishop, “and admit you know it’s God’s law to segregate.”

In 2004, when controversy surrounded the Catholicity of John F. Kerry, who was then a presidential candidate, George Weigel wrote that Archbishop Rummel’s actions were necessary, “to bring the conduct of Catholic institutions into sync with the Church’s teaching on human dignity.”

Robert P. George, a professor at Princeton University, was more succinct in a recent tweet praising the New Orleans archbishop’s historic example: “Archbishop Rummel knew how to be a bishop. He didn’t play.”

“Look up to heaven,” Una Gaillot told the archbishop, “and admit you know it’s God’s law to segregate.”

R. Eric Platt, a professor of education at Memphis State University, has written extensively on the efforts to desegregate Southern schools and Rummel in particular. Rummel’s decision, observed Dr. Platt, came after more than a decade of slowly prodding white New Orleans Catholics to accept integration. Though some view him as a social justice hero, others perceive him as an overly cautious foot-dragger in the pursuit of racial justice.

“Rummel knew his age. He knew his health was not well. He was ready to make a stand,” Dr. Platt said in an interview. “He needed an example. And he was fed some good ones.”

Archbishop Rummel was born in Germany and came with his family to New York as a child. He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of New York in May 1902 and served the diocese for 25 years before moving to Nebraska, where he became the bishop of the Diocese of Omaha in 1928. Seven years later, he was elevated to archbishop of New Orleans, where he spent the rest of his life.

After arriving in New Orleans, the archbishop methodically addressed issues of race. He desegregated the archdiocesan seminaries, integrated archdiocesan gatherings, ended official pew segregation in churches and, in 1955, closed down a church after white parishioners refused to accept a Black priest.

After arriving in New Orleans, the archbishop methodically addressed issues of race. He even closed down a church after white parishioners refused to accept a Black priest.

Archbishop Rummel issued pastoral letters on racial justice, consulting with experts about race in the South, including Joseph Fichter, S.J., who was a priest and professor of sociology at Loyola University New Orleans. He also slowly began moving Catholic schools toward integration, convening commissions to this end.

Throughout his episcopacy, he met pushback.

The three excommunicated Catholics, for example, organized campaigns urging Catholics to stop their financial support of the church. Mr. Perez went so far as to assert his political influence to end state subsidies of Catholic schools.

Archbishop Rummel had moved slowly because he was cognizant of the grip that Jim Crow had on Louisiana white Catholics, said Dr. Platt, “dealing with what was right but if he pushed too hard you will lose souls.” Though segregationist Catholics petitioned Rome, the Vatican responded in support of the archbishop.

Archbishop Rummel had moved slowly because he was cognizant of the grip that Jim Crow had on Louisiana white Catholics, said R. Eric Platt.

The era was awash in currents affecting the church, wider society and racial justice, noted Dr. Platt. The first Catholic president was in the White House, segregationists freely tarred those in support of racial justice as Communists, the Supreme Court in its Brown decision ruled that public school segregation was unconstitutional, and the Second Vatican Council was on the horizon. Still, most Catholic bishops in the South were unwilling to challenge the system of legal apartheid.

“The world was changing fast,” Dr. Platt said. “People were realizing the tide was turning.” Archbishop Rummel was nearing the end of his life, added Dr. Platt, and after decades of dialogue, “it was time to make the threats a reality.”

New Orleans was different from other southern dioceses. Not only did it have a large population of Catholics, many of whom were Black; the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson had placed Louisiana’s large mixed-race population, along with its Black citizens, under the thumb of legal apartheid. The Ku Klux Klan, with both its anti-Catholic and anti-Black history of terror, was experiencing a revival.

If adherence to segregationist views was an excommunicable offense at the time, most white Louisiana Catholics would have been found guilty. But Archbishop Rummel’s judgment was provoked in large part by the public dissent of the three who questioned his authority over church matters such as Catholic schools.

If adherence to segregationist views was an excommunicable offense then, most white Louisiana Catholics would have been found guilty.

Comparisons between the excommunication case in New Orleans and calls to deny Communion to President Biden are overly facile, observed Dr. Platt, who was inspired to become a Catholic after studying the church’s response to the integration crisis and in particular the role of the Jesuits. “It’s not even apples and oranges,” he said. “It’s apples and broccoli.”

Nicholas Cafardi, a canon and civil lawyer from Pittsburgh, noted that the archbishop was acting within the Code of Canon Law of 1917, which was quicker to enforce punishments than the revised 1983 code.

The 1983 code, said Mr. Cafardi, prescribes that the power to deny Communion rests with the pastor of those who face that penalty. Mr. Biden, he added, would not be punished for arguing against church teaching but for failing to implement a particular legal response to the abortion issue.

Comparisons between the excommunication case in New Orleans and calls to deny Communion to President Biden are overly facile, observed R. Eric Platt.

If the 1962 New Orleans case suggests anything, it is that excommunication had some bite. Mr. Perez recanted before they died.

Ms. Gaaillot believed her excommunication was a violation of church law. She is said to have remained apart from the church since 1962 and did not attend her children’s weddings.

She admitted in a 2004 interview that though it had become easier to deal with over the decades, Archbishop Rummel’s action to excommunicate her—issued during Holy Week—still stung.

“Damn, Good Friday’s hard,” she said. “And Easter Sunday. Those two days are hard, because I can’t go to church.”

This article has been updated.

Correction, July 2. This article originally reported that Jackson Ricau, one of the three individuals excommunicated by Archbishop Rummel in New Orleans, returned to the Catholic Church before he died. Though an obituary at the time stated that he did reconcile with the church, subsequent historical research has disputed that conclusion.

[Read this next: Why are American Catholics obsessed with the politics of Communion? (Hint: Because we’re American.)]

The latest from america

The invasion of public land by big landowners and illegal miners at the expense of Indigenous groups and small growers has led to record numbers of violent conflicts in Brazil’s rural and forest areas.
Eduardo Campos LimaAugust 02, 2021
Many are no doubt pleased with revelations that expose the hypocrisy of a Catholic priest—again. But what does this incident mean for the rest of us?
Firmin DeBrabanderAugust 02, 2021
“The stakes of getting it wrong are too high.” Immigrant advocates are voicing disappointment with recent decisions from Biden administration.
These statistics should be enough to make us want to undergo a metanoia, a change of mind and heart, and make us ask why our church is not only not a welcoming place to L.G.B.T.Q. people, but actively unwelcoming.
James Martin, S.J.August 02, 2021