Outside the embrace
NEW ORLEANS - The blow fell just before Easter 1962, in a city attuned to the solemn rhythms of traditional Catholicism. On Monday of Holy Week, Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel announced the excommunication of three Catholic public figures for loudly condemning his decision to integrate the archdiocese's Catholic schools.
Until they repented, Rummel declared, Leander Perez, Jackson Ricau and Una Gaillot were outside the church. New Orleans knew them well as furious public warriors against integration. But without a change of heart, Rummel said, they could not receive the Eucharist, the center of Catholic life, nor would they be buried in the embrace of their church.
Forty-two years later, Rummel's rare disciplining has fresh meaning in the politics of 2004. Today the battleground has shifted from segregation to abortion. And threats of excommunication then have morphed into threats to deny Communion to certain Catholic politicians.
The targets now are Catholic officials who defy Catholic teaching in support of abortion, doctor-assisted suicide and the use of embryos in stem cell research. All are at the top of the list because Catholic tradition holds those practices to be wrong in every context - clearer to bishops than the related ''life issues'' of war and capital punishment, which in rare circumstances may be justified.
The tension is nowhere sharper than around presumed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a Catholic who supports a woman's right to abortion.
As Catholic writer George Weigel remarked in a Washington, D.C., panel discussion last month, that confrontation has prompted review of the Rummel episode in search of useful parallels, if any, in the continuing interplay of church and state.
A review of records and interviews with church officials familiar with Rummel makes two things clear:
One is that Rummel, though long publicly associated with these acts of excommunication, came reluctantly to his decision to wield that power, according to church officials today.
Politically, Rummel was worried he might overplay his hand and split the church, said former Archbishop Philip Hannan, 91, who took office a year after Rummel's death.
Pastorally, Rummel worried about the effect on Perez, Ricau and Gaillot, said the Rev. William Maestri, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, who has examined some of the Rummel papers.
''He was very concerned about them. He had to be pushed toward excommunication,'' Maestri said.
In addition, contrary to public perception, Perez, Ricau and Gaillot were not excommunicated for their racist views, officials said.
''If Archbishop Rummel had made that the basis for excommunication, he would've had to excommunicate 60 percent of all the Catholics in New Orleans,'' Hannan said. ''And there's no specific thing in canon law that says if you're a racist you get excommunicated.''
Instead, Rummel and his circle of advisers chose narrower grounds, made clear even in reports of the time.
He excommunicated the three, he said, because they challenged his authority to integrate Catholic schools and to preach that the common dignity of black and white people was essential to Christianity.
In the early 1950s, Southern whites were becoming increasingly worried about creeping evidence that an old racial order might be threatened with extinction.
White resistance exploded with the Supreme Court's pivotal 1954 ''Brown'' decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools. Soon enough Rummel announced that New Orleans Catholic schools would be integrated at some undetermined date, but certainly before public schools.
Perez, the longtime political boss of suburban Plaquemines Parish, lashed out with fiery, racist denunciations of black people. He urged white people to resist integration in public and parochial schools on all fronts. Ricau emerged as a writer and ideologue at the head of a segregationist group, the South Louisiana Citizens Council. And Gaillot, an uncommonly strong-willed and vocal homemaker, became determined to broadcast her belief that the Bible forbade race-mixing.
In 1962, Rummel declared that Catholic schools would integrate that fall.
In mass rallies and public statements throughout the spring, Perez and Ricau berated Rummel. His interpretation of race relations had no basis in the Gospel, they said.
''There certainly can be found nothing in God's teaching that segregation is immoral, sinful and un-Christian,'' Perez told a segregationist rally later that spring.
Gaillot began to picket Rummel's residence, asserting that God's law demanded racial segregation.
On April 16, the archdiocese announced that Perez, Ricau and Gaillot were excommunicated.
Of the three, only Gaillot is still alive. She remains committed to her segregationist views and defiantly outside the church. She believes her excommunication violates church law.
It appears that she has not set foot in a Catholic church since 1962.
Although she is close to her children, she refused to attend her son's weddings, she said. She watched one son's ceremony through a church's rear double doors held open for a mother's benefit.
She will not give in. But defiance takes its toll, she acknowledged. ''If you only knew how hard it is. It used to be harder; it's starting to help.''
''But Good Friday,'' - she hesitated, tearing up - ''Damn, Good Friday's hard. And Easter Sunday. Those two days are hard. Because I can't go to church.''