In Crisis Magazine, Fr. Cornelius Buckley, S.J., Professor Emeritus (history) at the University of San Francisco, comments on the issue:
Many people are surprised and shocked to learn that the American Jesuits in the nineteenth century were slave owners, and those sentiments are exacerbated when they learn that, literally, the very existence of Georgetown depended on the money that was realized by the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved blacks to plantation owners in Louisiana, and that the archdiocese of Baltimore shared in the proceeds. The feud between Georgetown and Baltimore that had existed since 1818 was at last resolved, thanks to the money from the sale, sealing a bond of friendship between the archbishop and the Society of Jesus.
Slavery as an institution should be condemned. This was precisely the position of Pope Paul III, when in 1537, he outlawed slavery and condemned those who owned or sold slaves. Three years later he approved the rule of Ignatius of Loyola and his companions constituting them as a religious order. Of course, not many paid much attention to the pope’s strong statements against black slavery. It was too advantageous for black chiefs who sold their people and for white traders who purchased them and transported them to the New World. But then in 1639, at the insistence of the Jesuits in Paraguay, where the Spaniards where enslaving the indigenous peoples, Pope Urban VIII issued another bull confirming what Paul had decreed and adding strength to it. Then, less than fifty years later, the Jesuits in Maryland were slave owners. So, in order to put into its proper perspective the historical fact that the 1838 Georgetown Jesuits were owners and sellers of slaves, it is important to see that disobedience to papal teaching was the point of departure from which Georgetown and other Jesuit colleges in the United States plotted their course.
When you recall that the Society of Jesus stressed total obedience to the Pope, this history is particularly unsettling. But then, many who have called and today call themselves Catholic feel free to disobey the Church's teachings on many issues, from slavery to abortion, from usury to Catholic theology faculty upholding Church teaching--as Father Buckley concludes his article, remembering another document that has been ignored:
Reading about this episode and its aftermath, I was reminded of one of the bon-mots our GKC group highlighted at our meeting on last Friday evening. In chapter one of his Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton states:
If the world goes too worldly, it can be rebuked by the Church; but if the Church grows too worldly, it cannot be adequately rebuked for worldliness by the world.