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Racialized Humility: The White Supremacist Sainthood of Peter Claver, SJ

  • Katie M. Grimes (a1)


Peter Claver is commonly remembered as a patron saint of ministry to black Americans as well as the “saint of the slave trade.” Partially by comparing him with Saint Martin de Porres, the only African-descended American saint, this article argues that rather than lauding Claver as a racial hero, we ought to recognize him as deeply complicit in the sins of white supremacy. This article aims to help the church more honestly reckon with its white supremacist past.



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1 As the controversy surrounding the canonization of eighteenth-century Spanish missionary Junipero Serra demonstrates, the contours of the church's corporate memory matter a great deal. Those who protest Serra's sainthood do so not only because they believe him morally unfit for the position, but also because they believe that his canonization falsely portrays the church as not a collaborator in the oppression of indigenous people but their savior.

2 More than simply a slogan of neo-Nazis and Klansmen, the phrase “white supremacy” names the method of social organization that continues to accord white people, both as a group and as individuals, more power than peoples of color. The regime of white supremacy operates even if most whites disavow “white supremacy” as an explicit ideology.

3 Longaro Ignatio degli Oddi, Vida del gran siervo de Dios el V.P. Pedro Claver, de la Compania de Jesus (Madrid: Don Eusebio Auguado, 1851), 6.

7 Proceso de beatificación y canonización de san Pedro Claver, trans. Anna María Splendiani and Tulio Aristizábal Giraldo (Bogota: Pontificia Universidad Javieriana, 2002), xxii.

8 Arana, Paola Vargas, “Pedro Claver y la evangelización en Cartagena: Pilar del encuentro entre africanos y el Nuevo Mundo, siglo XVII,” Fronteras de la Historia 11 (2006): 298.

9 Ibid., 254–55.

10 Jorge Canizares-Esguerra, Matt D. Childs, and James Sidbury, ed., The Black Urban Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 151.

11 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 68, a.10; Luis N. Rivera, A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest of the Americas (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 233.

12 Sweet, David G., “Black Robes and ‘Black Destiny’: Jesuit Views of African Slavery in 17th-Century Latin America,” Revista de Historia de América 86 (July 1, 1978): 9394.

13 Ibid., 92.

14 John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 136; Lawrence A. Clayton, Bartolomé de Las Casas: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 426.

15 David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 190.

16 Rivera, A Violent Evangelism, 269.

17 Sweet, “Black Robes and ‘Black Destiny,’” 92.

18 James H. Sweet, “Spanish and Portuguese Influences on Racial Slavery in British North America, 1492–1619,” Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Gilder Lehrman Center International Conference at Yale University: Collective Degradation; Slavery and the Construction of Race (November 7–8, 2003), 7,

19 Proceso de beatificación y canonización de San Pedro Claver, 87 (my translation and emphasis).

20 Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 50.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid., 5.

23 Ibid.

24 Maude Dominica Petre, Aethiopum Servus: A Study in Christian Altruism (London: Osgood, 1896), 152.

25 Pietro Adamo Brioschi, Vida de San Pedro Claver: Heroico apóstol de los negros (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 1889), 96 (my translation).

26 Arana, “Pedro Claver y la evangelización en Cartagena,” 310 (my translation).

27 Ibid., 316 (my translation). The Spanish word gentilidad is often translated as “heathenish” in English translations of this text; however, I have chosen this translation in order to underscore the connections between the origins of white supremacy and Christian supersession that have been demonstrated by J. Kameron Carter in Race: A Theological Account (London: Oxford University Press, 2008) and Willie James Jennings in The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

28 Angel Valtierra, Peter Claver: Saint of the Slaves (New York: Newman Press, 1960), 114.

29 Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 52.

30 Ibid., 55.

31 Valtierra, Peter Claver, 114–15.

32 Proceso de beatificación y canonización de San Pedro Claver, 104 (my translation).

33 Arana, “Pedro Claver y la evangelización en Cartagena,” 311 (my translation).

34 Valtierra, Peter Claver, 114.

35 Proceso de beatificación y canonización de San Pedro Claver, 103 (my translation).

36 Ibid., 107 (my translation).

37 Arana, “Pedro Claver y la evangelización en Cartagena,” 317 (my translation).

38 Ibid. (my translation).

39 Ibid., 310 (my translation).

40 Proceso de beatificación y canonización de San Pedro Claver, 133 (my translation).

41 John Richard Slattery, The Life of St. Peter Claver, S.J.: The Apostle of the Negroes (Philadelphia: H. L. Kilner, 1893), 139.

42 William Morgan Markoe, The Slave of the Negroes (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1920), 56.

43 Ibid.

44 Slattery, The Life of St. Peter Claver, S.J., 70.

45 Herman L. Bennett, Africans in Colonial Mexico: Absolutism, Christianity, and Afro-Creole Consciousness, 1570–1640 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 13.

46 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1218, 1228.

47 Ibid., 1218.

48 Proceso de beatificación y canonización de San Pedro Claver, 93 (my translation).

49 Ibid., 94.

50 Valtierra, Peter Claver, 111.

51 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1221.

53 Petre, Aethiopum Servus, 205.

54 Slattery, The Life of St. Peter Claver, S.J., 232.

55 Ibid., 232–34.

56 Proceso de beatificación y canonización de San Pedro Claver, 85.

57 Petre, Aethiopum Servus, 152.

58 Arana, “Pedro Claver y la evangelización en Cartagena,” 307.

59 Alonso de Sandoval, Treatise on Slavery: Selections from “De instauranda Aethiopum salute,” ed. and trans. Nicole von Germeten (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007), 97.

60 Ibid.

61 Arana, “Pedro Claver y la evangelización en Cartagena,” 309 (my translation).

62 Ibid., 311 (my translation).

63 Ibid., 312 (my translation).

64 Proceso de beatificación y canonización de San Pedro Claver, 86 (my translation).

65 Ibid., 138 (my translation).

66 Ibid., 101 (my translation).

67 Arana, “Pedro Claver y la evangelización en Cartagena,” 318 (my translation).

68 Proceso de beatificación y canonización de San Pedro Claver, 193 (my translation).

69 Ali, Omar H., “The African Diaspora in Latin America: Afro-Peru and San Martín de Porres,” New African Review 2 (Summer 2013): 3.

70 John F. Fink, American Saints: Five Centuries of Heroic Sanctity on the American Continents (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 2001), 11.

71 Chris Garces, “The Interspecies Logic of Race in Colonial Peru: San Martín de Porres's Animal Brotherhood,” in Sainthood and Race: Marked Flesh, Holy Flesh, ed. Molly H. Bassett and Vincent W. Lloyd (New York: Routledge, 2014), 96.

72 Ibid., 97.

73 James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1977), 193.

74 Ibid., 141.

75 This helps explain why Catholic theology has failed to engage with figures like Malcolm X, despite the fact that “he speaks on behalf of those whom he calls the victims of America's ‘so-called democracy.’” Massingale, Bryan, “Vox Victimarum Vox Dei: Malcolm X As Neglected ‘Classic’ for Catholic Theological Reflection,” CTSA Proceedings 65 (2010): 63.

76 Skocpol, Theda and Oser, Jennifer Lynn, “Organization despite Adversity: The Origins and Development of African American Fraternal Associations,” Social Science History 28, no. 3 (2004): 367437, at 391.

77 Monica A. Coleman, Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008). As Coleman explains, “‘Making a way out of no way’ means that the way forward was not contained in the past alone, the only way that was known. A way forward, a way toward life, comes from another source. It comes from unforeseen possibilities. These possibilities come from God” (34). Coleman relates this phrase to womanist theology: “‘Making a way out of no way’ is a central theme in black women's struggles and God's assistance in helping them to overcome oppression. [It] can serve as a summarizing concept for the ways that various womanist theologians describe God's liberation of black women” (9).

78 Albert J. Raboteau, “Relating Race and Religion: Four Historical Models,” in Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience, ed. M. Shawn Copeland, LaReine-Marie Mosely, and Albert J. Raboteau (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 1–6; Davis, Cyprian, “The Holy See and American Black Catholics: A Forgotten Chapter in the History of the American Church,” U.S. Catholic Historian 7, no. 2/3 (1988): 157–81; Rice, Lincoln R., “Confronting the Heresy of ‘The Mythical Body of Christ’: The Life of Dr. Arthur Falls,” American Catholic Studies 123, no. 2 (2012): 5977; John T. McGreevy, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1998).

79 Emanuel Jordan Abston, “Catholicism and African-Americans: A Study of Claverism, 1909–1959” (PhD diss., The Florida State University, 1998), 94.

80 Ibid., 99.

81 Skocpol and Oser, “Organization despite Adversity,” 391.

82 Abston, “Catholicism and African-Americans,” 212–13.

83 Michael J. Walsh, Book of Saints (Ellicott City, MD: Twenty-Third Publications, 1995), 103.



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