John LaFarge, S.J. and The Unity of the Human Race

To complement the opening of the new exhibit at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art on the American painter, muralist, and stained-glass designer John La Farge, we present a rare and remarkable document in our Burns Library collections authored by the artist’s Jesuit son and namesake—the draft of a papal encyclical denouncing racism during the Nazi era that was never promulgated and remained hidden for decades.

John LaFarge, SJ (1880-1963) was the youngest of eight children born to his better remembered father. Following his graduation from Harvard in 1901, LaFarge studied theology in Austria, where he  was ordained a priest and entered the Society of Jesus four years later. Following his return to the United States and the completion of his education and vocational formation, he embarked upon pastoral work, spending fifteen years (1911-26) ministering to African American and immigrant communities in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, along the Chesapeake Bay. The experience deeply shaped his attitude to race relations and to racism, which he considered a sin. In 1926 he founded an industrial school in southern Maryland for African American boys, the Cardinal Gibbons Institute.


John LaFarge in Innsbruk, circa 1901

That same year, LaFarge became the assistant editor of America, a leading Jesuit weekly. He wrote for the magazine for the next 37 years and helped to establish the progressive tone that it has largely retained. By comparison to his locally focused pastoral work in rural Maryland, America gave LaFarge a platform from which to preach the gospel of interracial justice to national audiences. In addition to his editorials and the organization of  Catholic interracial councils in New York and other cities around the country, he wrote several influential books on the topic, beginning with Interracial Justice in 1937.

According to Boston College professor of history James O’Toole, who has contributed an essay to the McMullen Museum exhibition catalogue, the publication of Interracial Justice “presented LaFarge with an unusual opportunity,” as he explains in the following excerpt:

Traveling in Europe in the spring and summer of 1938, in part so he could report first-hand for America on deteriorating conditions in Germany and Italy, he received an unexpected summons to a meeting with the pope, Pius XI. … [Pius] had become increasingly troubled by the overt anti-Semitism of the regime, and he determined next to issue an extended public denunciation. Because LaFarge had a reputation for opposition to any form of “racialism,” the American seemed the right person to draft a formal encyclical letter, one of the most forceful statements a pope could make on any subject. In June, the two met privately at the papal retreat outside Rome – Hitler came to visit Mussolini that summer, and Pius left for his vacation early, saying that the Roman air had suddenly gone bad – and, conversing in French, the pope asked the Jesuit to draft the document for him. LaFarge was flattered that the pope had apparently read Interracial Justice carefully, but at first he demurred. The pope insisted, telling him to say in the encyclical “just what you would say if you yourself were pope.”

For the next several months, LaFarge worked on the document, retreating for this purpose to the more agreeable climate, both meteorologically and politically, of Paris. If anyone back in America wondered why he was not returning home, he wrote a friend, “you can say I am working on a possible second edition of my book … This is generally true,” he concluded slyly….

Typescript draft of Humani generis unitas from the Edward Stanton Papers in Burns Library

Typescript draft of Humani generis unitas, Box 4, Folder 8, Edward Stanton Papers, BC.2002.071 John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

By the end of the summer, the draft was complete. Like all such encyclicals, it would be known by its Latin opening words: humani generis unitas – “the unity of the human race.” That unity stood, in LaFarge’s vision, as a refutation of all efforts to set one group of people against another. Any theory “which makes a distinction between higher and lower races,” he wrote, was  particularly odious, since it “ignores the bond of unity” that was the common heritage of humanity. When directed particularly against Jews, the “flagrant denial of human rights” could only be condemned. “One naturally wonders,” he went on, if the “advocates of so-called racial purity” – any reader of the document would know exactly who was meant here – were in reality merely advancing “a clever slogan to move the masses” for other purposes, such as conquest and war. In Germany, Jews were wrongly “denied legal protection against violence and robbery, exposed to every form of insult and public degradation,” and this meant that they were “treated as criminals, though they have scrupulously obeyed the law of their native land.” Even those who had fought and died for their country in the First World War were now considered “traitors and branded as outlaws by the very fact of their parentage.” If issued, the encyclical would stand as an unequivocal denunciation of Hitler and his plans for the Holocaust.

Sadly, LaFarge’s bold document was never published. Finally returning to New York in early October, he had submitted the draft encyclical through the regular Vatican channels. There, it stalled: Pius would not see it until the end of the following January. By then, events were spinning out of control. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had met with Hitler outside Munich and agreed to let the dictator seize part of Czechoslovakia in exchange for “peace in our time”; general war was less than a year away. Meanwhile, the health of the pope, age eighty-one, began a precipitous decline. He struggled visibly through public appearances, though some of these seemed part of a general plan related to the projected encyclical. He addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences just before Christmas, for example, having inducted as members several Jewish scientists who had recently been fired from Italian universities by Mussolini. But in early February 1939 he died, and the idea of a resounding papal denunciation of racism and anti-Semitism died with him.

His successor, Pope Pius XII, withheld the draft, only borrowing a few phrases for his own encyclicals. Until the 1990s, when the work of Georges Passelecq and Bernard Suchecky revealed the story, the complete text remained unknown outside the Vatican and a few of LaFarge’s closest associates. The Burns Library possesses one of the few surviving draft copies of the encyclical among the papers of Edward S. Stanton, a former professor at Boston College who wrote his doctoral dissertation and a number of articles on LaFarge.

LaFarge in later life

John LaFarge in later life

Upon his return to the United States during the Second World War, LaFarge once again threw himself into reforming American attitudes toward racial justice. In 1943, he organized an interfaith rally before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Exactly twenty years later, at the age of 83, LaFarge joined the March on Washington organized by Martin Luther King, Jr.. As O’Toole points out, although LaFarge was not among the speakers that day, “the many Catholic priests, sisters, and lay people who were part of the throng in August 1963 would probably never have been there without his lifetime of work.”

LaFarge died that November, two days after Kennedy’s assassination. Boston’s Cardinal Richard Cushing, having presided at the president’s funeral, flew to New York to offer a eulogy at a memorial service for LaFarge, calling him a pioneer in the field of interracial justice.

If you would like to examine the draft encyclical or other items in the papers of Edward S. Stanton, we welcome you to visit Burns Library Reading Room. For more information, please call 617-552-4861 or write to

The exhibition, “John LaFarge and the Recovery of the Sacred,” opens at the McMullen Museum of Art on September 1 and runs through December 13, 2015. Curated by Boston College professor of art history Jeffrey Howe, it is complemented by a catalogue that includes James O’Toole’s complete essay on John LaFarge, SJ excerpted above. In addition, the Boston College University Libraries have assisted Howe with mounting a digital guide titled  “John La Farge Stained Glass in New England.”

  • Christian Dupont, Burns Librarian & Associate University Librarian for Special Collections

Further Reading:

Passelecq, Georges, and Bernard Suchecky. The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997.

Southern, David. John LaFarge and the Limits of Catholic Interracialism, 1911-1963. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

Stanton, Edward. “John LaFarge,” in Saints Are Now: Eight Portraits of Modern Sanctity, edited by John Delaney. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981.

Stanton, Edward. “John LaFarge’s Understanding of the Unifying Mission of the Church, Especially in the Area of Race Relations.” PhD dissertation, St. Paul University, Ottawa, 1972.

This entry was posted in Archives & Manuscripts, Exhibits & Events, University Archives and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to John LaFarge, S.J. and The Unity of the Human Race

  1. Marie Schu says:

    Is it true that Father Wladimir Ledochowski, S. J., superior general of the Society of Jesus, deliberately delayed the transmission of the documents that Pope Pius XI asked Father LaFarge, S.J. to draft for an encyclical until the pope was near death and that Pius XII decided to bury the documents from Father LaFarge?

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