The importance of not defining one by their greatest sin

By: Fr. Matthew Buening, Catholic Chaplain for Catholic Campus Ministry 

I was moved by the recent article about reviewing, revising and renaming some of the buildings here at Towson University. I support the policy of including and listening to many voices from all around the University community, and especially to put in the center those whose voices society too often forces to the margins.

It reminds me of a man who grew up here in Maryland as the son of an immigrant family. He and his family were persecuted because of their religion. He was not allowed to vote or practice his faith openly. He was considered a foreigner and looked at as suspect. The community finally started to listen to his voice when it could no longer be ignored, so impassioned and persuasive was he for the cause of independence.

This man was Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland, the only Catholic signer of the Deceleration of Independence. He was also a slave owner. I understand that this sad fact might rightly exclude him from being honored with his name on one of our dorms. However, I write only to implore us not to boil down the life of such a person to one phrase: “a slave owner.”  

I would hate to be defined by my greatest sin. In fact, I dare say that none of us should be defined only by our sins.

Towards the end of his life, Charles Carroll worked to rid his country, state and soul from this enormous blot of evil slavery on his life, and on our society.  He introduced a bill in the Maryland senate for the abolition of slavery. He was unsuccessful.

We may rightly decide that his efforts against slavery and for the freedom of slaves was too little, too late, and that despite many other aspects of his life that were praiseworthy of his name, while on our founding documents, should not be on our facades.

My only hope is that we will not reduce Charles Carroll, or any human being, as enslaved forever by their past sins. I pray we are able to use these moments to review and revise not only the names of buildings, but the names we call ourselves. We are more than our mistakes, and it may be time to renew ourselves by rejecting any areas of our lives where there is any prejudice or hate so that one day they might name a building after you.

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