(September 7, 2020)
On Sunday, September 6, Fr. Bryan Massingale, in conjunction with the National Black Sisters’ Conference and the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, offered a Zoom presentation on “The Racist Sitting in the Pew: The Challenge Facing Black Catholicism Today.”
Massingale is a Black Catholic priest who is a professor at Fordham University specializing in Applied Christian Ethics. He is also the author of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church.
The presentation began with a reading from 2 Corinthians 4:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (8-12).
This passage offers a parallel reflection of the abuse and murder of Black people by police officers and civilians and is a reminder of Jesus’ nearness to these people and that He is suffering with them.
Additionally, it is a message of hope for Black Catholics to persevere amid the present darkness in society and in corners of the US Catholic Church.
Fr. Massingale noted that all people, particularly Black people, are “living in a time of extraordinary peril.” This is not limited to the COVID-19 pandemic, “which did not affect all races equally,” especially those who are Black and Persons of Color, but also includes the rise of hate crimes in 2020.
Racial violence, Massingale observed, is not limited to Black people, but even Asian Americans have experienced this as a response to President Trump’s description of the ‘Wuhan Virus,’ ‘Kung Flu’ or the ‘China Virus.’
The racial violence toward Black people, a litany including Trayvon Martin and continuing on to Jacob Blake, led to the tragic reality that in 2012, every 28 hours a Black life was lost due to police or vigilante killings, and “a day doesn’t go by without another incident… an incessant ritual.”
Fr. Bryan Massingale continued, “This is not hyperbole, this is, as Sr. Thea Bowman would say, the ‘true truth.’”
Massingale moved into the heart of his presentation by discussing the rise of white nationalism and the US Catholic Church’s complicity.
“The world view of white nationalism,” the priest noted, “is a response to the anxiety arising from a fundamentally changing cultural and social demographic environment” related to the increase in multiculturalism in the US, particularly the “Browning” of America with the rise in Latinx, Middle Eastern and East Indian immigrants.
The white response is one of “unease and resentment of the changing identity,” creating fertile ground for the rise of white nationalism to fight against the “fear of white extinction and replacement.”
In 2015, Donald J. Trump exploited this trend in his racist rhetoric for his bid to the presidency, calling Mexicans “rapists,” encouraging efforts to build a wall in the US southern border and calling for a Muslim travel ban.
Trump’s presidency included the Charlottesville white nationalists’ march and the violence towards counter-protesters. Amid this, Trump himself identified as a nationalist, advancing the interests of those he believes are real Americans: white men.
The Catholic Church in the US, on the other hand, “has been ambivalent regarding white nationalism… The Church is going through its own Browning, especially among the younger population,” said Massingale.
In response, white Catholics express comfort in seminarians and clergy who are also white, as opposed to foreign priests. This sentiment of whiteness carries over from Church matters to politics.
“White Catholic support for white nationalism” has been evident in the majority of this population voting for Trump. While they claimed the guise of Trump’s pro-life stance, Massingale pointed to research indicating that the president’s stances on immigration and race were higher determinants for white Catholics selecting him than anything else.
Additionally, approximately 59% of white Catholics support Trump’s re-election.
In an attempt to respond to racism, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released “Open Wide Our Hearts” in 2018.
This document, which Fr. Dan Horan* criticized as a “worthless statement,” failed to call for the removal of Confederate monuments under the guise of American heritage.
Massingale noted there was no criticism of President Trump’s racist policies, and there was no mention of white nationalism, white privilege or the Black Lives Matter movement.
As I have noted previously, when Eric Martin* in June 2020 published his article in Sojourners highlighting the USCCB’s complicity with White supremacy in its refusal to condemn Confederate statues and monuments, the USCCB responded with outrage which resulted in the article’s initial removal.
The outrage signifies the deeply-seated racial bias held by the USCCB and its inability to name this and seek conversion.
The US bishops had an opportunity to unambiguously condemn the sin of racism in all of its forms, but failed in this attempt. This failure, Massingale suggested, indicates the US bishops’ complicity with white supremacy, white nationalism and white privilege.
In response to rising white nationalism in the US and the Church’s complicity, Fr. Massingale called on Black Catholics to be “radically Black and authentically Catholic,” embracing the Black Lives Matter movement and calling the Church to its universal roots and its anti-racism teachings.
The priest astutely pointed out that the Catholic pro-life movement had never intended to be single-issue. The 1974 Document from the Vatican on the Declaration of Procured Abortion called on Catholics to oppose not just the practice of abortion but the conditions that make abortion an attractive option.
Inherent in the document is a moral imperative to give every children every opportunity to be welcome. The Church therefore has expressed concern for the child after birth as well as before birth.
In a 1999 homily in Saint Louis, Missouri, Pope John Paul II defined unconditionally pro-life as standing against euthanasia, the death penalty and racism, working to eradicate “every form of racism, a plague which…[is] of the most persistent and destructive evils of the nation.”
In the 2018 Apostolic Exhortation Gaudate et exsultate, Pope Francis proclaimed that the unborn and the already born are equally sacred.
Additionally, Pope Francis, responding to the death of George Floyd, stated “we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”
Based on the preceding quotations, Massingale highlighted that the Catholic Church, on a global scale and coming directly from the Supreme Pontiff, understands that combatting the sin of racism is part of the pro-life movement.
It is an “American aberration” in the US Church, however, that adheres to a single-issue stance, which is “a cover for anti-Blackness and racism.”
The Church in the US, as a corporate body, “hides behind the rhetoric of being pro-life and using that language to mute concern over white nationalism.”
Amid what appears to be a dimly-lit future for Black Catholics, Massingale cautioned that “we cannot underestimate the threat of violence,” however he called on Black Catholics to view the future as a relay race: others have gone before in the Civil Rights movement, passing on the baton for the present day, in order for those in the present to “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus” and “run the race” (cf. Hebrews 12:1-3) for the next generation.
The True Truth in Fr. Massingale’s call to Black Catholics and the US Catholic Church is to truly follow Jesus, who is the Way and the Truth (cf. John 14:6).
In order to do this, Black Catholics must be unashamedly Black and unashamedly Catholic, and the US Church must unashamedly welcome its Black members.
Complicity in white nationalism prevents the US Church from being truly Catholic (i.e. universal), splintering itself from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
This creates a schism that Massingale believes Black Catholics have the ability to heal by prophetically calling the US Church out on its racial bias and demanding that the US Church turn away from its racist complicity in order to become an authentically Catholic Church, universally welcoming all of its members of the Body of Christ equally.
The US Church also bears the responsibility to defend the Black members of the Body of Christ from having their physical bodies and lives endangered due to white nationalism and systemic racism.
*A previous version of this article suggested that Fr. Massingale made reference in his talk Sunday to articles on racism written by Fr. Dan Horan and Eric Martin. Those references were not drawn by Massingale himself but should rather be understood as context provided by the author of this piece. Novena apologises to Fr. Massingale for not drawing the distinction clearly enough and to our readers for any confusion caused. – ed.