Amid controversy at 'Sojourners', on racism it's the US Conference of Censoring, Cowardly Bishops

Amid controversy at ‘Sojourners’, on racism it’s the US Conference of Censoring, Cowardly Bishops

(August 16, 2020)

A recent action by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) suggests that it is rebranding itself as the US Conference of Censoring Bishops.

In June 2020, Eric Martin wrote a courageous article in Sojourners entitled “The Catholic Church Has a Visible White-Power Faction.”

His article revealed that the 2018 document from the USCCB, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” included an amendment from Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock, Arkansas to “condemn the imagery of swastikas, Confederate flags, and nooses. The U.S. bishops deliberated and voted to reject it.”

According to the article, “the bishops explained themselves by arguing that swastikas and nooses were already ‘widely recognized signs of hatred,’ which would seem to make them all the easier to condemn. (Interestingly, they eschewed this logic when issuing their only condemnation, against violence toward police.) As for the Confederate flag, ‘some still claim it as a sign of heritage,’ they argued.”

The USCCB, along with Catholic Charities USA, expressed “outrage” to the President and then Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners Jim Wallis regarding Martin’s article.

Wallis confessed his difficulty in making the decision to pull the article from publication in order to preserve the anti-poverty alliances Sojourners has with these respective organizations.

Wallis’ action denotes there was pressure from the USCCB along with Catholic Charities USA to remove Martin’s article. 

These Catholic organizations’ stated rationale against Martin’s article was hollow: “The document (“Open Wide Our Hearts”) did not condemn (nooses and swastikas), but did address them. The final document does not address Confederate flags.”

This clarification is nothing more than gaslighting via a Straw Man Fallacy*; it does not exonerate the USCCB for its inaction and further implicates the USCCB’s racial bias.

Additionally it reinforces the White Fragility among the membership of the USCCB by exerting its influence to silence Martin. 

By refusing to condemn nooses, swastikas and Confederate flags for the sinful symbols that they are, the bishops can also be labeled the US Conference of Cowardly Bishops. 

If it were truly the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the USCCB would have upheld the “catholic” (i.e. universal) dignity of all humans and would have had no hesitation in denouncing any and all racist symbols and actions.

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This episcopal censoring echoes the removal of two articles in the publication US Catholic that were critical of Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

The message conveyed by episcopal censoring is a despotic attitude toward the Laity: do not criticize us or we will silence you.

Not unlike the Church’s historical message to so many victims of pedophilia and sexual abuse.

Not unlike the last words of slain unarmed Black man Eric Garner, “I can’t breathe,” which was also uttered more than 20 times by the recently murdered George Floyd.

Amid the USCCB’s abuse of power, the Catholic Laity need to remember who they are in the Church and the power that they have.

Without the Laity, the Catholic clergy and hierarchy are irrelevant; if there were no one to minister to, then there would be no need for ministry. 

Without the Laity, there would be no donors, who provide financial support that enable the clergy to have the monetary means to do God’s work. 

By withholding donations, the Laity could, in effect, defund the clergy. 

The Laity are shareholders of the Catholic Church, and the clergy have a duty of responsibility towards them, not vice versa.

The blame for the initial removal of Eric Martin’s article does not fall on the USCCB alone. Sojourners cited Catholic Charities USA as one of the proponents of denouncing the “error” in Martin’s article.

Catholic Charities USA has historically advocated for justice among the poor and the oppressed, and offers a variety of ministries oriented to the Gospel including but not limited to affordable housing, immigration and relief services, advocacy and social policy initiatives, and disaster services. 

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Given Catholic Charities USA’s mission and ministries, it would appear antithetical to side with the USCCB’s outrage over Miller’s article. 

However, I believe the missing link in Catholic Charities USA’s betrayal of its mission stems from the USCCB’s lobbying efforts to secure a path for Catholic parishes and organizations to be recipients of the forgivable Payment Protection Program (PPP), which the US Congress passed into law to provide immediate financing for businesses to pay its employees and fund overhead costs amid shutdowns and the decline in activity due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. 

Religious organizations would normally not be entitled to such government assistance given their status of being exempt from government taxes and being religious-based; however, lobbying by the USCCB provided Catholic organizations with unprecedented access to this government funding. 

Organizations within Catholic Charities USA were among the recipients of PPP loans, being awarded as much as $220 million.

Therefore, Catholic Charities USA has a financial interest in being aligned with the USCCB in the outcry of Eric Martin’s Sojourners article.

When in doubt, follow the money.

Given the aforementioned tactics and undertones of the US bishops, they may more appropriately be deemed by the faithful to be the US Conference of Corrupt Bishops.

Internally at Sojourners, Wallis’ decision to remove Eric Martin’s article resulted in the public resignations of two of its editors, Daniel José Camacho and Dhanya Addanki.

These resignations bear significance since the are both individuals of color. 

In her resignation announcement on Twitter, Dhanya Addanki made this clear “as a Dalit woman.” Dalits have been historically marginalized by India’s caste system. 

This shakeup led to the separation of Wallis from the editorial role at Sojourners and the appointment of Sandi Villareal as its new editor-in-chief, along with a commitment toward editorial independence which includes but is not limited to not removing any article that had been previously approved by Sojourners’ editorial board.

Therefore the actions of Eric Martin, Daniel José Camacho and Dhanya Addanki should serve to empower the non-ordained with the knowledge that they do have power and should never be afraid to use it to fight against social injustice.

We will not be silenced.

*A “Straw Man Fallacy” has the appearance of refuting an argument but refuses to refute or address the main point of discussion within the argument.

More on Novena by new US contributor Matt Kappadakunnel:

Calling out “call-outs”: how to bring charity to the social justice movement and why it’s important

Before ‘unfriending’, hit the pause button: an Ignatian approach to ideological differences on social media

Done with Dolan: New York’s cardinal is unfit to serve as a Church leader

USA: A house of divided bishops cannot stand against racism

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Matt Kappadakunnel

Matt Kappadakunnel

Matt Kappadakunnel has a background in investment management and investment banking. Additionally, Matt spent multiple years studying to be a Catholic priest. He is a graduate of Creighton University and is a CFA Charterholder. Matt lives in Los Angeles with his wife and toddler, and they are expecting a newborn in November.
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