(September 18, 2020)
On September 9, 2020, the Roman Catholic Bishops of California announced a year-long initiative to examine the impact of racism, particularly as it is felt in the African-American community.
The date of the announcement coincided with the Feast of St. Peter Claver, the patron saint of Black people and racial justice.
The initiative includes 1) listening to the African-American community to develop an action plan, 2) initiating a dialogue among the Catholic faithful regarding the sin of racism, and 3) implementing an action plan that aims to remove racist beliefs and actions from within the Catholic community and to encourage a “culture of encounter” to dismantle racial ignorance which partly leads to racist beliefs.
The news of this initiative is encouraging; however, I am concerned this noble attempt could result in the California bishops playing a broken record.
Firstly, I am skeptical of the success of this initiative because one of the California bishops, Robert Barron, suggested on his site Word on Fire that asking what the bishops are doing to address racism is the wrong question, and that the laity need to take on the onus.
Secondly, the US bishops have demonstrated a poor track record when it comes to addressing racism.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released four statements addressing racism; however, little had been accomplished following the issuance of each statement.
In 1979, the USCCB issued Brothers and Sisters to Us. The title is tone-deaf, presuming the “us” to be white people and that Black people are outside of the Church.
In 2018, the USCCB released its most recent statement on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts.” Several commentators criticized this document, including Fr. Dan Horan, who referred to it as a “worthless statement.”
To prevent another “worthless statement,” I propose that the California bishops incorporate the following four elements into this initiative:
1. A listening that “feels with” and that comes from a place of reverence
Within the context of the initiative’s listening sessions, I advocate for a spiritual foundation in the praxis of listening.
In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola proposed an encounter with Jesus that includes the senses as an instrument of prayer and discernment.
He used the Spanish word sentir, which directly means “to feel,” or more specifically in this context, “to feel with.”
I urge the California Bishops to utilize the spiritual tool of discernment denoted in sentir when listening to the Black community: listen to the community’s pain and experience it; feel the sorrow and grief, the frustration and loss.
Become acquainted with this pain especially because Jesus feels this pain. Identifying with the pain is the surest means to promote a “culture of encounter.”
Felt knowledge of the effects of the sin of racism ought to lead to a more authentic conversion and deeper activism against this injustice.
Ignatius also believed in the importance of reverence, such that he included it in the First Principle and Foundation of the Exercises (SpEx 23).
Believing in a God who dwells in all things (SpEx 235) and labors on our behalf (SpEx 236), Ignatius would advocate that the bishops approach these listening sessions with reverence, knowing that God is present, this initiative is important to God, and that God is speaking through the words, voices, stories, and the hurt of the Black community.
Come to these listening sessions with the same reverence as if visiting the Blessed Sacrament or preparing for Mass.
2. Naming white nationalism, white supremacy and white privilege as vices that need to be denounced and dismantled
One of the failures of all four of the documents from the USCCB addressing racism is that they each neglected to name and condemn white nationalism, white supremacy and white privilege.
As Dan Horan noted, the Bishops failed to recognize that racism is a white problem.
The US Bishops have not directly condemned the violence from the Alt Right in Charlottesville in 2017, nor the violence from Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha.
White supremacy is at the root of both of these tragic events, and the US bishops’ complicity with white privilege prevented these white nationalists’ actions from being named and denounced.
Moreover, in “Open Wide Our Hearts,” the US bishops had an opportunity to condemn Confederate flags, nooses and swastikas, but failed to do so.
An initiative on race will have no authenticity or results without an unequivocal condemnation of white nationalism, white supremacy and white privilege.
For the California Bishops to have any credibility, they must tackle these vices head-on.
3. Addressing racism boldly, without fear of offending white parishioners
The USCCB’s inability to name and condemn white supremacy stems from the aforementioned complicity with white privilege, particularly the Church’s fear of offending white people or infringing on white fragility.
In Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, Fr. Bryan Massingale quoted a 1975 address by Brother Joseph Davis, Executive Director of the National Office of Black Catholics, who stated that the Church had the opportunity to “depart from the structures of racism so rigidly imposed by the dominant society [and] to affirm the humanity and dignity of Black people… It has invariably backed off in deference to the sensitivities of the white Catholic community.”
Favoring white fragility over racial justice will send the Church backwards, not forwards, especially given the growing non-white population not only in the Church in California but throughout the US.
The California bishops cannot succeed in this initiative while placating white sensitivity.
4. Include experts in the initiative
Along with listening to the African-American community, the California Bishops need to include experts in this conversation.
Fr. Bryan Massingale is a Black Catholic priest who has written on this topic, and omitting him from this important initiative would be foolish.
Additionally, Olga Segura, who is scheduled to publish Birth of a Movement: Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Church next year, needs to be part of this initiative.
Moreover, input from the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus and the National Black Sisters’ Conference is paramount to comprehensively address racism in the Black community as experienced in the Church.
The Church has important resources within its Body that can aid the California Bishops in discerning and dismantling the sin of racism, and they must be utilized.
Another important expert, though outside the Church, is Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, who wrote How to Be an Antiracist. Kendi’s writings could be foundational for attaining not only personal conversion in the area of racism but also in aiding the California Bishops in working against systemic racism.
Additionally, one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, Patrisse Cullors, lives in Los Angeles.
The Church has spent more time defaming BLM than listening to it.
Now is the time to listen not only to the African-American community at large, but more specifically to those working directly for racial justice within the Black community.
I urge the California Bishops to include Ms. Cullors in their dialogue.
I would like the California Bishops to succeed in this important initiative.
Taking a strong stance against racism upholds the dignity of Black people and persons of color, who for centuries have experienced persecution and hardship from both within and outside the Church.
The US Church has been given many opportunities to issue a lasting statement and formation of anti-racism, but the Church has failed its people and its Lord by not taking these initiatives seriously.
Therefore dear Bishops of California, please do not fall into the historical pattern of the USCCB when it comes to addressing racism: take this initiative to its important end, and don’t drop the ball.