U.S. church urged to turn attention to racism before fractures widen

| Dennis Sadowski | July 15, 2016 | 4 Comments
African-American and white men embrace after taking part in a prayer circle July 10 following a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas. Theologians and justice advocates have called upon the church to better address racism as a life issue and see it as an "intrinsic evil." CNS photo/Carlo Allegri, Reuters

African-American and white men embrace after taking part in a prayer circle July 10 following a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas. Theologians and justice advocates have called upon the church to better address racism as a life issue and see it as an “intrinsic evil.” CNS photo/Carlo Allegri, Reuters

Father Bryan Massingale, a priest of the Milwaukee Archdiocese and well-known theologian, knows what it’s like to be watched by police.

He said that as a black man there have been times he has been followed by police officers on the campus of Marquette University, where he taught for 12 years, as he walked on campus when he wasn’t wearing his priestly garb.

It’s a sign, Father Massingale told Catholic News Service, of the widespread racism that is entrenched in American culture.

Racism takes many forms: unequal access to housing, economic segregation, differences in the quality of schools between poor and well-to-do communities, and how police approach someone at a traffic stop or a street-side altercation.

“That’s why we need to understand that racism is more than negative speaking,” said the priest, who will join the theology faculty at Fordham University Aug. 1. “It’s really a cult of white supremacy. (Saying) that makes us feel uncomfortable because most people feel it’s related to the Ku Klux Klan. It’s not that. It’s a subtle culture of white belonging, that somehow public spaces belong to ‘us’ in a way (that) for others they are not.”

It’s time, Father Massingale said, for the U.S. Catholic Church, led by the bishops, to hold up racial injustice as an “intrinsic evil,” just as it has prioritized abortion and same-sex marriage.

“This indeed is a life issue,” he said.

Father Massingale is not alone in his call nor in using strong language when discussing what has been described as systemic racism. Other Catholic theologians and social justice leaders urged the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to openly and honestly confront the “original sin” of racism and acknowledge that a sense of white privilege is widespread and continues to harm communities of color.

While church teaching about racism has been clear, they told CNS, church practice has not always been forthright.

Some initiated a call for the bishops to develop a new pastoral letter on racism to address 21st-century concerns. The last, “Brother and Sisters to Us,” was issued in 1979. In it the bishops called racism a sin. A report commissioned by the USCCB for the 25th anniversary of the document in 2004 found that while some progress in addressing racism had been made within the church, results had fallen short of expectations.

In ongoing efforts to address race relations, the USCCB established the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church in 2008 to coordinate the bishops’ outreach to African-Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, Native Americans and migrants, refugees and travelers.

Donna Grimes, assistant director, African American affairs, in the secretariat has led “intercultural competency” training sessions around the country for three years. The programs, lasting up to three days, focus on helping parishes to become welcoming places to newcomers in an increasingly diverse church.

Priests and seminarians in particular, Grimes said, are interested in learning how to guide parishes to be more welcoming communities. Still, there are concerns, she said.

“Many seminarians seem to be out of touch with some of the communities I’m familiar with,” said Grimes, an African-American. “I get a sense that they expect to be ordained and to go to perhaps a suburban parish like the one they grew up in. But with the shortage of priests and the need for priests to be flexible, it’s very important that they pick up the skill, knowledge and attitudes, I would say, to be interculturally competent.”

Discussions among parish participants during the sessions — and afterward — have revealed a desire for the church to more aggressively confront racism, Grimes said.

“People would really like to hear more from the bishops. This is what I keep hearing. They say, ‘Do they (the bishops) care? Is it really a church home for me?'” Grimes said.

“We’ve got a lot of challenges out in the community that people are frustrated about, black and white and other races as well,” she explained. “They are very frustrated about things happening in the community, from one city after another — tension, video recording, violence. It’s very upsetting and distressing.

“The church is not immune to that. People, I find, they want this resolved … and they want to raise the issue, their concerns, in the church. They want them to be discussed. They want them to be heard,” Grimes said.

Theologians such as M. Shawn Copeland at Boston College, Kathleen Grimes (no relation to Donna Grimes) at Villanova University, Karen Teel at the University of San Diego and Jon Nilson of Loyola University admitted that whites become alarmed when terms such as white supremacy and white privilege are used to explain why racism persists. Copeland is black; the other three theologians are white.

Using such terms is a way of raising awareness of the struggles within herself and within her students to better understand people of different backgrounds, Teel told CNS.

“I find that many white people don’t know what’s going on (economically and socially). Given the nature of white supremacy, it’s our nature not to understand it,” Teel explained.

“Part of what I’m trying to do is break down how whiteness works and how white people think and explain and talk about the history (within the context of church teaching),” she added.

The answer to racism rests in understanding that human dignity is foremost in church teaching, Copeland said.

“The very simple answer is love of God and love of neighbor. And it’s also the most complex answer because it requires the most profound conversion of mind and heart,” she said.

Beyond the bishops, parishioners must take charge in the fight against racism, Copeland added.

“We are all responsible. It’s not about guilt. It’s about responsibility. Whether you came to the United States last week or came 300 years ago, we’re all responsible for the condition of our country.”

Copeland suggested that parishes assemble groups of people to “sit together … and be quiet enough to surface what is happening in our country. That’s not asking people to spend money. It’s asking people to set aside some time. It’s asking people to think deeply and prayerfully about what’s happening to us.”

Prayer, reflection and discussion are major parts of a year-old effort by Pax Christi USA to build interracial understanding and promote peace. Sister Patricia Chappell, executive director, said the Communities of Color workshops, offered six times thus far, are meant to bring people together to talk and reflect on the gifts they bring to the church as well as the wider community.

“The reality of the Catholic Church and, of course, our country is that Sunday morning services still continue to be the most segregated times in America,” said Sister Patricia, who is black and a member of the Sister of Notre Dame de Namur.

Pax Christi USA leaders decided to develop the workshops because they saw that true peace would never be realized until people better understood each other. In many cases, the discussions are the first that participants have ever had about race relations.

“It’s providing an opportunity for people to build community and to be in right relationships with each other,” Sister Patricia said, “and to continue this discussion of how do we build this community valuing the cultural and ethnic gifts that each person brings.”

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  • therain

    The first thing to do would be to stop voting democrat.

  • Guy McClung

    Elsewhere I have noted the liberal-selective focus of all these liberal theologians’ speaking of ‘theologicdal silence,” and trumpeting “racism,” but who ignore racially-targeted abortion, black genocide, and the Party Of Death’s [democrat] role in using RETA to reduce the American black population, intentionally, below replacement level. [“RETA”: racially eugenic targeted abortion]. For agenda reasons all too clear, Fr. Massingale and the other sin-silent theologians refuse to address RETA.

    I noted this in “Breaking the “Theological Silence” on Racially-Targeted Abortion,” at Catholic Lane Sept 14, 2015: “In the article “Has the Silence Been Broken? Catholic Theological Ethics and Racial Justice” in Theological Studies Journal (March, 2014), Father Bryan Massingale, Ph.D., of Marquette University discusses what he calls “the theological silence” about racism in America. Fr. Massingale uses phrases like “deafening and appalling silence,” “embarrassed silence” and “shocking theological silence” regarding racism in the United States. There is no reference to, much less discussion of, the well-documented, racially-targeted abortion businesses in the United States. There is no mention of the deaths of over 30,000,000 minority babies since the Roe decision. There is no general theological condemnation of those public officials and political parties that advocate or promote policies which empower the killings.The silence of theologians and of many others, including many in authority in the Church, regarding racially-targeted abortions is more “appalling,” “shocking” and “deafening” than the theological silence regarding racism in general. If theologians have been exhorted to break the silence about racism, they should be required to break the silence about racially-targeted abortions. Otherwise they should be forever silent themselves about anything to do with theology, be mute forever about anything regarding Theologos.”

    Then in “ Does God Hear the Theological Silence About Racism in Abortion? At Catholic Lane, Dec. 8, 2015, I said: “For some time now, a group of theologians has opined about “Theological Silence About White Racism.” In words of accusation that could not be stronger or more vigorous, this sin is condemned as injustice, institutional violence, group dehumanization, troubling social evil, social subjugation, race-based wrongdoing, social sin, habitus of white superiority, tragedy, social inequity, unjust privileging, structural sin, Christian complicity, ecclesial complicity, and ethical failure.
    Now another article in the Theological Studies Journal raises the issue of theological silence about racism. And again the theological silence about abortion and about Racial Eugenic Targeted Abortion (RETA) is deafening. In “Redeeming Conscience,” in the March 2015 issue, James F. Keenan’s main point is that the recent Synod in Rome was silent about conscience. Further, Keenan asserts that conscience is so ineffective in America because of the history of slavery. He does not mention the effect of 60,000,000 abortions on conscience, nor does he extend his principles to RETA’s effect.
    Keenan ignores 1800 minority babies’ deaths each day,

    Keenan refers to slavery, torture, rape, lynching, heinous conduct, sexual assault, radical evil, killing, domestic violence, and bullying. But why is the word “abortion” not in his article? (Fr. Bryan Massingale also had the same glaring omission, which I discussed in my last article.) With the consideration of so many evils and their connection to racism, why don’t 17,000,000 African-Americans children killed in abortions matter? Why are 12,000,000 dead Hispanic babies invisible and insignificant?”

    Guy McClung, San Antonio, Texas

  • senrex

    OK. Let’s begin with a discussion of the most predominant racism in this country: BLACK RACISM.

    I personally know something of this man. If he’s a Catholic theologian, I’m the Czar of the Russias.

  • Charles C.

    Please correct me if I’m in error, but Father Massingale seems to be taking the position that if members of a race are, on average, not doing as well in some area as members of another race,it is proof of, indeed a definition of, racism.

    Asians do better in the US than Whites in many areas, especially the key area of education. Shouldn’t Father Massingale be fighting “Yellow Racism and Privilege?”

    Granted, are choices are influenced by our surroundings, but they are not controlled by them. The problems mentioned in the article stem largely from choices made by members of groups or races.

    Most would agree that racism was more prevalent before the Civil Rights Act. It is useful to return to some key statistics of that time.

    “As late as 1950, black women nationwide were more likely to be married than white women, and only 9 percent of black families with children were headed by a single parent. In the 1950s, black children had a 52 percent chance of living with both their biological parents until age seventeen; by the 1980s those odds had dwindled to a mere 6 percent.

    “In 1959, only 2 percent of black children were reared in households in which the mother never married; today that figure approaches 60 percent.”

    If racism was so much greater before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, how can we use racism to explain the destruction of the Black American family? And Black families aren’t in trouble because of divorce, it’s because they don’t get married as do Whites.

    A 2013 study by the US Department of Labor showed that 90% of White women born between 1957 and 1964 were married at least once by age 46. Only 68% of Black women had been.

    Is “economic segregation” due to racism, or:

    “Unwed mothers, regardless of their race, are four times more likely to live in poverty than the average American. Female-headed black families earn only 36 percent as much as two-parent black families, and female-headed white families earn just 46 percent as much as two-parent white families.”

    And crime?

    “Regardless of race, 70 percent of all young people in state reform institutions were raised in fatherless homes, as were 60 percent of rapists, 72 percent of adolescent murderers, and 70 percent of long-term prison inmates.”

    Walter Williams, a Black economist and professor writes:

    “Even if white people were to become morally rejuvenated tomorrow, it would do
    nothing for the problems plaguing a large segment of the black community. Illegitimacy, family breakdown, crime, and fraudulent education are devastating problems, but they are not civil rights problems.”

    Father Massingale should turn his sights elsewhere.