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Ferguson & the Social Sin of Racism

The New York Times has a useful timeline of events in Ferguson, Missouri since the August 9 killing of Michael Brown. Grantland's Rembert Browne has a gripping and harrowing personal account of his first 48 hours reporting in Ferguson. Recent racial profiling data from the office of the Missouri Attorney General gives a statistical snapshot of the institutionalized racism that exists in Ferguson. The Wall Street Journal reports that in a city where 2/3 of the residents are African-American, 50 of 53 police officers are white. By following #Ferguson on Twitter, not only can you get up-to-the-minute reporting of events on the ground, you also can get an introduction to a slew of talented journalists like the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery, the New Yorker's Jelani Cobb, the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Boston Globe's Akilah Johnson and others who can answer (and often, already have) just about any question you might have about the crisis centered on Ferguson.

I know a priest who once began a sermon on Matthew 25:31-46 by noting that in 30 years of ministry, every conversation he'd had about this parable eventually---and usually quickly---turned to the question, "Does that mean I have to give change to every beggar who asks?".  Similarly, almost every discussion of institutionalized racism in America today eventually ends up with someone saying, "Are you calling me a racist?  Because I didn't/don't have anything to do with _____ (fill in the blank: slavery, Jim Crow, racially exclusive housing covenants, Ferguson....).

With all due respect, as the US Catholic bishops noted 35 years ago in their pastoral letter "Brothers and Sisters to Us", that's not the point when we're talking about the social sin of racism:

The structures of our society are subtly racist, for these structures reflect the values which society upholds. They are geared to the success of the majority and the failure of the minority. Members of both groups give unwitting approval by accepting things as they are. Perhaps no single individual is to blame. The sinfulness is often anonymous but nonetheless real. The sin is social in nature in that each of us, in varying degrees, is responsible. All of us in some measure are accomplices. As our recent pastoral letter on moral values states: "The absence of personal fault for an evil does not absolve one of all responsibility. We must seek to resist and undo injustices we have not caused, lest we become bystanders who tacitly endorse evil and so share in guilt in it."

"Brothers and Sisters to Us" is dated in some parts, and prone to an overuse of the quasi-diplomatic language that often affects documents written by committee; but in many places it remains relentlessly, prophetically clear-eyed and sober-minded:

Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church....

Racism is a sin....

Racism has been part of the social fabric of America since its European colonization....

Racism is unemployment housing the population in our the attitudes and behavior of some law enforcement officials....

Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world. To struggle against it demands an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society....

As Catholics we're heirs to a long tradition of moral reasoning that recognizes the existence and values the importance of institutions, and of society as a whole.  We also recognize the existence of sin---both individual and social.  Maybe we can draw upon those resources to help ourselves, and the rest of the nation, to get over the "...but I'm not a're not calling me a racist, are you..." kneejerk response, and get on with the necessary work of repentance and reparation for the sin of institutionalized racism.

About the Author

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 



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Maybe one of Commonweal's African-American contributors will contribute something on Ferguson & and Social Sin of Racism.

The situation breaks my heart.  How can we end up with face-offs in the street, in the year 2014?  Did the last 50 years accomplish nothing?


No, Jim, nothing has changed in 50 years.  In 1964, the Daughters of Charity, who lived at their provincialate in Normandy, just down the road from Ferguson, spent a lot of time visiting the poor at Pruett-Igoe, tha notorious housing project.  They noticed the nearly total lack of men.  (Due to ADC regulations.)  The children were feral and seemed to live on popcorn.

Those children are now the grandparents of men like Michael Brown.  A woman interviewed for one of the Post-Dispatch's many stories on the shooting talked about how the women work, the men stay home smoking dope, and the children run wild and destroy property.  She said they cuss out anyone who objects.  


Would love to hear from the Daughters of Charity now?  What have they tried to do to change this *dynamic*?

Big disappointment - have you seen one catholic pastor or the STL archbishop in any news coverage; walking with the Ferguson families; participating in the religious leadership meetings?  Why not?

STL, like other Midwest and Northeast cities that are more than 50% catholic have done little over the decades to address this ingrained cultural and societal differences.  Have you ever wondered why some very catholic cities historically have had significant and violent reactions to efforts to address racism e.g. Boston busing for one example; .  Appears that the catholic church merely moved to the upper middle class suburbs along with the white population and left behind crumbling and now closing schools and parish churches?  Why?

I fear it may be behind a subscriber wall, but if it's accessible, please do read Steve Chapman's Chicago Tribune column from Sunday, August 17th.  It is as clear and straightforward a description as I can imagine of how something like what is happening in Ferguson can come about.  What makes it remarkable is that Chapman is not a political liberal; he is a libertarian with a conscience.  

Bill d - a very pertinent point.


One of the things that I have sadly learned in the last few days of police executions and race riots in Ferguson MO is that Dred Scott - the 19th century slave who unsuccessfully sued for his and his family's freedom - is buried in nearby St. Louis City.

Talk about things coming around full circle!  It would appear that little has changed for African Americans in Missouri since the time of Dred Scott.  African American life is obviously not of the same value as it is for the entrenched whites who despite their minority status still exert a political hegemony over people of color.

The Dred Scott decision is arguably the most heinous, racist and specious judicial decision in American history.  While Chief Justice Roger Taney - himself an owner of a slave plantation in Maryland's tobacco growing region not far from my boyhood home - thought he would settle the slavery question once and for all, but as we know he only set the burning match to the powder keg explosion of the Civil War.

Why hasn't the local prosecutor there in Missouri already charge Officer Darren Wilson with homicide?  No Justice!  No Peace!

Why hasn't the Ferguson MO Police Chief Thomas Jackson been summarily removed especially after he released the video of the petty burglary at the convenience store that had no relation to the murder of Michael Brown in the middle of the street?  No Justice!  No Peace!

Why is MO Gov. Jay Nixon calling in the National Guard which will only inflame the local population to take matters into their own hands because?  No Justice!  No Peace!

It seems that we're back at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma AL.  It's 1965 all over again!

I have my doubts that even the senseless death of this young man Michael Brown will wake us up to the pernicious racism that infects our culture.

Here is what just one Daughter of Charity in Missouri has been doing, and for several decades. And despite their fewer numbers there are many Daughters in Missouri and throughout the US who are engaged in similar apostolates.

Jim Pauwels:  can you copy and paste it?

John - beautiful story; know her and the other DCs that currently are on the board and have supported this ministry for years.  The previous Guardian Angel Settlement president was my good friend, Rev. Ed Murphy, CM, who was one year behind me in the seminary.  Ed with the board was able to raise enough funds to build and complete and open a new center two years ago. (  And, yes, the DCs have left and are leaving significant marks in the local community in the Soulard area of STL - you might also want to see the current efforts of the combined CM and DC volunteeer corps that resides in a former CM apartment building in that neighborhood dating back to the mid-1980s.  The hope (pending STL city council approval) is that the matching apartment building next door will be granted approval to be the next DePaul House (you have posted on the achievements of the same type of organization in Macon, GA).

My point - the DCs (because of lack of vocations; money to support the motherhouse in Normandy (face it - the old time gigantic administration buildings, etc. are dying out); and changing demographics and ministries abandoned the Ferguson areas of STL (they sold their buildings to Univ. of Missouri, STL - *litle Rome of the West* - )

and refocused efforts elsewhere in STL (e.g. Soulard area with Hosea House, joint CM/DC volunteer corps; Guardian Angel Settlement House, working with St. Vincent's Parish, etc.  These decisions have to be made - it is reality but we now also see that without the ministry of the DCs; the catholic church left a gap in northern STL county....and the archdiocese does not appear to have ever tried to fill that gap or address the needs of those communities.  Historically, it appears that the high point of the DCs did lead to establishing Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Ferguson but you see no catholic presence or statements from this parish staff, parishioners, etc.??  There is also Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish (  

Example that doesn't exactly inspire me:

"Locally, our Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis (of which Archbishop Robert J. Carlson is chairman), is publically imploring us to keep asking the hard questions and diligently move toward solutions (see page 2). This must include prayer for peace as a means to healing. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish got it right Aug. 11 when parishioners gathered around the church's Lourdes grotto to pray the Rosary."   REALLY???  Got it right???

In terms of current ministries:

In addition, have a former seminary student; now CM priest, working at St. Vincent's and Hosea House;  a former formation director colleague is the vice principal at Vincent Gray Alternative High School; another former seminary student is the director of a non-profit Habit for Humanity type project building a home every six months.


Why hasn't the local prosecutor there in Missouri already charge Officer Darren Wilson with homicide?  No Justice!  No Peace!

Justice is not determined by a family or its lawyers.  Maybe there is no evidence to support a homicide charge.  Should Wilson be sacrificed to the demands of Brown's family?   How would that work?

It will be interesting to see which theories hold up and which claims collapse.  Even Michael Baden points out that Brown could have been "charging" the officer when he was shot in the head.  Given his treatment of the store clerk, it's not beyond belief.  

Baden's autopsy findings also call into question Brown's friend's account of what happened.

Angela - looks like the same Steve Chapman article is here at Townhall.Com; I believe it should be accessible to folks here who wish to read it.


Thanks everyone for the comments and the links.  Among other things, it brings to mind another line the pastor I cited in the post was fond of using:  "Be careful about pointing the finger at others because when you point one finger, you've got three fingers pointing back at you."  (Try it.)

This Pew Research Center poll provides grim illustration of that fact.  It shows that less than 40% of non-Hispanic whites polled agree that Mr. Brown's death at the hands of Officer Wilson raises important issues about race in America.

It's a reminder that America doesn't have a race problem; we have a racism problem.  And that it's not a problem African-Americans have to take more seriously; it's a problem European-Americans need to take more seriously.

Thank you, Jim.

From Luke's post:

The Wall Street Journal reports that in a city where 2/3 of the residents are African-American, 50 of 53 police officers are white. 

Megan McArdle provides an explanation of how this imbalance came about.  The underlying narrative seems to be one of racial change, as a majority-white town became majority-African-American.  Walter Russell Mead expands a bit on this point:

One of the problems in Ferguson seems to be the indirect result of progressive civil service policies and lifetime tenure for state and local employees. In the bad old days of Tammany Hall, when a new ethnic group surged into a city, it would quickly achieve political control and then set about firing all the old teachers, cops, and firemen and handing those jobs out to loyal members of the reigning political machine. There are a lot of problems with what used to be called the “spoils system” (a reference to the old saying “To the victor belong the spoils,” meaning that the winner of the election gets the jobs, government contracts and other goodies), and a return to it wouldn’t make this a better country—but this is how so many cities have ended up with police forces (and teachers and other government workers) of a different race or ethnicity than the community around them. Over and over again, we’ve seen how feelings of mistrust and mutual disrespect surge when these disparities reach a certain point.

This explanation of how the imbalance came about seems believable.  What that explanation doesn't address is what to do about it.  Rembert Browne's Grantland piece to which Luke linked in his post is an extremely vivid impressionist portrait of the distrust between African-American residents and the mostly-white police.  This lack of trust surely is one of the primary issues facing African Americans and seems to play out in community after community, even if it doesn't boil over into protests and rioting.  It has been a problem for as long as I've been following the news during my lifetime, and surely it goes back for decades (or longer) before that.  Perhaps this is an area where churches, including the Catholic church, and other community organizations can play a role?  Can the church help to build trust?  There are initiatives already in flight.  Can the church do more?


I see by the latest news reports four items:

1)  A store video showing the shooting victim stealing a box of what are apparently small cigars, commonly used to make blunts.

2)  The same store video showing the shooting victim shoving and bullying either the store owner or a store clerk.

3) One of the three autopsies  indicating the presence of marijuana in the shooting victim's blood.

4)  One or more of the autopsies seems to be indicating that all but one of the shots entered the front of the shooting victim's body, and the sixth appears to have entered the top of the head, which may (or may not) indicate that the shooting victm was coming toward the police officer with his head down.  Item 4 may or may not be established as fact.


Oh, well, he  stole some blunts and had some weed in his system. Good thing that cop shot him 6 times.

Don't you ever get tired of being you, Schwartz?



Gerelyn posted:

In 1964, the Daughters of Charity, who lived at their provincialate in Normandy, just down the road from Ferguson, spent a lot of time visiting the poor at Pruett-Igoe, tha notorious housing project.  They noticed the nearly total lack of men.  (Due to ADC regulations.)  The children were feral and seemed to live on popcorn. Those children are now the grandparents of men like Michael Brown.  A woman interviewed for one of the Post-Dispatch's many stories on the shooting talked about how the women work, the men stay home smoking dope, and the children run wild and destroy property.

This kind of thing has been increasing ever since the War on Poverty began, and It is a virtual guarentee that huge numbers of young men of color are going to go off the rails and end up like the shooting victim.  And if it continues, and I see no indication that it won't, this nation will go down, especially since white people seem to want increasingly to follow the lead of people of color.  It is the morality of the citizenry that will determine whether this nation stands.  Does anyone remember the slogan "Women don't need a husband to raise a child"?  One of the most destructive slogans ever unleashed in the world.

A lot of talk about Molotov cocktails but with 2000 TV camaras, press camaras, and citizen cell phone camaras, we have no pictures of thown  burning cocktails  or even burnt ground or glass.  I think we are being fed BS.

@Jim Pauwels - Thanks for the links.  As for what Catholics---and specifically, white Catholics---can do?  One way for Ferguson area Catholics to help in the current situation might be by joining the protests. 

@Bob Schwartz - Thanks for your comments, but as long as European-Americans persist in turning discussions about the social sin of institutionalized racism into discussions of the moral failings of individual African-Americans, then it's going to be difficult (if not impossible) to get at the root of the problem.

"This lack of trust ...has been a problem for as long as I've been following the news during my lifetime, and surely it goes back for decades (or longer) before that.  Perhaps this is an area where churches, including the Catholic church, and other community organizations can play a role?"

Jim P, Look up the history of Matt Ahmann and the National Catholic Conference on Interracial Justice. That was based in Chicago. Which had several parishes, like Milwaukee's St. Boniface, that were nationally known in the civil rights movement.  There was a time. Bernard Law, before he got near a red beanie, was getting death threats as editor of the Mississippi Catholic. His boss was Archbishop Thomas Toolan, whose memory should be happier and better known. Msgr. George Higgins was everywhere Roy Wilkins went. Higgins was one of yours, too. Philip Berrigan got his start working in that area; that is what his order the Josephites, did.

I could wax randomly nostalgic and threaten to do so, but to cut to a point: The Church was active, even if the folks who were most active were constantly reported to their bishop or delated to Rome, depending on their rank. The Church was active, but it had plenty of opposition within. What it had without were the principles Luke Hill lays out at the end of his post.

One might, if he were an historian looking for tenure, trace the rhetoric and personalities of Catholic reaction, pro and con, to the civil rights movement and see how much overlap there was to the different sides that formed during and after liturgical reform. I think such an historian wil find extensive (but not complete) commonality.

It has become much harder for priests to find someone to cover their Masses so they can get out and about and help with issues beyond parish borders, but that doesn't let the laity off the hook. Plenty, like Luke, are out there, but without a collar they are known by their organizations, not their church. IMHO, though,we have raised a generation of needy and needful Catholics whose personal needs (in their mind) trump "Brothers and Sisters to Us."






As for what Catholics---and specifically, white Catholics---can do?  One way for Ferguson area Catholics to help in the current situation might be by joining the protests. 

FWIW - I'm sure I haven't followed the story as closely as many other folks here, but the snippets of video I've seen on the evening news show that the protesters aren't uniformly African-American; there are whites marching with them.  

I am not sure that joining the protests would help build trust between residents and the police.  How would the one bring about the other?


Why in God's name should the protestors trust the police!?!

Tom, I'm sorta embarrassed to say that I had never heard of the NCCIJ nor Matt Ahman.  Here is his obit, I hope it isn't behind a subscriber wall.  

(As a sort of aside, although it also relates to my comment in the next paragraph: when Ahman passed away, I was in deacon formation.  I'm fuzzy on the exact timeline now, but it's entirely possible that our coursework that year included a mandated course (mandated by Cardinal George, who had earned a reputation in an earlier ecclesiastic post as a builder of bridges between races and ethnicities and came to Chicago wanting to do the same) on racism and easing racial tensions.  If Ahman and his work ever came up in the course, I don't recall it now.  It focused more on current intra-church initiatives to build bridges between African-American and white Catholics, initiatives like the Sharing Parish program that continue today and are doing good work.)

I offer this comment as a comment, not an excuse: I missed pretty much the whole civil rights movement, at least anything that happened before the late 60s and early 70s, because I wasn't old enough.  As a point of comparison: when I was a recent college grad, not yet married and pretty much unburdened by any responsibility, I once spent an enjoyable Saturday afternoon in a tavern on Chicago's North Side watching a ball game.  I chatted with the guy on the next barstool, who was about 15-20 years older.  As the afternoon wore on and we got deeper into our cups, he told be about his service in Vietnam, which understandably enough was the great event and turning point in his life.  Naively, I assured him I knew how it was, as I had taken a 20th-century history course in college and we did a unit on the war.  He was extremely offended that his life experience was treated as history, as something to be described in a text book.  (I think I've related this incident before here.)  The lesson I took away is that there is a gap between people who have lived history and those who read about it.  When it comes to civil rights movement, I'm in the latter grouping.  I've heard of Higgins and Egan - they're legendary Chicago priests.  But I never met either of them and their great days were before my time.  I'm grateful to you for the instruction.  Truly.

My generation works on whatever it is we're working on.  There is always more to work on.


Abe - perhaps they shouldn't, but wouldn't all parties be better off, and quite possibly fewer young African American men would be beaten or shot by the police, if the police could earn the trust of African Americans?

@Jim Pauwels (9/19, 9:24 am)  Thanks for your question.  Here are some initial thoughts by way of response: 

  1. By joining the protests white Catholics would be making a statement that they too oppose the institutionalized racism that led to Michael Brown's killing and to the subsequent violence and coverup. 
  2. The presence of many white Catholics as part of the protests might act as a restraint on violence. 
  3. Once this disastrous situation has ended, there will be the opportunity for many conversations in the coming months and years.  White Catholics who joined in protesting the social sin of racism as manifested in Ferguson in recent days might well be received as more credible participants in those later conversations.

Obviously, but it's not going to work if the trust has to come before the beatings and shootings stop. I guess what I was getting at is that one thing white people could do is mistrust their inclination to give the police the benefit of the doubt. There is also this weird tendency to try to "equalize" these situations, to make it seem as though this is a level, two-way street where both sides need to give the same amount, and both sides are equally to blame. That power balance has never existed.

How would joining the protests help anyone?  


Imho, Luke, assigning guilt to a group and attempting to forestall any "kneejerk" objections individuals might raise to being included in the group is wrong.  So is absolving another group of responsibility for whatever they do.  (They're not children.  They're not mentally incompetent.  They're adults who choose their actions.  The paternalism required to see them as incapable is itself racist.)

What will those who join the protests be protesting?  

Some have decided to wait for facts about what happened to emerge before joining protests.   

Googling "supporters of darren wilson" brings forth 17 million results.

Luke Hill - +++++_+

So, what do we see on the STL archdiocesan website - one guest column and an a snippet about a Ferguson parish meeting and saying the rosary.

Still no sight of any catholic pastors, the STL archbishop, or local catholic parishioners.  Embarrassing?

Where are the religious nuns and priests of STL?  STL has one of the largest number of religious nuns and priests in the US.


Googling "supporters of darren wilson" brings forth 17 million results.  

I'm not sure if you understand the Google...

@Gerelyn (8/19, 10:00 am)  Thanks for your comment.  I think we agree that "assigning guilt to a group" and "absolving another group of responsibility for whatever they do" isn't desirable in this situation.

But whatever other facets there are to the situation in Ferguson, it seems to me to be a fairly clear manifestation of the social sin of institutionalized racism.  If that's the case, then one of the conversations we as Catholics should be having---as we do with any number of sinful situations---is about how we respond to that sinful situation.

To answer your second questions: in my view (and it's all too easy for me to say; I'm hundreds of miles away), European-American Catholics could join the protests and make clear that they are protesting the racist actions that have helped provoke and extend this crisis.

If there is an admirable person to be found in this swirl of conflict, violence and competing claims, it is that State Police captain, Ron Johnson.  Whatever faith tradition he adheres to, if any, he is doing the church's work.  And he did join the protest marchers are one point.  But he is also working for justice - public order is a component of justice.  Justice, truth and peace are the virtues that need to prevail in Ferguson.  Just my view.


Gerelyn:  What is it that you just don't get about this racial murder by a policeman?

I am thousands of miles away from Ferguson but I know probable cause when I see it - which is the legal standard for arrest, not irrefutable proof [which is the standard for conviction at trial].  

This isn't a [sacrifice] of Officer Wilson.  It is simple justice that would go a long way to quelling the anger and frustrations of millions of people of color across the country for their serial exploitation by over-armed police SWAT teams.

Your statement [Given his treatment of the store clerk, it's not beyond belief.]  is a perfect example of how the Ferguson Police Chief Jackson hopes to taint the reputation of the deceased Michael Brown, and thereby corrupting the ultimate jury pool there in MO, all in order to protect one of the police force's own.  [Essentially the same thing happened in Florida with the trial of George Zimmerman for executing Trayvon Martin where Zimmerman's slimy lawyer engaged in racist stereotyping of Trayvon Martin.]  Wake up!  You've already swallowed that b.s. whole.

The first thing lawyers learn in law school is that no two witnesses to the same crime ever have exactly the same story.  [You stated:  Baden's autopsy findings also call into question Brown's friend's account of what happened.]  Reality, as we humans understand it, is social construction. The only way to come the truth of what happened is for the people of Ferguson to have a trial where we can evaluated the sum whole of all the testimony.  

From my own clinical experience I can already ascertain that the stories coming from the eye witnesses do converge on the one salient point:  Michael Brown was defenselessly gunned down in the street with his hands in the air.  

[The bullet wounds to the head and face could only have happened with Michael Brown bending over, falling to the ground. In other words, he was already probably mortally wounded before Darren Wilson finished him off with two more pops to his head.  That sounds like a execution to me worthy of Tony Soprano ... ]

Arrest Wilson.  Begin the process of a trial.  Remove all the racist cops from the Ferguson police force ASAP starting with Jackson - and you can include the local district attorney in that house cleaning. Demilitarize the police not just in Ferguson but everywhere.  Remember it suppose to be:  Protect and Serve.

No Justice!  No Peace!

Monsignor John Egan (d. 2001) and Monsignor George Higgins (d. 2002) were still very much leading, indeed towering, Catholic figures in the work of social and interracial justice well into the 1990s.

Bill deHaas, Maybe it has been updated since you wrote, but I just checked the archdiocesan Web site, and found a letter from Archbishop Carlson saying he had been to Ferguson and Michael Brown's memorial, that he is offering a Mass of peace at noon tomorrow, urging rosaries by school children for peace and generally making a show of concern. That, of course, is not analysis of the evidence, finding of guilty and sentencing the cop, but it is early for a bishop to be doing all that.

I wonder whether the autopsy result revealing the presence of marijuana in the shooting victim's blood reveals anything about the shooting victim's mental state and behavior?  I also wonder whether the store video of the shooting victim's stealing from, and bullying of, the store clerk/owner reveals anything about his attitude about laws against theft and cultural norms against bullying?  Was the media being truthful in describing the victim as a "gentle giant"?

It seems that, to some people, even to ask questions like this is an outrage in itself and sending those who read the question into frenzies of self-righteous anger, which is not helpful to anyone or anything.  If someone carries a huge guilt complex about being "European-American", perhaps seeing a competent psychologist would be useful.  If one is always feeling guilty about something totally beyond one' control, clear thinking cannot be easy.


I was going to mention that most of the diocesan Web sites I've looked at were pretty inept, but the St. Louis one is pretty well done. (It also has a story from the archdiocesan paper about genocide.) In defense of bishops generally: If the police in Ferguson were handing out condoms with instructions on how to use them, I am sure Archbishop Carlson would have had plenty to say, and it would have been on all news media -- because he would have been asked by the media and he would have known he was going to be asked. Because that is the sort of thing that sets city editors alight. On the other hand, there are few newsrooms that would see any point in asking if Christians oppose unnecessary killing, or in printing the answer if they got one.

I am reliably reminded that when I mentioned Bishop Toolan (one of the good guys) before, I was actually thinking of Bishop Richard Gerow and especially his successor, Joseph Brunini. Good to have someone with a memory as long as I think mine is.

P.S. Jim, don't worry about what happened when you were young that you don't know. The hardest history to get is Recent. I remember at the age of 20, shouting, "Will someone tell me who the Sam Hill Sacco and Vanzetti are or were?" All my young life they were talked about as if I should know, and they were too recent to have any new books written about them. What happens around the time of one's birth becomes a black hole from which facts are extracted, in pain, only later. Wiki is, or ought to be, fixing that to some extent.

FWIW in the institutional racism discussion:  Crime is largely intra-racial, eg black-on-black, white-on-white, etc.  The fact that police officers of a different race are involved doesnt support a claim of societal racism.

Well, Bruce, you have now become part of the problem.  Your data may be correct but your interpretation is ignorant.

Thanks for the updates about what?  too little, too late.

Ferguson has become a media event because it involves the slaying of an African-American individual by a presumably European-American police officer. What great fodder for 24 hour cable news junkies as well as for race activists and extremists of every stripe. I see racism in the predominant narrative that alleges that a white police officer shot and killed a young black man in the middle of the street in broad daylight because.......(fill in the blank). Maybe he just hates young black men? Maybe he just felt like shooting someone unjustly? Now there is plenty of evidence that the Ferguson police department is led by individuals who minimally could use more training in public relations and in crowd control tactics, but I haven't seen any evidence that the Ferguson police are a bunch of hoodlums hellbent on making life miserable for its majority black population. No evidence either that it has only three black officers because the department routinely rejects qualified black applicants. So, if Jesse and Al are in town, the AG is on his way, and Dred Scott is buried nearby I guess this event can only be the result of racial injustice? Must due process get trampled upon whenever the victim is of one race and the assailant is of another? Many of the comments on this blog make it sound to me that the only framework for understanding here is that this is just another James Meridith being shot down by angry and vile whites. How about letting the investigation play out before jumping to conclusions?

While we are remembering Catholic civil rights activists, this man was one scrappy thorn in the side of many people an institutions:

He hit the streets in M'waukee (that's how you pronounce it, folks) the year after I graduated from Marquette which, in those days, was a bastion of non-liberalism. There was a noticeable contingent of John Birchers active in local and campus politics.


“At first assigned to St. Veronica's Church in Milwaukee, in 1963 Groppi was transferred to St. Boniface, the latter parish having a predominantly African-American congregation. It was then that Groppi became interested in - and active in - the cause of civil rights for Africans Americans, participating in the 1963 March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 on behalf of the Voting Rights Act, also working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference voter registration project, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., during the summer of 1965.

Later in 1965, he returned to Milwaukee, becoming the advisor to the Milwaukee chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council, organizing protests against the segregation of Milwaukee public schools. He also became second vice president of Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (1965–1966) and advisor to the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council (1965–1968).”

Thank you so much for starting this discussion thread, Luke.  Far too often Catholic publications ignore secular events that suggest the social sin of racism, while giving much more careful attention to secular questions about issues such as the use of military force,

At the opening of your piece you mention some powerful journalistic responses to the killing of Michael Brown and the civil strife that has followed that killing.  Melissa Perry-Harris has provided an emotionally moving and thought-provoking [a rare combination] piece of television journalism as part of her coverage of Ferguson. This is the

Her reflection is an articulate representation of one, not uncommon, African-American view that race is inevitably a factor in the Brown incident. The Feehily comment above demonstrates that many whites discount race as a factor unless there is unmistakeable evidence of overt racism. 


Bill, Too late? Archbishop Carlson didn't specify when he was at the "makeshift" (ugh) memorial. If the New York Times had spotted him on the day after and put him on page one, would that have been not "too late"? Is it a case of big enough and soon enough if the media notice?

On the other hand, I fully agree with your reply to poor Bruce. But it may apply more to John Feehily -- who admonishes those who have seen what they have seen over and over and tells them to wait patiently for facts. And then loads all the facts in favor of ignorance. Anyone who can't tell the difference between "Jesse and Al" really ought not to be trying to write on this subject, for instance.

I guess my bottom line is: I am sure what happened is what I think happened, but if I were a bishop I would have pretty good reasons for not leading with what I am sure of.

This would be a good time to remember the words of RFK, announcing the assassination of MLK.


"For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with -- be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man."

 “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, it's pressed well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. You can be filled with bitterness and with hatred or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land with compassion and love."


The larger focus should be on education, jobs, responsibility, leadership into these communities.  The President, AG, Sharpton, others should put there time there.  Let these black men know they are worth something, they have a future.  Despite there challenging circumstances, they can overcome.  Mr. President, you have been there awhile now.  Why didn't you go to these neighborhoods, send resources, provide hands on help.  Your story is one these black men should look up to.  They need someone to stand there and say there not alone, your there to help.  


No one wants to see this.  White cops don't hate black men, and that dialogue should not beperpetuated.  The knee jerk reaction to always allege race has been disappointing at best.


Let's follow the words of RFK, make ourselves a better people and a better nation.

Sean Murphy
MurphysLaw Recruiting & Placement

[email protected]



Oh, well, he  stole some blunts and had some weed in his system. Good thing that cop shot him 6 times.

Don't you ever get tired of being you, Schwartz?

@Abe:  Good to hear from you.  Ha Ha!  You remind me of me when I was a flaming liberal.  I smoked my share of weed and did a little of the old injectables, but came to my senses.  Love those zingers Abe!


Thanks for your comments, but as long as European-Americans persist in turning discussions about the social sin of institutionalized racism into discussions of the moral failings of individual African-Americans, then it's going to be difficult (if not impossible) to get at the root of the problem.

First of all, I don't even know the definition of "institutionalized racism".  Could you define it for me?  Secondly, as a "European American" I am saying that the way we act tends to indicate our attitudes about hings, as for example stealing and bullying.  If one's attitude about stealing and bullying is that "I have the right to steal, and bully people smaller and weaker than I am", then perhaps one's attitude towards a "European American" cop might be one of "f*** off" pig, you can't tell me what to do".  Maybe or maybe not.  But it's worth thinking about.  No one has turned up any evidence that the cop harbored ill will toward people of color, but maybe they will.  It is what we believe and feel that help determine our reactions to various situations.  If your attitude is that "European Americans: ought never question these things.

Again, thanks to all for the comments and the discussion. 

@Bob Schwartz (8/19, 8:47)  Thanks for your question.  By Institutionalized (or institutional) racism I mean racism that is embedded in an institution.  So, for example, the dearth of African-American priests in the US is largely a result of the refusal by most US seminaries (whether diocesan or run by religious orders) to accept black students until the past few decades.  Or, to name another example, the residential housing patterns (by race) on either side of Detroit's Eight Mile Road are a legacy of federal, state and local housing policies from the early/mid-20th century.  (See Thomas Sugrue's excellent The Origins of the Urban Crisis for more.)  Is that helpful?

The data on racial profiling in Ferguson from last year's report by the Missouri Attorney General that I linked to in my original post provides ample evidence:  not of whether any individual police officer harbors racist intent in his heart, but of the police department's racist practices, practices of which the town's African-American residents are evidently well aware. 

The Pew Research Center poll I linked to above in this thread (8/18, 8:08 pm) documents the wide disparity in how non-Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic blacks are experiencing and interpreting the events that have unfolded in Ferguson.  What I'm suggesting both here and throughout this conversation is that---to borrow from one of my former pastor's favorite bits of folk wisdom---every time we point our finger at, for example, Mr. Brown's misdeeds and/or failings, there are three fingers pointing back at us.  And perhaps we ought to examine more closely what those three fingers are pointing at.

And, as usual, the brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates cuts to the heart of the matter:

I notice that a new fact released tonight is that the cop has a broken eye socket.  The "gentle giant strikes" again.

@Luke: So you're saying that to point out facts is called "pointing fingers"?  That lends a strange ambience to this whole story.  I always thought that, in instances like this, pointing out the facts, to wit,

1) The video-documented "Strong-arm robbery" (the legal term for what the gentle giant perpetrated).

1.1) The bullying of the little guy in the store by the gentle giant that moved the crime into the "strong arm" category.

2) The marijuana tainted blood of the gentle giant.

3) The cop's broken eye socket (probably self-inflicted by the white cop to buttress his case.

should be characterized as "finger pointing" by racists in order to buttress the case by friends, family, and supporters of the gentle giant.

You know Luke, that really is pathetic for someone of your obvious intelligence.  You are well-educated, probably with at least one advanced degree, yet this "finger pointing" thing is, well, I am embarrased for you.  Seriously Luke, you can come up with better than that.  I could come up with something better than that!  Go back to the drawing board and try not to think about everything in terms of race.

There is another issue that cannot be disentangled, imo:  our fatal attraction to guns.

I hasten to sa that I have no idea what happened in Ferguson that first da.  I wasn't there (and I don't think anyone on this thread was,either).  But we know a boy died.  The cause of death was one (or more) GSW.  There is  no thought that this was an accident, nor a suicide.  That would seem to leave homicide; whether justified or not is the duty for a jury, or so it seems.   But step back just a minute.

There is an important sentence from the early days of our Western cultual treasury:

"Iron has power to draw a man to ruin."   Tht's Homer (or Robert Fagles, anyway) from the Odyssey (XIX); Odysseus is speaking to Telemachus, as they plot his revenge on the suitors (just before he speaks with Penelope, who does not recognize him).

I'd hazard a guess that Officer Wilson reckons old Homer was spot on, regardless of what hapened or what transpires legally.  His life is ruined, and it is good odds it will adversely affect his family and others (his fellow police officers, or example). 

But we demand "Shall issue" rules for coneald crry, and see open carry in airprts.  College students and elementary schools.  Mall cops, and every constable on our streets.

As long as we beat our plowshares into swords, someone will stand in Officer Wilson's shoes -flailing and cursing  in terror and anger 3, 4 nights a week, 40 years later.  Our lives and souls in ruin.

Mark L


@Bob Schwartz (8/20, 12:17 am)  Thanks for your reply and your advice.  In going back to the drawing board I wonder if it might help to establish some basic points of agreement.  Toward that end, a couple of initial questions:

1 - Do we agree racism exists?

2 - Do we agree racism is a sin?

Responding to Bob Shwartz.  Protesting that you do not even know the definition of "institutionalized racism" suggests to me that you really do not want to know..  Slavery was a fact in this country for centuries.  It was followed by Jim Crow laws (some not repealed well into the second half of the 20th Century).  It was also accompanied by de facto segregation in housing, education, and employment.  In the case of  housing and education. that segregation was often enforced by crowd violence and the destruction of Black homes and other property.  It is well documented that there are glaring discrepancies in the way Blacks are stopped and frisked, arrested, convicted, and sentenced--even when Whie behavior is comparable.  (I suspect that there are lots of afflluent suburbs where police raiding homes and backyards would find just as many folks using illegal drugs as they do in targeting Black youths--maybe more).  You might try reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, and Bending Towards Justice by Gary May for some background on the history and persistence of institutionalized racism in the United States.  You might be able to infer a definition from those works.

There just seem to be large gaps in understanding what happened initially and what is going on in Ferguson.  Certainly that is true for someone like me who is hundreds of miles away and has limited time to digest news accounts.  From what I can tell, it may also be a problem for the reporters trying to cover the story(ies).

As a case in point: the Grantland article by Rembert Browne is extremely readable and gives the reader a vivid impression of what it was like on the ground during those days.  He refers to shots ringing out, and explosions.  Who fired the the shots?  Who detonated the explosions?  Was it police?  Was it protesters?  Someone else?  Knowing the answers to those questions would help us know what is going on.  Some good, straight news reporting could answer such questions.  But perhaps it's not possible for journalists to learn the answers.

The Ferguson protesters have adopted the "hands up / don't shoot" chant/action.  But the witness account on which that is based is now called into question.  To what extent have the protesters been misled?  Perhaps it will become clear over time.  It seems clear that the public authorities have information and evidence that they're not releasing.  For example, the experts who conducted the private autopsy on behalf of Brown's family wanted to examine his clothing for gunshot residue but were not allowed access to it.  I can believe that there are legitimate reasons for not making the clothing available, but it's unclear: why wasn't the access given?  Explanations would be helpful.

My own impression is that there are at least three different groups of citizens who are involved in the unrest: peaceful protesters, consisting of locals whose numbers have been bolstered by out-of-town activists; the looters and other criminal elements; and the radicals (for want of a better term) who would like to provoke conflict with the police.   It seems that at night the peaceful protesters go away and the other groups come to the fore.  Is that an accurate assessment?

Journalists can help us understand what is going on.  I know they are there in large numbers and working hard.  I just wish we knew more.


Bob Schwartz - you might want to wait for the grand jury to release actual facts:

- there is no proof of the officer being injured (eye socket? really)

- whether he had THC in his system has little to do with the shooting

- per Ferguson police chief, Wilson did not know about the burgarly during the shooting incident - you are connecting dots and motivations that have already been stated as not existing, false, etc.

Carlson - is now going to hold a mass for peace at the cathedral - let's see - 13/14 days later; not in Feguson; again, too little, too late.  Embarrassing.  Oh yeah, and he is asking his pastors to also hold Peace masses.  What a powerful witness?  Geez, what would Francis do?

As an addendum to my previous comment: the ABC News radio news item I heard this morning included these two talking points:

  • Police reported that the unrest between police and protesters subsided overnight, i.e. from their point of view it was relatively calm
  • Over 40 persons were arrested overnight

How are those two bullets reconciled?  For what were the people arrested if not clashes with police?  It's not clear what is happening.

A broken eye socket? That's how hard the gentle giant socked him? Wow. If that is true, I'd agree with those who have been saying we've not got all the facts of this incident. Yes, the man who was killed was unarmed. But you don't have to have a gun to be posing a lethal threat. Police brutality is a crime, and recourse to guns is an American pathology that has led to countless deaths of unarmed people, a lot of them completely innocent. This incident has to have a full and fair investigation, and the law enforced. Trying the officer in the court of public opinion, like throwing molotov cocktails, is not going to lead our society to greater racial justice, only greater polarization.

As it happens, I live in a black neighborhood and belong to a black church. Racism is real and deplorable. To add a note that has not yet been sounded: one of the casualties of the whole scene that has spun out from this incident, and that wrings my heart because of its injustice, is that it strengthens the narrative the keeps racism going in white communities. "It's us against them" or "black people are violent by nature" or "the nice young black man, a gentle giant, setting off to college in the fall... when in fact he's knocking off convenience stores, smoking dope, and breaking the face of a police officer." My heart aches for the young black people who are truly innocent, who are who they say they are, and who are being tarred by this same old narrative. They will pay for this incident in the suspicion and distrust it generates. Don't think they won't. 

No peace without justice, indeed, but no justice without truth.


@ Rita Ferrone:  You demonstrate exactly why there needs to be an arrest and trial - where all the rules of evidence will apply and where witnesses will be sworn and cross-examined so their testimony can be publicly evaluated - to determine exactly what happened between Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson.

If indeed there was struggle in that police car between Brown and Wilson the forensic evidence will reveal that and help answer the question of what was Wilson's motivation for and state of mind prior to executing Brown in the street.

A punch in the face which breaks one's orbital bone may have been enough to push Wilson into a retaliatory rage.  Who knows?  If nothing more, I'm sure the Wilson could have been humiliated at being punked by punk?

We don't know?  That's why:  Let's have a trial ASAP.  That would start with the arrest and arraignment of Wilson.  And would go a long way to quelling the festering anger and resentment of people of color at their unfair treatment by law enforcement.

There is a lot of chatter on the interwebs about the difference in the government's response to gun-totting bigots and waco's at the Clive Bundy ranch in Nevada and the counter reaction of the police to the people of Ferguson.

There were no armored vehicles in Nevada despite snipers with training their weapons on Federal law enforcement officers.  No tear gas.  No arrest of obviously threatening mobs.

Could it be that those folks in Nevada were "white" and in America police forces don't muscle whites?  Could it be that white folks are extended every accommodation where people of color get to stare down the barrel of gun with the sweaty fingers of some white cop squeezing the trigger?

No wonder African Americans don't trust police authorities.

The sin is social in nature in that each of us, in varying degrees, is responsible. All of us in some measure are accomplices.

 The new teaching about social sin came in handy when the bishops had to protect priest/predators.  If we're all guilty, no one is guilty.  The new teaching about social sin contradicts the venerable Catholic Encyclopedia which says sin is individual.

(As a collector of old prayerbooks, I've never seen an examination of conscience that mentions social sin.)

If a mob of white racists decides the law is too slow and too impotent, and they hang a black woman, is it a social sin?  Or is it a bunch of individual sins committed by individuals?  Are the members of the mob equally guilty, or are some more/less guilty than others?  

Maybe some didn't want to hang the woman, but they were too intimidated by the braying of the lead jackasses.  Maybe some were lonely basement guys, happy to be part of something for a change.  Maybe some were angry at other people, and hanging someone was better than hanging no one.  Maybe some were mentally deficient due to inbreeding.  Etc.  

In the case of Michael Brown, it's clear that vultures are using his death for their own purposes.  Is their sin social?

Luke: Thanks for the definition of institutionalized racism.  That's pretty much what I expected.  In answer to your question, yes I know (or think I know, because the definition tends to evolve in order, I suspect, to keep "European Americans" off balance and guilt-ridden) what racism is.  I don't know if racism is a sin; only acts can be sinful, but harming someone unjustly because and only because of that someone's race is certainly a sin.

So, was the cop's shooting of the gentle giant a racist act?  I don't know.  Do you?

Mr. Schwartz - you continue with your bias and bigotry - as you write: 

"So, was the cop's shooting of the gentle giant a racist act?  I don't know.  Do you?"

Gentle giant - repeating this doesn't make it so?  It feels like an intential put down and mocking the victim?

Institutionalized racism - a systemic problem is completely separate from any notion or conviction of a racist act, something designated as personal sin, etc.  You are conflating things.

Excellent personal witness story - you might want to heed some of this:

Key points:

I thought about Yancy's piece right away when I read the responses to my first blog about Ferguson, published Aug. 15. My blog was about the struggle and the suffering of the community. But the comments focused on whether Michael Brown was guilty of stealing a handful of cigarillos and attempting to intimidate Wilson. Nobody even asked if death was the appropriate punishment for these offenses or considered whether Wilson used excessive force. The comments are the comments of white people making judgments.

To focus on the robbery or looting or to imagine, as one respondent did, an entire scenario of how the shooting could have played out is distancing behavior. Instead of considering the harm and suffering -- including the suffering of the police -- most of the comments deny the existence of police oppression and instead blame the victim.

What do we see? Yancy reminds us of President Barack Obama's reflection that Trayvon Martin could have been his son. Yancy says: "I wait for the day when a white president will say, 'There is no way that I could have experienced what Trayvon Martin did (and other black people do) because I'm white and through white privilege I am immune to systemic racial profiling.' "


Mr. Schwartz - before commenting again, think about your biased white perspective.


Looks like self-defense.  Poor Darren Wilson.

I guess the thing that shocked me most about the strongarm robbery was Brown's coming back in.  He had already achieved his goal, but he backtracked to give his little victim another shove.

I can see him being enraged enough to break Wilson's orbital socket, try to grab his gun (leaving DNA?), taunt him, charge him, etc.

I hope the grand jury is able to learn the truth about this terrible incident.

Further to what Abe and Jim P mentioned in a prior exchange ......

Trust, like respect, doesn't automatically come with uniform, armament, title or position.

That is as true in secular society and it is in religious society.

Trust, like respect, can be demanded but has to be earned if anyone actually is serious about it. 

Fear is not the same as trust or respect.

Those of us who live in urban areas with a history of racial tension (I live very close to Oakland, CA) know that there is enough bad will on the part of racial minorities (soon to be white folk, btw) to expect anything except mistrust and disrespect.

It will take a lot of Ron Johnsons in the police ranks to defuse the bad blood that has built up over time.

"Could it be that those folks in Nevada were "white" and in America police forces don't muscle whites?"

When those whites are armed to the teeth with weaponry that equals/exceeds the firepower of the police .... you darned right the police don't try the muscle game!


We may want to wait until there is an indictment, you know, following the constitutional legal processes?  I know the governor was demanding an immediate arrest--The Governor!--well, maybe he's letting his enthusiasm for "justice" get away fro him.

Meanwhile, Obama addressed the ISIS beheading of an American journalist for five minutes before hurrying back to the golf course.  Such dedication is rare in American life, and we are blessed to have him.

what would Francis do?

Bill, it's a good question.  Clearly, he would want the local church leaders and members to have "the smell of the sheep" on them - he would want them already involved with the local community.  Hard to say whether the local Catholic parishes and other Catholic institutions in Ferguson have made inroads with the growing African American (and shrinking white) community, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that there are more parishioners along the police lines than there are among the protesters.  


This St. Louis Post-Dispatch article gives some insight into what life is like in the corner of Ferguson where the shooting took place.  It paints a helpful picture.


A comment based on the article I reference in the previous comment: the story suggests that, without downplaying the factor of race, economic differences also are a factor in the social problems in Ferguson.  In some ways the tension in the community that existed prior to the shooting came across as renters-vs-homeowners.

Let me just add this: affordable housing has been a political hot button in the suburban community where I live.  Nobody wants the poor in their community.  In large part this is becaus of what is described in that article about Ferguson: the poor bring crime.   We moved from the city to the suburbs because we didn't want to raise a family in a high-crime area.  Nobody does.  Nobody wants the poor.

Re the broken eye socket: Does that mean Brown must have punched Wilson in the face without provocation?  Isn't it possible that Wilson shot Brown at close range, the bullet inflicted only a minor wound or missed, whereupon Brown began wrestling with Wilson for the gun (because he reasonably feared being shot again), and that's how Wilson was injured?

Re institutional racism:  In his column today, Leonard Pitts Jr. describes a break-in which occurred last Thursday at the Coral Gables, Fla., home of former Miami Heat player Ray Allen.  The intruders were seven white Hispanic teen-agers.  While Allen himself was out, his wife was in the house; when she saw the boys, she screamed and they ran away.  When they were apprehended by the police, they insisted that they believed the house was empty and broke in because they simply wanted to see what an NBA player's home looked like.

The boys were questioned and released because, say the authorities, they actually didn't commit any crime that they can be charged with under Florida law.   As Pitts asks, does anyone believe that seven black intruders would have gotten off that easily?


Biill, you said

"Mr. Schwartz - you continue with your bias and bigotry..."

You apparently believe that calling someone names constitutes a reasoned defense of your position.  Here's a news flash:  It doesn't.

But the media referred to him as such (The gentle giant).  If we can't believe the media, well, where does that leave us?  I mean, my God man, what are you implying?

"Gentle giant - repeating this doesn't make it so?  It feels like an intential put down and mocking the victim?"

Actually, I was mocking the media, Bill.  Gentle giants don't bully little guys like the store clerk.  But maybe the store clerk is just a money-grubbing little nobody, and he does't count?  Is that it Bill?  A money grubbing little European American taking advantage of the Gentle Giant?  Maybe the clerk deserved to be pushed around. Yes, that's it!  Issue resolved.

"Institutionalized racism - a systemic problem is completely separate from any notion or conviction of a racist act, something designated as personal sin, etc."

So, the institutionalized racism is not an act, so what is it?  Something we all are required to feel guilty about? Can a condition be a sin?  Is alcoholism, then, a sin?  That is, distinct from drunkeness? So a woman successfully fighting her alcoholism is still guilty of sin? for example?  That's pretty cold Bill.  I would have expected better from you.

Pope John Paul II addressed the topic of social sin in his post-synodal exhortation, Reconciliation and Penance, in 1985, I think it is necessary to read this in conjunction with the American bishops' document "Brothers and Sisters to Us" (the title of which, by the way, has rightly come under fire as assuming "we" are white; hmm?). 

The link is here:

The relevant passage is article 16, which lays out the relationship between personal sin and social sin. I've put in bold the most relevant parts, which describe the actions by which individuals participate in social sin. It is not correct to say social sin has no culpability in human choices, nor that it doesn't require personal conversion to confront and eliminate it. The passage is long, but bear with it. It says some important things.

Personal Sin and Social Sin

16. Sin, in the proper sense, is always a personal act, since it is an act of freedom on the part of an individual person and not properly of a group or community. This individual may be conditioned, incited and influenced by numerous and powerful external factors. He may also be subjected to tendencies, defects and habits linked with his personal condition. In not a few cases such external and internal factors may attenuate, to a greater or lesser degree, the person's freedom and therefore his responsibility and guilt. But it is a truth of faith, also confirmed by our experience and reason, that the human person is free. This truth cannot be disregarded in order to place the blame for individuals' sins on external factors such as structures, systems or other people. Above all, this would be to deny the person's dignity and freedom, which are manifested-even though in a negative and disastrous way-also in this responsibility for sin committed. Hence there is nothing so personal and untransferable in each individual as merit for virtue or responsibility for sin.

As a personal act, sin has its first and most important consequences in the sinner himself: that is, in his relationship with God, who is the very foundation of human life; and also in his spirit, weakening his will and clouding his intellect.

At this point we must ask what was being referred to by those who during the preparation of the synod and in the course of its actual work frequently spoke of social sin.

The expression and the underlying concept in fact have various meanings.

To speak of social sin means in the first place to recognize that, by virtue of human solidarity which is as mysterious and intangible as it is real and concrete, each individual's sin in some way affects others. This is the other aspect of that solidarity which on the religious level is developed in the profound and magnificent mystery of the communion of saints, thanks to which it has been possible to say that "every soul that rises above itself, raises up the world." To this law of ascent there unfortunately corresponds the law of descent. Consequently one can speak of a communion of sin, whereby a soul that lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the church and, in some way, the whole world. In other words, there is no sin, not even the most intimate and secret one, the most strictly individual one, that exclusively concerns the person committing it. With greater or lesser violence, with greater or lesser harm, every sin has repercussions on the entire ecclesial body and the whole human family. According to this first meaning of the term, every sin can undoubtedly be considered as social sin.

Some sins, however, by their very matter constitute a direct attack on one's neighbor and more exactly, in the language of the Gospel, against one's brother or sister. They are an offense against God because they are offenses against one's neighbor. These sins are usually called social sins, and this is the second meaning of the term. In this sense social sin is sin against love of neighbor, and in the law of Christ it is all the more serious in that it involves the Second Commandment, which is "like unto the first."(72) Likewise, the term social applies to every sin against justice in interpersonal relationships, committed either by the individual against the community or by the community against the individual. Also social is every sin against the rights of the human person, beginning with the right to nd including the life of the unborn or against a person's physical integrity. Likewise social is every sin against others' freedom, especially against the supreme freedom to believe in God and adore him; social is every sin against the dignity and honor of one's neighbor. Also social is every sin against the common good and its exigencies in relation to the whole broad spectrum of the rights and duties of citizens. The term social can be applied to sins of commission or omission-on the part of political, economic or trade union leaders, who though in a position to do so, do not work diligently and wisely for the improvement and transformation of society according to the requirements and potential of the given historic moment; as also on the part of workers who through absenteeism or non-cooperation fail to ensure that their industries can continue to advance the well-being of the workers themselves, of their families and of the whole of society.

The third meaning of social sin refers to the relationships between the various human communities. These relationships are not always in accordance with the plan of God, who intends that there be justice in the world and freedom and peace between individuals, groups and peoples. Thus the class struggle, whoever the person who leads it or on occasion seeks to give it a theoretical justification, is a social evil. Likewise obstinate confrontation between blocs of nations, between one nation and another, between different groups within the same nation all this too is a social evil. In both cases one may ask whether moral responsibility for these evils, and therefore sin, can be attributed to any person in particular. Now it has to be admitted that realities and situations such as those described, when they become generalized and reach vast proportions as social phenomena, almost always become anonymous, just as their causes are complex and not always identifiable. Hence if one speaks of social sin here, the expression obviously has an analogical meaning. However, to speak even analogically of social sins must not cause us to underestimate the responsibility of the individuals involved. It is meant to be an appeal to the consciences of all, so that each may shoulder his or her responsibility seriously and courageously in order to change those disastrous conditions and intolerable situations.

Having said this in the clearest and most unequivocal way, one must add at once that there is one meaning sometimes given to social sin that is not legitimate or acceptable even though it is very common in certain quarters today.(74) This usage contrasts social sin and personal sin, not without ambiguity, in a way that leads more or less unconsciously to the watering down and almost the abolition of personal sin, with the recognition only of social gilt and responsibilities. According to this usage, which can readily be seen to derive from non-Christian ideologies and systems-which have possibly been discarded today by the very people who formerly officially upheld them-practically every sin is a social sin, in the sense that blame for it is to be placed not so much on the moral conscience of an individual, but rather on some vague entity or anonymous collectivity such as the situation, the system, society, structures or institutions.

Whenever the church speaks of situations of sin or when the condemns as social sins certain situations or the collective behavior of certain social groups, big or small, or even of whole nations and blocs of nations, she knows and she proclaims that such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins. It is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference; of those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world and also of those who sidestep the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons of higher order. The real responsibility, then, lies with individuals.

A situation-or likewise an institution, a structure, society itself-is not in itself the subject of moral acts. Hence a situation cannot in itself be good or bad.

At the heart of every situation of sin are always to be found sinful people. So true is this that even when such a situation can be changed in its structural and institutional aspects by the force of law or-as unfortunately more often happens by the law of force, the change in fact proves to be incomplete, of short duration and ultimately vain and ineffective-not to say counterproductive if the people directly or indirectly responsible for that situation are not converted.


RIta, many thanks for that lengthy passage from St. John Paul.  

It might be worth noting that Luke Hill has consistently been using the term "institutional sin" in this thread.  Unlike a social sin such as racism, which as John Paul notes can "become generalized and reach vast proportions as social phenomena, almost always become anonymous, just as their causes are complex and not always identifiable", the subset of social sin known as institutional sins are specific, are bounded to some extent by the institutions (like a police department) that propagate them, and have causes that are both identifiable and addressable.  So, for example, if stop-and-frisk is an unjust police department policy (that is to say, an institutional sin) - well, that is a solvable problem.  We can identify the persons who possess the authority to change the unjust policy and can reasonably expect the institution to have the institutional wherewithal (through communication, training, codes of behavior and discipline, and so on) to make the change.



My apologies for the bolding format in the previous comment.  I had hoped the site would strip it all away.

I think a lot of things will still come out.  One that came out today is that no one from that store reported a robbery or called 911.  The rest of the tape seems to show that he paid for the cigars he was carrying, stopped to pick something up off the floor and left. 

Once again, many thanks for all the thoughtful comments, questions, stories and links in this thread.

In particular I want to echo Jim Pauwels' thanks (@8/20, 11:07 pm) for Rita Ferrone's contribution (@8/20, 10:16 pm) of John Paul II's nuanced statement on social sin.  I also found Jim's distinction between "social sin" and "institutional sin" helpful.

If you were to conduct an autopsy on any lifelong Mainer in recent decades, you'd find microscopic particulate pollutants from Midwestern coal power plants embedded in their lungs.  Are those individuals "responsible" for being polluted?  Only in the sense that they were inhaling the only air in which they lived.

One way I've come to think about racism (and a number of other "isms") is that, metaphorically speaking, it's part of the air we breathe.  The challenge (or at least, one challenge) then becomes how do we both strengthen our resistance to the moral pollutant of racism, and how do we work to reduce it---not only by our own individual actions and encounters, but also by our collective actions and encounters with each other.

While there is much to lament about our institutions, perhaps we can take a moment to acknowledge a few things that should bring hope.

There is an excellent piece by Judy Melinek, MD., in CNN on the role of the medical examiner. This really is worth reading.

Also, my vote for Time's (or anyone else's) Person of the Year recognition goes to Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson. His thoroughly professional (which includes empathetic) presence has brought a great reduction in violence that could have produced more loss of life in a neighborhood already suffering too much. I hope his approach will be studied in police academies and national guard units across the country, added to the case studies of other police departments that have long been able to maintain peace in difficult situations. 



The lengthy explanation of social sin by John Paul II seems to eradicate any hope of heaven for anyone.  (Including him.)




Are those individuals "responsible" for being polluted?  Only in the sense that they were inhaling the only air in which they lived.

Luke, with respect, I think the analogy you make here doesn't fit the case because it fails to distinguish between being the victim of something and being complicit in carrying that something on.

If the citizens in your hypothetical situation had refused to vote for clean air policies, if they gave in to the unjust demands of the coal industry, if they could have done something to clean up their environment and instead shrugged or refused, they were participating in social sin. It's when someone has done all the right things and suffers still from the pollution that you must say the person is not guilty. This is the case in your given example. That person is a victim of sins, not a perpetrator, if he/she does nothing more than breathe. People can't choose not to breathe.

They can, however, choose to turn away from evil and do good. It's just harder when that evil is institutionalized and social because evil patterns and practices seem so "normal," so inevitable. But if evildoing is inevitable and we have no choice, what good is our redemption? Conversion would be meaningless because we are not able to change.



Mr. Schwartz - you state: 

"So, the institutionalized racism is not an act, so what is it?  Something we all are required to feel guilty about? Can a condition be a sin?  Is alcoholism, then, a sin?  That is, distinct from drunkeness? So a woman successfully fighting her alcoholism is still guilty of sin? for example?  That's pretty cold Bill.  I would have expected better from you."

Institutionalized racism (or social sin) - specifically in Missouri (but an example that applies across the US)

I've got news for Missouri's political class. They need to stop reviving the odious, discredited ideology of the Southern slaveocracy. They must instead return to reality and address the social crisis Ferguson represents. For in truth, African-Americans face substantial obstacles in Missouri. The four-year high-school graduation rate for African-Americans is 76 percent (as of 2009/2010). (The white graduation rate is 89 percent). The poverty rate for African-Americans is 27.7 percent (as of 2007/2011). The white poverty rate for the same period is 12.1 percent. The unemployment rate of African-Americans (2008/2012) is 18.0 percent. (For white Missourians it is 7.3 percent). The incarceration rate for African-Americans (as of June 30, 2012) is 38.2 percent.

Ferguson police department and Mr. Wilson have another problem:

Key points:

The Brown case also strongly points to systemic issues of excessive force by police. The obvious excessive force used was the slaying of Brown. This strikes to the heart of another basic right of citizens, namely, the right to life and liberty and, again, the freedom from undue harm. His killing once more raised deeply troubling questions about the power of the law to protect citizens from their unimpeded right to life and safety. Federal prosecutors play a major role in ensuring that where there's the suspicion that an individual's rights might have been violated solely because of their race and gender, the power of federal law is brought to ensure that right is protected.

(example of federal law used to protect the common good and address social sin)

So, what is institutionalized racism - suggest that it is, by analogy, similar to *original sin* meaning the *original human condition*.   The human race exists in this condition and our baptism calls us to act to ameliorate or overcome this condition by our actions.  Alcoholism is not a sin - it is a medical condition (part of our human condition).  It can cause sin when an individual with this condition acts to harm the common good knowing that they have not taken responsible steps to address their condition.  (what is cold is your inability to understand these things)


Small update to "too little, too late." There's a CNS photo in this week's edition of The Florida Catholic that shows Fr. Robert Rosebrough leading prayers at the Aug. 11 prayer vigil in Ferguson. The shooting was Aug. 9. As usual with CNS stories, a reader might think that nothing happened before or after the Catholic Church was officially involved. But, for our purposes, it is important to remember that "all the news that's fit to print" does not cover all the news, and they also serve who don't fit.

Bill:  This paragraph,

So, what is institutionalized racism - suggest that it is, by analogy, similar to *original sin* meaning the *original human condition*.   The human race exists in this condition and our baptism calls us to act to ameliorate or overcome this condition by our actions.  Alcoholism is not a sin - it is a medical condition (part of our human condition).  It can cause sin when an individual with this condition acts to harm the common good knowing that they have not taken responsible steps to address their condition.  (what is cold is your inability to understand these things)

Is actually very good, and I agree with you there, except for the the last (bracketed) comment.  So you see, after the back and forth, the two of us found some important common ground, and I now have a reasonably firm grasp of what "social sin" is.  I salute you Bill.

@Rita Ferrone (8/21,11:22 am):  Agreed. Like many analogies, this one breaks down---and at precisely the point you mention.

Still, I find it somewhat helpful because it (to some extent) gets us away from an overly individualized examination of whether this or that person (or action, or statement, or intent) is "racist" and points instead to the acknowledgement that none of us is unaffected by racism.  And, even after repenting of the sign of racism and attempting to atone and make reparations (about which, more another time), racism is still effectively---as Bill DeHaas (8/21, 12:21 pm) and Bob Schwartz (8/21, 5:07 pm) agree--part of the human condition, and something that, by and with the grace of God, we can continue to work at overcoming.

Thanks to Bob and Luke - salud.

Joseph J. Dunn:

The Time Person of the Year award is for the person who most influenced the news for better or worse during the year--which is why Hitler was once the Man of the Year.    

It's a little too early to declare that Ron Johnson has done this.


They can, however, choose to turn away from evil and do good. It's just harder when that evil is institutionalized and social because evil patterns and practices seem so "normal," so inevitable. But if evildoing is inevitable and we have no choice, what good is our redemption? Conversion would be meaningless because we are not able to change.

Rita - bravo.  And as it pertains to racism, those of us who have been around for a few decades can look about us and realize that progress has been made.  As an example that may seem trivial but I believe is quite important: when I was a child in the upper Midwest, it was quite common to hear white people throw the "n word" around (although, I'm proud to say, not in my parents' home).  Something has happened in the ensuing 40+ years, and it's no longer considered to be fit for interpersonal discourse.  At some point, a critical mass of consciousness was achieved such that what once was considered acceptable in wide swaths of society, no longer is.

I hope that the events in Ferguson, which now may be winding down, pushes us to another turning point, such that society as a whole, and not just some sectors of society, decides that unequal treatment of African Americans by the criminal justice system is no longer to be tolerated.  Stop-and-frisk policies should be discontinued.  Cameras should become universally adopted in squad cars and interview rooms.  Prosecutors, judges and legislators should examine criminal laws and sentencing practices.  


Evidently the broken eye socket never happened.  Darren Wilson was videotaped walking around the body of Michael Brown several times as the body lay in the street, which seems unlikely for anyone beaten "nearly unconscious" and half blind.

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