About 200 Catholic theologians have signed a statement that calls for a "radical reconsideration of policing policy in our nation." Some would no doubt question what theologians know about police work, but their effort to bring Catholic teaching to the controversies surrounding the police slayings of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.,deserves to be read and discussed.

One of the key points is support for "the proven, effective results of community policing. Rather than perpetuating an `us versus them' mentality, a community policing approach is more consonant with our Catholic convictions that we are all each other’s keepers and should work together for the common good of our communities."

It's a good point. New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton at one time scoffed at community policing, saying cops weren't meant to be social workers. He shouldn't have. If community policing were practiced in New York, police wouldn't simply patrol unlit stairways in housing projects; they'd take steps to get the lights turned on. That might've helped Akai Gurley, the unarmed 28-year-old man a tense police officer accidentally shot to death in the lightless stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project last month.

The theologians cited Catholic teaching on “legitimate defense” as well, saying use of force is justified only when an aggressor poses a grave and imminent threat to the officer’s or other persons’ lives. As the video of his death shows, Eric Garner did not pose such a threat to the officers who subdued him.

The theologians also call for the creation of independent boards and special prosecutors to investigate allegations of police misconduct, a step police unions have always fought. 

The American law enforcement community has long had an outsized Catholic presence, and the church's teaching on the common good is absorbed into the ethic of service one finds among police officers. Given the Catholic influence still found in many big-city police departments, the theologians have a particular contribution to make in this national debate about policing and race.

Updated 12/11: 368 theologians have signed the statement.


Paul Moses is the author, most recently, of The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia (NYU Press, 2023). He is a contributing writer. Twitter: @PaulBMoses.

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