Last Word: Black Lives, White Catholics

How to Stimulate the Public Argument
CNS

For anyone needing a straight-on look at racism in the United States, the National Urban League’s thirty-ninth State of Black America report, issued in March 2015, unmasks its everyday workings with some dismaying numbers. Over 25 percent of our black population lives below the poverty line, for instance, while only 11.1 percent of whites do. Black unemployment is double that of whites. In fact, in nearly every major “quality of life” category, from health care and infant mortality to education, the report tells “a tale of two nations,” as the Urban League’s CEO, Marc Morial, put it. Morial insists that the state of black America in 2015 can only be described with one word: “crisis.”

Do black lives matter to white Americans? Martin Luther King Jr. contemplated the racists of his time and wondered, “Who is their God?” His question remains sadly relevant today. Why are so many white Catholics untroubled by the empty stomachs of black children, by the thousands of black men in prison, by the suffering of black women who die too early from undiagnosed and untreated illnesses? Why isn’t racial justice one of the highest priorities of the U.S. Catholic Church? Why are white Catholics among the staunchest supporters of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy? 

Ignorance about the reality of black life is rampant among whites who rarely have to confront it. Official, de jure segregation may be illegal in this country, but black-white economic disparities create a de facto segregation, with most whites living in racially homogenous, relatively prosperous neighborhoods where schools function well and safety is taken for granted. Such separateness conduces to mass ignorance about the crisis described in the Urban League study. Gallup reports that more than seven in ten whites think that blacks and whites have equal employment opportunities. Eight in ten believe that blacks and whites have equal educational and housing opportunities. No wonder most whites aren’t upset about what’s happening to black lives.

How can injustice be remedied when it is invisible? Educating the public is the first and essential step. White Catholics—and indeed all white people—must learn how racism, both subtle and not-so-subtle, perpetuates black suffering and death. How can the Catholic Church make a contribution to this challenging learning process? As it happens, I think we already have on hand a good model for doing so. Why not conduct the kind of public, collaborative investigation into the state of race relations today that the U.S. bishops did in writing their pastoral letters, The Challenge of Peace (1983) and Economic Justice for All (1986)?

Those documents set a tone of moral purposefulness while providing a model of how the church should bring its unique perspective into the public square on issues of national importance. The bishops intended not only to produce accurate analyses and effective strategies, but also to promote discussion and action within the church—and, as Cardinal Joseph Bernardin noted, to “stimulate the public argument” about peace and the economy. To this end they published preliminary drafts of their letters, saying, in effect, “Whoever you are, if you can help us improve this, please do.” The response was remarkable, so much so that Bernardin, who directed the peace pastoral, had to request more time for his committee to digest it all. Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who directed the economic pastoral, reported “abundant feedback” from eighty-eight dioceses, thirty-two religious orders, thirty-eight secular organizations and institutions, forty-four academics, thirty international sources, fourteen interfaith and ecumenical bodies, and over a thousand individuals.

When all was said and done—and written—the bishops had dramatically heightened public awareness and debate, both within the church and without; and as a consequence, few could doubt the church’s commitment to peace and economic justice. But John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger were not pleased with this process, and it has not been tried again. Why not revive it now, under Pope Francis, at a moment in our history when bridging the racial divide is so important and so difficult?

Imagine what might come out of reviving this fruitful process. Consulting and collaborating with historians, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, and theologians can help reveal the scope and tenacity of racism. We could dispel the notion that racism is just a matter of individuals’ attitudes and actions, or that the police killings of young black men are merely “isolated incidents.” We could shelve the fantasy of achieving racial reconciliation without some form of reparations. We could develop and begin to implement effective strategies against racial bigotry at all levels of the church. And at last, at last, white America might hear the anguish of racism’s victims.

James Baldwin was surely right when he wrote that only “a very rare, intrepid, and genuinely free and loving shepherd [can] challenge the habits and fears and assumptions of his flock and help them enter into the freedom that enables us to move to higher ground.” We need such intrepid, free, and loving shepherds now.

Published in the June 3, 2016 issue: 

Jon Nilson is professor emeritus of theology at Loyola University Chicago and a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

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