“The Catholic Church and the Racial Divide in the United States: Old Wounds Reopened”
The Most Reverend Edward K. Braxton Ph.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Belleville, Illinois
Thank you, President Garvey, for your warm welcome and gracious introduction. I am pleased to be with you at The Catholic University of America. I have very happy memories of serving as a member of the Faculty of Theology here when I was an assistant to the late James Cardinal Hickey.
I. Introduction: The Horizon of Possibilities
(1) We are living in a unique moment in our history, a moment when, sadly, the racial divide* in our country is becoming more acute. If we are to move ahead in a positive way from this moment, we must learn from the past by studying the choices, decisions, beliefs, and experiences that have brought us to this moment. Hopefully, this will allow us to nurture better choices, decisions, beliefs, and experiences to shape our future. My remarks this afternoon will have a moving viewpoint in five parts: I. The Horizon of Possibilities; II. A Flaw at the Foundation: Dred Scott and Roger Taney; III. The Horizon of Possibilities: Once Ignored Monuments Stir Fierce Debate; IV. “Our” History and Culture; V. The Horizon of Possibilities Within Christian Communities: What Can the Church Do?
(2) In his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari notes that a wide spectrum of beliefs, practices, and experiences is available to communities and individuals at different moments in history. However, most individuals and communities only embrace a small portion of the choices that are actually within their horizon of possibilities paying little attention to the wide spectrum of possibilities hidden from view due to cultural and other limitations. (See Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harper Collins, p. 45)
(3) Listen! Learn! Think! Pray! Act! Faithfully attending to these imperatives will help all of us become aware of the widest range of options within our horizon of possibilities. Jesus of Nazareth has given us the most fundamental option that all people should exercise from their horizon of possibilities. Drawing on Deuteronomy19:7-18 and Leviticus 6:4-5, Jesus teaches us the Law of Love (Matthew 22:35-40). We must love God with our whole heart and our whole being. And we must love our neighbor as we love ourselves. It is a threefold law. Love God! Love ourselves! Love our neighbor! And, in the story of the man who shows compassion to the stranger, beaten, robbed, and ignored by his countrymen (Luke 10:25-35), Jesus teaches us that our neighbor is any fellow human being of any background anywhere. Communities, whether religious or secular, that overlook, ignore, or reject this Law of Love from their horizon of possibilities make decisions, erect laws, and create social structures that have a dangerous flaw at the foundation.
(4) Most Catholics readily affirm the truth of this Law of Love. Most also acknowledge that Jesus’ words become more and more difficult to obey as we face complex social, moral, political, and personal situations about which Catholics themselves may disagree.
(5) The events of recent months concerning freedom of speech, public Confederate monuments, White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan, are particularly challenging and complex for Christians seeking to obey the Law of Love. Daily headlines, the evening news, and all forms of social media have placed the racial divide in the United States right in front of us in ways we would not have expected as we approach the 50th anniversary of the cruel assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 2018. Was his precious blood spilled in vain? Do Black lives really matter?
(6) The President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, by his inconsistent comments, has become a lightning rod in the midst of this turmoil, resulting in intense media coverage of old wounds reopened. We cannot know what is in the President’s heart and it is not for us to presume to sit in judgment of the choices he makes within his horizon of possibilities. Our reflection on his words, respect both the office and the person of the President.
(7) We have no window into the interior world of another person. It is almost impossible to know with certainty what individuals, with whom we have had no personal conversation, think and feel at the deepest levels about the racial divide in this country. From Charleston to Charlottesville, we have been observers of a public quarrel and dispute without having the opportunity for a serious and honest conversation with any of the participants. Almost all of our impressions are formed by information gleaned from public media, which are necessarily selective in their presentations. In some instances, however, individuals have expressed their beliefs with such intense emotion, force, and frequency that it is difficult not to conclude that they are revealing their true selves. Paradoxically, some reject Christ’s Law of Love from their horizon of possibilities, while proclaiming themselves Christians in the public square.
(8) As Catholics, our goal is to always nurture choices, decisions, beliefs, and experiences that are faithful to Christ’s Law of Love, which gives us an ever expanding horizon of possibilities. Our chances of succeeding in this unique moment of history will be greater if we follow these critical imperatives: Listen! Learn! Think! Pray! Act!
II. A Flaw at the Foundation: Dred Scott and Roger Taney
(9) The racial divide we are experiencing so acutely has a long history. If we are to understand the present, we must examine the past. Could there be a flaw at the foundation? Could the extreme racial divide that we are witnessing today be a residue of a foundational flaw born of moral blindness due to wrong choices people have made from their horizon of possibilities? Roger B. Taney, by some accounts a devout Roman Catholic, rose to prominence under President Andrew Jackson. He was eventually appointed the first Catholic Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Apparently, early in his life, Taney had some qualms about the enslavement of free human beings,** thus “freeing” his own enslaved free human beings as a young man. A native of Maryland, he shunned the Confederacy and supported the Union all of his life. Yet, one hundred and sixty years ago, on March 6, 1857, he wrote the majority opinion in the 7-2 Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sandford decision in what is generally considered to be the most odious and shameful ruling in the Supreme Court’s history. He declared that people of African ancestry living in America had absolutely no legal standing before the court and could not sue for their freedom because they were nothing more than the property of their “owners.” It is stunning to think that a Catholic, who surely was taught the Law of Love, could pen these words concerning Dred Scott and his wife Harriet Robinson Scott:
(10) “The question is simply this: Can a negro (sic), whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen? One of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution.”
(11) “It will be observed, that the plea applies to that class of persons only whose ancestors were negroes (sic) of the African race, and imported into this country, and sold and held as slaves. The only matter in issue before the court, therefore, is, whether the descendants of such slaves, when they shall be emancipated, or who are born of parents who had become free before their birth, are citizens of a State, in the sense in which the word citizen is used in the Constitution of the United States. …”
(12) “They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro (sic) might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing, or supposed to be open to dispute; and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion.”
(13) “Yet the men who framed this declaration were great men — high in literary acquirements — high in their sense of honor, and incapable of asserting principles inconsistent with those on which they were acting. They perfectly understood the meaning of the language they used, and how it would be understood by others; and they knew that it would not in any part of the civilized world be supposed to embrace the negro (sic) race, which, by common consent, had been excluded from civilized Governments and the family of nations, and doomed to slavery. They spoke and acted according to the then established doctrines and principles, and in the ordinary language of the day, no one misunderstood them. The unhappy black race were separated from the white by indelible marks, and laws long before established, and were never thought of or spoken of except as property…” (See 60 U.S. 19 How. 393 393, 1856)
(14) Many southerners thought Chief Justice Taney’s opinion definitively resolved the issues concerning the status of enslaved free human beings before the law. Instead, it was met with widespread outrage and fueled the fires that led to the Civil War. Eventually, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1863), the Civil Rights Act (1866), the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution (1868) nullified Taney’s infamous ruling, giving human beings of African Ancestry full citizenship (on paper only!), thus making them, for the first time, African Americans!
(15) Nevertheless, this ruling by the first Catholic Chief Justice, which seems glaringly false today, created a flaw at the foundation of the country’s relationship to People of Color. It is not possible for us to know how the clear teaching of Jesus Christ, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, escaped Chief Justice Taney and the six justices who concurred with him, unless we consider the possibility that they simply could not conceive of Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, as their neighbor because of their African heritage. They were not really persons, only property.
(16) Unfortunately, there were, within the horizon of possibilities of the Catholic Church, firmly held opinions that made Taney’s decision possible. There was a “flaw at the foundation,” which was, sadly, supported by teachings at the highest levels of the Catholic Church. We learn from history, and credible historical documents suggest that one of the first extensive shipments of human beings from West Africa in the Transatlantic slave trade was probably initiated at the request of a Roman Catholic Bishop, Bartolomé de las Casas. In 1548, Pope Paul III declared that both clergy and laity had the right to own enslaved free human beings. The Catholic colonies of Spain and Portugal were the major agents of the slave trade in the Americas.
(17) More than that, the Catholic Church placed books critical of enslaving free human beings on the Index of Forbidden Books between 1573-1826. The Church excommunicated Capuchin missionaries because they urged that enslaved free African people in the Americas should be given their freedom. Blessed Pius IX, within whose pontificate (1846-78) the Dred Scott decision was handed down, wrote, “Slavery itself … is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery, and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons … It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given.” (See Global Black History)
(18) I have found no evidence that prominent American Bishops (including John Hughes of New York, 1842–1864; Francis Kenrick of Baltimore, 1851–1863; St. John Neumann of Philadelphia,1852-1860; and Anthony O’Regan of Chicago,1854–1858) ever condemned the Supreme Court’s decision.
(19) Indeed, historian John Strausbaugh, writing about Archbishop Hughes, observed that the Archbishop’s position was that as long as slavery was legal in the South, owning slaves was not a sin. He did not admire President Lincoln and found no place in his heart for people of African ancestry. Strausbaugh notes that as the conflict between the abolitionists and the Irish workers intensified, anti-abolitionist forces in New York would “scare workers with terrible predictions that if the millions of enslaved blacks in the South were freed, they’d flood into northern cities and take away all the work…”
(20) “With the flood of Famine Irish into the Lower East Side in the 1840s and 1850s, the immigrants’ struggle to set themselves apart from blacks and be accepted by whites turned mean and hard. The Irish now developed a fierce strain of anti-black and anti-abolitionist sentiment. Clinging desperately to their low-level jobs, Irish workers hated the abolitionist movement they feared would unleash millions of freed black workers to flood the city and replace them. Hughes said that if the President’s goal in the Civil War was to end slavery, then Irishmen ‘will turn away in disgust from the discharge of what would otherwise be a patriotic duty.’” (See John Strausbaugh, City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War, Twelve Books) Listen! Learn! Think! Pray! Act!
III. The Horizon of Possibilities:
Once Ignored Monuments Stir Fierce Debate
(21) Hundreds of monuments honoring men from the Civil War era have been on public display for decades. The almost visceral debate about them that has recently been raging in certain parts of the country has emerged because of a different response to the horizon of possibilities. Beliefs, attitudes, feelings, and judgments about the character of the individuals immortalized in bronze were different for different individuals and communities during their lifetime, during the Lost Cause era, and during the 1950s. Clearly, today’s debate is born from the fact that different individuals and communities attribute different meanings to the monuments because the images provoke different psychological selections from their horizon of possibilities.
(22) A bronze sculpture of Chief Justice Taney stood in the North Garden in Mount Vernon Place, in Baltimore since 1872, until the City Council voted to remove it quickly and quietly, and did so on August 16, 2017. How could a monument “honoring” the man who vigorously defended the lie of White Supremacy while leading the nation’s highest court have remained on public display for so long without an outcry? The primary reason may not be political, cultural, religious, or racial. It may be simply a matter of inattentiveness. People of all backgrounds (including Catholic clergy, religious sisters and brothers, and laity) may have passed by the statue of Chief Justice Roger Taney, and the now controversial monuments to General Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders, with a degree of indifference and inattentiveness. Questioning the appropriateness of the statue was within their horizon of possibilities, but they did not advert to that possibility.
(23) Many, if not most, Americans strolling through parks and public squares pay little or no attention to the weather-worn statues and monuments of MEN sitting in formal chairs or on horseback. They are simply decorations, part of the ambience of the park, like the beautiful flowers and ponds full of gliding ducks and graceful swans. Some might take a photograph; a few might read the name of the “famous” person. Very few give much thought to exactly who the person was or what he did to merit such a place of honor. Those who do know whom the monument immortalizes almost certainly do not consult reliable historical accounts of the person’s life and give serious thought to whether this person represented the noblest ideals of the country or adhered to positions that must be rejected and condemned such as racial division, oppression, and superiority.
(24) In the case of Confederate monuments, there have always been some individuals and groups who knew well who the dignified figure on horseback was. He reminded them of their pride in their identity, their heritage, their history, and their culture. There are others who have been equally aware of whom the monuments celebrate. They know when the monuments were erected and why. For them, these statues are a reminder of the commitment of some to the Lost Cause, a defense of the Civil War as an honorable struggle for the Southern way of life, and a denial of the central role human slavery played in the war. The Lost Cause was the old order of the Confederacy, of which racial superiority, sustained by Jim Crow laws, and an apartheid-like form of absolute racial segregation, were an integral part.
(25) Of the approximately 700 Confederate monuments (and numerous displays of the Confederate flag) in the United States, mainly in the South, a good number were erected when the post Civil War reconstruction era was overtaken by a return to political power of White southerners in the years between 1890 and 1920, a time when the disenfranchisement and lynching of People of Color were commonplace. A romanticized antebellum revisionist view of history prevailed that could not imagine that the enslavement of free human beings was the primary cause of the Civil War. Nor would they acknowledge the truth that human bondage was the financial engine that sustained the genteel world of the Old South, which is well documented in Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. This world view is meticulously recreated in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone With the Wind, in which the Irish Catholic O’Hara family has no qualms about owning enslaved free human beings as work horses on their plantation, Tara. Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, provides a far more telling account of the horrors of human bondage on a southern plantation.
(26) A great number of Confederate monuments, however, were built later, beginning in 1950 and into the 1960s as an expression of opposition to decisions by the Federal government and the rulings of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren, including striking down as unconstitutional racial segregation in public schools (Brown v. Board of Education, May 17, 1954) and laws forbidding interracial marriage (Loving v. Virginia, June 12, 1967).
(27) During a speaking engagement in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, I went on pilgrimage to the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. I stood in silent prayer in the sanctuary, which endured the slaughter of the innocent on June 15, 2015, when Dylann Roof extinguished the lives of nine African American Christians. He later said he was a White Supremacist whose goal was to start a race war. The pictures of him proudly waving a Confederate flag enkindled anew the long-standing debate about the meaning of this flag, to some a banner of honor, pride, history and heritage; to others a reminder of the horror of enslaving free human beings from West Africa to labor in the plantations of the South and to later suffer under systematic racial oppression. This led to efforts by some elected officials to vote to remove the flag from public buildings, over the objections of others. The Charleston City Council voted to remove the flag from the Capitol grounds. When the current President was running for office, he approved the relocation of the flags in a museum. Since then, other communities have voted to remove Confederate flags and monuments from high visibility locations because they are widely seen as exacerbating the racial divide. The Dylann Roof assassinations triggered a dramatic shift in the horizon of possibilities for many Americans.
(28) On February 6, 2017, the Charlottesville, Virginia, City Council voted to move a prominent statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the city’s central square because it was considered, by some, inappropriate to honor someone who supported the enslavement of free human beings and who led an army to war with his own country, the United States.
(29) On Friday, August 11, 2017, alt right marchers who opposed the removal of the monument paraded through Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia carrying torches and proclaiming “white lives matter,” “Jews will not replace us,” “take back our country” and the German nationalist Nazi slogan, “blood and soil,” while using the Adolf Hitler salute, “Sieg Heil!” On Saturday, August 12, 2017, there was a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville to protest the removal of the Lee statue. A large number of people turned out to oppose this rally, which was widely seen as a White Supremacist gathering. The event became violent when White Supremacists clashed with counter-demonstrators (including Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist groups). A speeding car drove into the crowd of people who opposed the White Supremacists groups, killing Heather D. Heyer, 32, and injuring at least 19 others. The police apprehended the driver, James Alex Fields, Jr., of Ohio, described as a Nazi sympathizer, and charged him with second-degree murder. Meanwhile, two state troopers were killed when their helicopter, which was monitoring the rally, crashed. Since the City Council voted to remove the Robert E. Lee statue, Charlottesville has attracted members of the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis and other White Supremacists groups. After this violent conflict, there was widespread condemnation by civic, political, and religious leaders of the extremist groups that were unambiguous about their racial bias and hatred.
(30) The initial response of the President on Saturday, August 12, 2017, to these events was characterized as forceful but vague. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” Many criticized him for not specifically condemning White Supremacy in any form, especially neo-Nazis. They were deeply troubled by his reference to violence “on many sides,” which seemed to imply that everyone involved in the conflict was equally at fault. David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, expressed gratitude to the President for the honesty and courage “of this initial statement and for telling the truth about Charlottesville and condemning the leftist terrorists involved with Black Lives Matter and Antifa.”
(31) On the following Monday, August 14, 2017, facing intense criticism, the White House issued a new statement in the President’s name: “Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including KKK, Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.”
(32) But, on Tuesday, August15, 2017, during a press conference about another matter, the President criticized the media for mischaracterizing White Supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, stating that some of those marching alongside of them were “very fine people.” This response surprised many and was quickly criticized by leaders of foreign governments, Republicans, Democrats, Christian and Jewish organizations and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for seeming to suggest there is a “moral equivalence” between neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, and the demonstrators (a mixture of various groups including some of whom advocate violence) protesting against them. Business leaders in the President’s Economic Strategic and Policy Forum and the members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities all resigned in protest. Nevertheless, as recently as Thursday, September 14, 2017, the President renewed his assertion of blame on both sides.
(33) After a meeting with Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only African American Republican in the Senate, who had challenged the President on his claim that “both sides” were responsible for the Charlottesville violence, the President said, “Especially in light of the advent of Antifa, if you look at what’s going on there…you have some pretty bad dudes on the other side also,” in an apparent reference to the anti-fascist activists who confronted the neo-Nazis and White Supremacists. “Now because of what’s happened since then, with Antifa, you look at really what’s happened since Charlottesville, a lot of people are saying… ‘Gee, Trump might have a point.’ I said, ‘You’ve got some very bad people on the other side,’ which is true.” Senator Scott said he met with the President to express his strong opposition to his assertion that “both sides” were to blame for the conflict. He had no expectation of changing the President’s mind and he had not done so. Listen! Learn! Think! Pray! Act!
IV. “Our” History and Culture
(34) Turning his attention to the controversy that prompted his comments about “both sides,” the President lamented the changing of “our” culture, history, and heritage that is implied by removing historic monuments honoring Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee. He asked
whose statues would be next to go. In impromptu remarks on August 15th, he said, “George Washington was a slave owner. So will George Washington lose his status? Are we gonna take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? Do you like him, because he was a major slave owner? Are we gonna take down his statue? So it’s fine. You’re changing history, you’re changing culture… You really have to ask yourself where does it stop?” During a rally in Phoenix on August 22, 2017, he stated that the media are “trying to take away our history and our heritage.” The President’s comments did not distinguish between individuals who, like Jefferson, looked away from what he knew to be the moral evil of enslaving free human beings, while devoting themselves to the ideal of one United States and other individuals, like Lee, who led a war against the United States that left more than 600,000 dead for the primary purpose of maintaining human slavery thus undermining the possibility of forming “a more perfect union.”
(35) It would be helpful to have a better understanding of what the President means by “our” heritage. One would think that if the President, who represents the nation, says “our” he means “us,” all Americans. However, his words can be interpreted as an expression of identity politics, referring not to all, but to specific exclusive religious, racial, or social groups. When African Americans exclaim, “Black lives matter,” some label it identity politics. Identity politics is not new to the American landscape. It is a reflection of a kind of tribal kinship that some people feel for people who are similar to them. Intentionally or not, identity politics is manifested in the speech of many opposing groups at this critical juncture of our history. When the current President proposed and then defended the known to be indefensible argument that our first bi-racial President, Barack Obama was not born in this country, his critics called this an example of identity politics, portraying the former President as foreign, exotic, other, “not one of us.”
(36) When the President uses “our” in the context of Charlottesville, he is accused of racial identity politics because of a history that may not be clear to many. Because of that history, “our” could be interpreted to mean American citizens whose ancestors came from Europe and who are presented as the most important actors in the early history of the nation. Is “our” history, heritage, and culture, the history, heritage, and culture of all Americans or is it essentially Euro-centric? Is our American “nationality” derived from citizenship and commonly held core or foundational values no matter from what part of the world our ancestors came? Significantly, in 1790, when the country was determining how those who immigrated to this land could become citizens, the first naturalization law stated that only “White” Europeans could be naturalized, excluding all others.
(37) As for the citizenship of non-Europeans born in this country, that was determined by each State. Thus, some people of African ancestry were granted citizenship. As we have seen, Catholic Chief Justice Taney’s Dred Scott decision determined the law at the national level, declaring that no one of African ancestry was or ever could be a citizen. In 1861, at the time of the Civil War, this was settled law. The Confederacy was committed to maintaining this law excluding People of Color from citizenship. When the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments affirmed an egalitarian vision of America, acknowledging it to be a multiracial democracy, the Ku Klux Klan stood in violent opposition. When the President, defending Confederate monuments, speaks of “our history and culture,” his listeners who affirm White Supremacy and white privilege may hear it as a defense of this historic racial divide. The common practice of speaking of some Americans (e.g., African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans) as “minorities” or “minority groups” and not others (e.g. German Americans, Jewish Americans, Irish Americans) unintentionally reinforces both this divide and identity politics. If you understand the meaning of “E pluribus unum” (“out of many, one”), there cannot be “minority” Americans, only American citizens of many backgrounds who are all equal to each other. Different Americans, depending on the questions they ask and the responses they affirm from their horizon of possibilities, may reach very different conclusions about what they mean by “we,” us,” and “our.”
(38) One of the best correctives to the perhaps unintentionally one-sided references to “our” history, heritage, and culture was provided on Friday, May 19, 2017, when Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans and a Catholic, was moved perhaps by the Holy Spirit to give a prophetic, landmark address explaining to the city and to the world his reasons for removing the last four of the city’s several Confederate monuments. In a clear plea for supporters of Confederate monuments to focus on new and different experiences, questions, beliefs and attitudes within their horizon of possibilities, he said:
(39) “But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were bought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor, of misery, of rape, of torture. America was the place where nearly 4,000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom Riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp. So, when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth.”
(40) “And it immediately begs the questions, why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame… all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans. So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission. There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.”
(41) “Consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/24/us/mitch-landrieu-speech-new-orleans.html.
Listen! Learn! Think! Pray! Act!
V. The Horizon of Possibilities Within Christian Communities: What Can the Church Do?
(42) The resurgence of neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, and Ku Klux Klan has reopened old wounds and made Christian communities more deeply aware that some Americans make choices from their horizons of possibilities that are diametrically opposed to the choices made by others. Many Catholics may have thought that Jesus’ Law of Love, calling every human being to love God with our whole being and to love all people as we love ourselves, had been more genuinely embraced by all communities as the most important choice made from their horizon of possibilities. They may be shocked to learn that some Catholics associate themselves with ideologies of hate even though they are contrary to the Gospel. This summer, Father William Aitcheson of Arlington wrote movingly of his conversion story in “Moving from Hate to Love with God’s Grace.” He wrote that as a young Catholic he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and his actions (including cross burnings and a letter threatening the life of Coretta Scott King) were despicable. Expressing repentance for these and other misdeeds, he described the radical transformation in his life brought about by God’s forgiveness and the mercy of Jesus Christ. (See The Arlington Catholic Herald, August 21, 2017). This story of conversion is the story of a person who, from the horizon of possibilities before him, rejected his earlier choice to hate and embraced Christ’s Law of Love, the unconditional requirement for anyone who calls himself a Christian.
(43) The Bishops of the United States will soon issue a new Pastoral Letter as the first major follow-up to the 1979 Pastoral, “Brothers and Sisters to Us: U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Racism in Our Day,” which condemned racial prejudice as a sin and a heresy that endures in our country and in our Church. Among the goals of the Bishops are: to help Catholics focus on peace and justice in our communities, and to promote active listening to the concerns of people in neighborhoods where there are tensions between people of different races and between local citizen and law enforcement. The Church wishes to contribute to building stronger relationships among people of different races in our communities in order to anticipate, prevent, and even resolve recurring conflicts. The Bishops approach these efforts chastened by the awareness of the Catholic Church in the United States’ long, sad history of supporting the racial divide seemingly embracing Chief Justice Taney’s vision. Catholics, including John Carroll, the first Bishop of Baltimore, Georgetown University, and many other individuals and institutions “owned” enslaved free human beings. The Church did not oppose segregated neighborhoods, segregated churches, segregated schools, or segregated and unfair employment. The Church refused to accept People of Color in convents, seminaries, and the ranks of the clergy. Evangelization in African American communities has not gained momentum, in part, because people have long memories. As I have said many times, the Catholic Church has made extraordinary efforts to correct its past grave misdeeds, which placed it on the wrong side of history. The Church has, however, made many significant contributions that have supported African American people by means of civil rights, education, employment, housing, health care and social advocacy. Nevertheless, it is with regret that I must say that I do not believe there are any grounds for hoping that the number of African American Catholics will increase significantly in the coming generations. Indeed, the number may actually decline.
(44) Sadly, in 1979, many Catholics never heard of “Brothers and Sisters to Us” and many of the goals proposed in that Pastoral Letter were never seriously pursued or achieved. The Bishops could publish the 1979 letter tomorrow and large numbers of Catholics would think it was brand new. It was never read, discussed, prayed about, or acted on in their dioceses or their parishes. There are no easy answers to the question, “Why is this so?” But a partial answer may be the fact that individuals and communities did not personally appropriate the full implications of Christ’s Law of Love from the horizon of possibilities proclaimed to them in the Gospel. We Catholics, like other Christians, sometimes have only a superficial cultural commitment to our faith. We do not experience our faith in Jesus Christ and his command to love at the deepest levels of our being. Only this deep existential commitment to follow Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life, will impel us to truly live the Catholic faith we profess in all of the complex and difficult situations of our lives, including those which will require us to oppose anyone and anything that serves to maintain the racial divide.
(45) This requires that we open our hearts to the purifying power of the Holy Spirit and the healing grace of Christ. This is the path that leads to true conversion. This means practicing the Law of Love with ourselves, our family members, our neighbors, our fellow parishioners, our co-workers, the faculty members and students here at Catholic University. This life-long process will be more effective in all aspects of our lives if we are faithful to the imperatives: Listen! Learn! Think! Pray! Act!
(46) What Can the Church Do? Every individual, organization, institution, and structure in the Church can do something to counter the intensification of the racial divide. There is no excuse for doing nothing. However, discerning what we can and should do may not be easy. But if we are following the path of true Christian, Ecclesial, Intellectual, and Moral conversion, we should be able to scrutinize with care the horizons of possibilities before us and prayerfully make the best choices in matters great and small. Everyone can do something.
(47) Let me conclude with ten suggestions for your consideration.
- Do not be a part of the conspiracy of silence. If family members, friends, fellow students, co-workers, or representatives of the Catholic Church do or say things that reinforce the racial divide, find a respectful but effective way to communicate that you think what they are doing is wrong. It is reopening old wounds. And you do not want to be a part of it. Your silence may be construed as approval.
- Renew and strengthen the focus of your spiritual formation for the courage needed to bridge the racial divide. Read the Gospels regularly and be attentive to the specific and very clear directives from Jesus of Nazareth (e.g., “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you!” Luke 6:31, and other ancient texts.) This means not presuming to know what is in the heart of others. It also means not being quick to brand historical figures (e.g., past Popes, Justices, Bishops, elected civic leaders, people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds) as “racists” or as guilty of “racism.” It is usually very difficult to understand fully the horizon of possibilities that influenced the words and deeds of people of a radically different moment in history.
- In the debate about Confederate monuments, keep in mind that we are ALL redeemed sinners. Remember that far more important than tearing down the likenesses of imperfect people from the past is the need to tear down the remnants of their attitudes that continue to abide in our minds and hearts today. Tearing down systemic bias and racial, ethnic, and religious prejudices that endure in so many aspects of American and Catholic life may ultimately be more important than tearing down monuments.In communities where there are controversial Confederate monuments, Catholic clergy and laity should not remain silent. They should be active participants in the conversation about the future of these monuments, bringing their informed Catholic faith to bear in the public square.Some argue that the illegal destruction of monuments is wrong, no matter how offensive they may be. They say elected representatives of local communities should make this decision in dialogue with all. Should they be removed altogether? Placed in a museum? Still others propose erecting appropriate additional statues or monuments of the African American experience on the same site to provide a more balanced and truthful view of Civil War history and human bondage. Some voices insist: “The people of both races should just ‘grow up’ and get over offensive monuments. Leave them where they are! History is history. We cannot rewrite it. Simply acknowledge the painful, disputed history and resolve not to repeat it. You can never tear them all down, and the majority of people pay no attention to them anyway. Focus your time and resources on improving education, increasing employment, developing housing and healthcare in Communities of Color!” Others insist: “Destroy them all as a disgraceful reminder of the tragedy of the racial divide in our nation’s history.”
- Catholic educational leaders should take this issue seriously by examining history books used in Catholic schools. Are they truthful, fair, and balanced? Are they silent on the moral blindness of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Chief Justice Taney, General Lee, and others on the evil of enslaving free human beings for the sake of enriching their so-called owners? Do they minimize or omit altogether the heroic achievement of outstanding People of Color like Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman (whose likeness may never grace the $20 bill), Frederick Douglass, Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, Jerena Lee, Julia A.J. Foote, and Maria W. Stewart?Is Church history presented in these texts from a completely Euro-centric perspective, giving little or no attention to the flourishing churches in sub-Saharan Africa and to African American Catholic history?If this is the case, they should change to more accurate textbooks, or supplement parish school textbooks with more complete and more accurate history to purify false, incomplete, and misleading accounts. This is essential for the proper formation of the religious consciousness of young people. The horizon of possibilities in their lives of faith will be largely determined by their education in Catholic schools and parish religious education programs. The shape of the Church and the world to come is in their hands.
- Catholic universities and colleges have many opportunities to expand the horizon of possibilities for their students, including making sure they are taught the authentic and full meaning of Christ’s Law of Love and its practical implications in addressing the racial divide. Every effort should be made to uproot any practices or structures that reinforce racial prejudice and ethnic or religious bias. Attracting and retaining African American students and faculty members continues to be a challenge in most Catholic institutions of higher learning. An atmosphere of true hospitality and welcome that does not tolerate any expressions of White Supremacist attitudes must be consciously maintained. Those Catholic universities that have known connections to human slavery and institutionalized racial prejudice would do well to address the flaw at the foundation in the manner of Georgetown University under the leadership of its President, Dr. John DeGioia. The University’s Working Group on Slavery and Memory and Reconciliation faced with honesty a painful past history with a heartfelt apology, contacting and assisting the descendants of free human beings once owned and sold by the University, renaming Halls that once honored Jesuits who were involved in the sale of human beings and honoring the first man whose name appeared on the sale document, and a free Woman of Color who established a school for African American girls at the University in 1820.
- Seminaries must be vigilant and make sure that men who harbor racial prejudice are not advanced for ordination and that faculty members understand clearly that no actions or attitudes of racial bias will be tolerated. Working with dioceses and vocation directors, seminaries must continue to seek out, encourage, and welcome seminarians of different racial backgrounds. Encourage presentations on and discussions of these issues. Seminary leadership understands well that if they appear indifferent to the current displays of racial hatred, the candidates for the priesthood will consider that indifference an appropriate horizon of possibilities for their lives and ministry. The August 16, 2017 letter of The Very Reverend Thomas Knoebel, President-Rector of Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, provided an excellent example of leadership after the disheartening events in Charlottesville. He wrote,
“The most recent events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as the growing number of incidents of racial, ethnic, and religious hatred and violence in recent years, remind us that we have a long way to go before the vision of God the Father and his Son Jesus is fully realized in our midst. As one of the most ethnically and racially diverse seminaries in the United States, Sacred Heart has a privileged opportunity, as well as the ethical and moral responsibility, to live out the universality of our common Christian faith here in our own community.”
In addition to any personal conversion of mind and heart to which each of us may need to commit ourselves, may I ask that we each consider some practical suggestions to strengthen the inclusive community that Sacred Heart is, and always strives to become.
a.) Pray daily for all those who suffer from racial, ethnic or religious prejudices or violence in our community, country and world.
b.) Continue to foster, in every way possible, the positive inter-religious, inter-racial and inter-ethnic spirit that characterizes Sacred Heart.
c.) Take advantage of the marvelous opportunity Sacred Heart affords to build a friendship across racial and ethnic boundaries, not only for your sake, but for theirs.
d.) Share your own experiences of racism, religious intolerance or ethnic prejudice, whether on your part or of others, with persons of a different race or ethnicity. Listen to their own experiences.
e.) Faculty can make sure that they include academic and formational authors, speakers or sources that are racially and ethnically diverse, and make sure that these moral issues are addressed when appropriate in their courses.”
- Learn about Father Augustus Tolton (April 1, 1854 – July 9, 1897) of Chicago, and pray and work for the cause of his canonization. He would be the first American saint of African ancestry and the story of his heroic virtue in the face of racial oppression would expand the horizon of possibilities for Americans of all backgrounds striving to live by the Law of Love.\
- Visit and make use of the extraordinary resources of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
- Parishes building new churches and dioceses erecting new cathedrals would do well to ponder the question: Why are all of the images of God the Father, Jesus Christ, Mary, Joseph, the Apostles, the Saints and even the angels (who have no bodies, race or gender!) presented almost exclusively with European features? We do not know what any of them actually looked like. Michelangelo’s majestic frescos in the Sistine Chapel, notwithstanding, everyone knows that God the Father is not, in fact, an elderly European man with a flowing white beard. Why is He exclusively pictured that way when God is pure Spirit? God is not God the way we would be God if we were God. The horizons of possibilities of potential African American Catholics are certainly limited by Catholic Church art that suggests quite definitively that no one in the Kingdom of Heaven looks like them. The Church would do well to make regular use of ethnic and racially diverse images in sacred art. There is no more effective way of saying, “All are welcome!” This could easily be done and it could make a profound contribution to healing old wounds and bridging the racial divide. However, it seems most unlikely that this will ever be given serious consideration. The question the Church must answer is: why not?
- The Catholic Church and Catholic institutions should lead the way in discontinuing the practice of referring to any American Citizens as “minorities” or “members of minority groups.” This arbitrary designation of Americans of some backgrounds but not all is, perhaps unwittingly, a vocabulary of control, power, and privilege. It identifies American citizens by who they are not instead of by who they are. (See Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race and Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White)
(48) I invite everyone here in the community of the Catholic University of America, the Church’s university, to think about and discuss what I have said and share my thoughts with others. Go deep into your interior world and enter into silent dialogue with the Holy Spirit and pray for the expansion and enrichment of your personal horizons of possibilities so that as members of the Body of Christ, the Church, you can help to heal old wounds reopened and bridge the racial divide.
(49) Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) knew well the old wounds of which I have spoken from painful personal experience, and wrote eloquently of them in his poem “Sympathy.”
“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!”
Listen! Learn! Think! Pray! Act!
Thank you very much.
I would be happy to respond to any questions you may have.
*The Racial Divide: While I am fully aware that the reality referred to by the words “racism” and “racists” are very real in our country and in our Church, I have long preferred to speak of “the racial divide” in my published writings and in my public addresses. The expression seems less confrontational and less judgmental. The words “racism” and “racists” at times make some listeners or readers feel excluded from the conversation before it really begins.
** Enslaved Free Human Beings: I prefer to use this expression in my writings and public statements instead of the usual term, “slaves.” Why? Because in its ordinary use, the word would seem to imply that there existed, objectively, a group of people called
“slaves” who could be brought from West Africa to the Americas to be “sold and bought” as wretched, unpaid laborers who created the vast wealth of plantation owners. “Enslaved free human beings” better conveys the truth that, ontologically speaking, no human being can buy, sell, or own another. Thus, before God, the “slaves” were always free!