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Racism still divides the Catholic family

If we, as Catholic Christians, are united in the body of Christ, then why would black Catholics feel the need to meet on their own, to hold their own congress? Why the need for separate black Catholic service organizations and for black Catholic parishes and clergy caucuses?

Why the need for a separate national pastoral plan for Black Catholics? Separate national and diocesan offices?

These are -- and should be -- deeply disturbing questions for Catholic Christians because they point up an unavoidable reality: The issue is racism. No matter how much we wish and talk otherwise, the Catholic family is divided and is only slowly moving toward dealing with the deep wound of racism.

The ninth National Black Catholic Congress held Aug. 29-Sept. 1 in Chicago provides dramatic evidence that we are all engaged in the journey along the route of “the already but the not yet,” the kingdom proclaimed and in progress but not yet complete.

The divide is evidence that being Catholic does not exempt us from being shaped by the worst elements of the culture. And the fundamental sins of American culture are racism and its twin, the long, ugly history of slavery. Racism and slavery are simultaneously symptom and disease. In the wider culture, they are cancers that, in their long-term effects, continue to eat at the body politic. At the same time they are symptoms of the wider, dominant culture’s view of history, of its sense of superiority in relating to other cultures and to people of color and of the misery the culture is capable of unleashing in the name of that superiority.

Black Catholics meet separately because they are, in a way keenly felt by the marginalized, a family. They meet separately because their experience of history has been so different from that of most white Catholics. It is a history of being ripped from homeland, of unspeakable violence, of being sold into bondage, of families and villages pulled apart. If Catholics today are concerned that life has increasingly become expendable -- from womb to death chamber to battlefield -- the attitude has been long in preparation. Black Catholics know more deeply than most how cheaply life can be viewed.

But that’s not the way things are today, one might argue. Mixed parishes exist all over the country and African-Americans inhabit positions of leadership in diocesan structures. There also are black bishops, pastors, theologians, hymnals and liturgies. The church, one might convincingly put it, has become sensitive to the black story.

Certainly all of that is true, and this church is not the church of, say, as recent as 70 years ago where blacks went to their own churches because they were not allowed to join white parishes or, if they did, were required to sit in reserved pews in the back of the church.

At the same time, it is only in recent years that some religious orders have issued apologies to black Catholics for having owned slaves during earlier centuries.

The understanding required, it seems, for those outside the black Catholic family, is that progress, while evident, is slow.

And that goes not only for relationships between whites and blacks but among blacks themselves, as the congress in Chicago dramatically demonstrated. In a moving and surprising gesture, Bishop Charles G. Palmer-Buckle of the Koforidua diocese in Ghana, offered an apology for the part Africans played in selling their brothers and sisters into slavery.

Another understanding required for those outside the black Catholic family, it would seem, is that the wounds run deep and in a variety of directions. The healing process can’t be rushed; one doesn’t tell the victim of trauma to just get over it.

So what to do in the meantime? Is there a way around or through this separation?

Certainly, in small steps, being attentive to where we might join our efforts and our faith.

One more bit of understanding that might be helpful for those outside the black Catholic family is that one of the most valuable things we might do is listen to what black Catholics are saying; read what they are writing; hear what they are preaching.

“You can go through a lot of religious studies programs and not hear of the church’s teaching on racism,” said Fr. Bryan Massingale, a moral theologian from the Milwaukee archdiocese.

Black Catholics, he said during a presentation at the congress, “must recommit ourselves to our people’s historic struggle for justice in light of the Catholic social teaching tradition.” There is no contradiction, he said, between the demands of the black struggle for justice and the core convictions of Catholic social teaching: “the dignity of the human person”; “the promotion and defense of human rights”; “a vision of social and public life captured by the word ‘solidarity’ ”; and a “central concern for the least among us, especially the poor and vulnerable.”

“There is no contradiction here,” he said, “but we do sharpen the pencil a bit.”

We know the disturbing questions. Perhaps it’s time to grab the pencil and take some notes.

National Catholic Reporter, September 13, 2002