Racism and Catholicism

There’s an old joke about President Calvin Coolidge, known to be a man of few words. He attends services one Sunday, while Mrs. Coolidge remains at the White House. On his return, the first lady asks him about the preacher’s sermon topic. “Sin.” What did he say about it? “He was against it.”

Like “Silent Cal,” most of us also stand firm against it.

After Charlottesville, the U.S. bishops established a new Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism. In a podcast, the chairman of the committee, Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown said racism was America’s “original sin.” But racism is rarely well defined and cannot be reduced to mere dislike or even hate.

Dislike is an emotion. Aquinas distinguishes between hate as an emotion and hate as a sinful choice (hate cultivated and acted upon). Hence, I use “dislike” with respect to the emotion and “hate” in the sinful sense.

There are many reasons to dislike people – without sinning. You may dislike the Beatles or rap music or unfamiliar foods. Lots of us are humiliated and appalled by the “culture” (really lack of culture) members of our own race have adopted.

But our emotions should be controlled by reason. When we allow our dislikes to devolve into a hatred, and desire for harm to others and unjust discrimination, we sin against God and man. Add a desire to harm another person on racial grounds, and we commit the sin of racism.

But we can also be unwitting and patronizing racists under the guise of sentimental affection.

Ethnic jokes, the acknowledgment of obvious racial characteristics, and even military monuments and statues are increasingly considered evidence of racism. It seems it will be just a matter of time before a Southern accent will be considered racist. But common sense distinguishes between good and bad will, between a legitimate grievance and hypersensitivity. An ethnic joke can be an expression of true endearment – take Jewish and Italian mother jokes, please. The same joke, told in a different spirit, can be a vicious slur.

Acknowledging certain racial or ethnic characteristics can be the stuff of science (body build and athletic ability) and humor (e.g., Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish”). And there’s nothing wrong with pointing out racial characteristics in identifying criminal suspects. Even intelligent racial or ethnic profiling need not be racist in combating terrorism. But hatred for the people who have these characteristics can be racist.

How do we know the difference?

All sinful hatred is rooted in the sin of Adam, Original Sin (and its effects), as well as in our personal sins. It’s also rooted in the effective denial of the dignity of another person as created in the image of God. So as a working definition: Racism is the deliberate and habitual failure to recognize and respect a person’s equal dignity as a child of God on grounds of race or ethnicity.

A contributing factor is unresolved or festering historical grievances that are often aggravated – even deliberately cultivated – revisiting the scene of the crime over many generations. Think “Hatfields and McCoys.” Racism is an equal opportunity and multicultural sin. The Christian imperative to forgive one’s enemies applies to everyone and is indispensable in overcoming hatred.

The Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis are, rightly, regarded as deplorable modern racists. Curiously, the racism of Black supremacists/anti-Semites such as Louis Farrakhan Sr. (“an American religious leader, African-American activist, and social commentator” – Wikipedia) is not included. And reckless race baiting, impugning the motives of political adversaries has become common and inflammatory. In 2012, then Vice President Joseph Biden, in a campaign address to African-Americans that his opponents would “put y’all back in chains.”  Really?

Some clear instances of real racism are glossed over. Consider this recent report: “The 22-year-old man [Fredrick Demond Scott] suspected of shooting five middle-aged white men since last year – including four on south Kansas City walking trails – threatened in 2014 to shoot up a school and ‘kill all white people,’ according to court records. . . .Scott, who is black, has been charged with murder in the deaths of Steven Gibbons, 57, and John Palmer, 54. . . .Police said they did not know if the shootings were racially motivated.” Really?

But racism in its more subtle forms is sometimes considered acceptable in polite company, especially when it’s rooted in condescension disguised as affection and sensitivity. So, for example, in order to be sensitive to ethnic differences, academic and even behavioral standards are lowered to be inclusive, the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” A helping hand to the downtrodden is praiseworthy, but failing to challenge the human spirit with objective moral and academic standards effectively denies human dignity.

So-called multicultural programs – and within the Church, multi-cultural ministries – are arguably examples of this soft racism based on sentimentality. There are many diversity programs such as “African American Ministry” and “Hispanic Ministry – but never “Caucasian Ministry.”  Apparently, there is no need to minister to white people by taking into account the Caucasian culture (if such exists). A better explanation is that mostly white people are in charge of Multi-Cultural Ministries, the programs reveal an unwitting and sentimental condescension – and a form of real, albeit unintentional, institutional racism.

If these programs were indeed image-of-God based, they would include a systematic identification of truly racist organizations like Planned Parenthood. After all, PP was founded by the racist and eugenicist Margaret Sanger who targeted ethnic minorities for control and extinction (look it up).

This is not to suggest that attempts to understand ethnic and racial differences are optional in matters of human relations and evangelization. Our differences extend far beyond ethnic and racial diversity, and all differences bring challenges but also possibilities of enriching life. Hence, recognizing a person as a “child of God” with equal dignity includes the struggle to understand the various strains of cultural influences and practices, distinguish between the good and evil, as well as a frequent examination of conscience for failures in maintaining goodwill. Mutual understanding doesn’t come with a lumbering bureaucratic program; it comes with a generous spirit, attentiveness to the inherent dignity of others, and overall Christian – or at least Godly – formation.

Furthermore, pondering history with an honest consideration of context (avoiding the hubris of present-mindedness) helps heal societal wounds. The genealogy of Christ in Matthew’s Gospel includes more than a few scoundrels, yet the evangelists identify them. Peter, the first among the Apostles, was quick to deny the Lord during His Passion. The message of Christ and the Church survived. Indeed, the message of Christ becomes more compelling and hopeful within the context of human weakness and betrayal.

History is filled with good guys and bad guys, and even the good guys could be bad at times. We can be confident we will survive if we critically and honestly review our own past and wisely apply lessons learned. But first, we must strive to see the image of God in every human being, to know the evil that defaces that dignity, and to seek forgiveness when we fail

It’s good the American bishops are taking a firm stand against racism. But I frankly believe Catholics have opposed racism since Christ.

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.