What can the Catholic Church learn from #BlackLivesMatter?
When I was a senior at Quigley Preparatory Seminary studying to be a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago, I was the only person of color in my class of several hundred seminarians. A group of us saw the film version of Harper Lee’s brilliant novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. It is the story of Tom Robinson, set in Maycomb, Ala., during the Great Depression. Tom, an upright and honest, innocent black man is falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. He is defended by an equally upright and honest white attorney, Atticus Finch. Predictably, the all-white jury finds Tom “guilty,” though he is, in fact, innocent; and he is killed while “attempting to run from the police” during the appeal process.
In our discussion after this extraordinary film, one of my classmates said his father had taught him that “all you need to know about the relationship between people of different races is this: ‘Birds of a feather flock together.’ This is simply the law of nature. This is why the Archdiocese of Chicago has Polish parishes, Irish parishes, German parishes, Italian Parishes and black parishes. People of similar backgrounds want to live, work and worship with their own kind!” He said nothing about the death of Tom Robinson, as if his life did not matter. I have never forgotten that conversation.
I did not write about the Black Lives Matter movement in my pastoral letter, “The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015.” At that time, the movement had not yet attained the high visibility and considerable influence that it has today. During this past year, the racial conflicts addressed in “The Racial Divide” seem to have been exacerbated. We have seen additional violent, often fatal, altercations between white law enforcement agents and African-American men and an alarming number of young people of color who die at the hands of other African-Americans. As a result, in different settings around the country, I have been frequently asked, “What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement?” “Why are Catholic leaders silent about such an important, albeit controversial, social development?”
In spite of the profound differences and seeming incompatibility between the teachings of the church and the Black Lives Matter movement, there may be ways in which the church and the movement might benefit from a conversation. Because each group speaks from a unique perspective and with a unique tone of voice, a genuine conversation may be very difficult. Still, we do well to recall the words of Blessed Paul VI’s first encyclical, “Ecclesiam Suam”: “Dialogue in such conditions is very difficult…we have no preconceived intention of excluding the persons who profess these systems [those that are contrary to Catholic doctrine]. For the lover of truth, dialogue is always possible” (No. 102).
All Lives Matter
All human beings feel strongly that their individual lives matter. Ideally, all of our lives should also matter to every other human being. But every morning’s newspaper cries out that in today’s world not everyone embraces this truth. Certainly, the teachings of Scripture and Jesus himself make it clear that for a Christian, for a Catholic and for the Catholic Church, all lives should matter. Many Americans believe this should be the end of the question. Obviously, if all lives matter, then black lives matter! Yet, this seemingly obvious truth has not been a sufficient answer to those whose voices are raised in protest in the Black Lives Matter movement. Several supporters of the movement have cited George Orwell’s Animal Farm. They remind us that the mantra of the totalitarian world of the novel is “All animals are equal.” But, eventually, the mantra is changed to “All animals are equal. BUT, some animals are more equal than others.”
The protest expression “black lives matter” became a dramatic way of calling attention to a reality largely ignored by the larger society—namely, that there are many circumstances in which society seems to operate as if it does not believe that the lives of young men of color really do matter as much as the lives of young white men. The true intent of Black Lives Matter is a plea to all Americans to work to refashion our country so that the lives of people of color actually do matter as much as the lives of white people. It is a call to help us all live in communities in which everyone enjoys equal safety, education and employment opportunities, as well as equal political power and equal treatment by the criminal justice system. The movement also consciously embraces those who often seem to be at the margins of the black community, like African-Americans who are disabled, undocumented, homosexual, lesbian or transgender.
There are about 70 million Catholics in the United States. At most, about three million of these are African-Americans. There are many dioceses where there are no black Catholics at all and many others where there are very few. This means that many white Catholics in certain states and in rural communities have virtually no contact with African-American Catholics. Many of them experience the Black Lives Matter movement only indirectly.
During this past year, however, I have made a conscious effort to establish contact with individuals who, while not in leadership positions, have varying degrees of association with the Black Lives Matter movement. By means of emails, phone conversations and face-to-face meetings, I have gained (in an admittedly limited way) a partial knowledge of what some of these activists think about the Catholic Church, church teachings and the degree to which Catholics have demonstrated by their deeds that black lives matter to them.
The Church and Black Catholics
There are no reliable statistics concerning how many African-Americans are actively involved in Black Lives Matter. It is generally believed that the number is rather small and that the key voices of the movement are people in their 20s and 30s, many of them women. There is also no reliable way of determining how many black Catholics are supportive of the movement. But I know for a fact that some young black Catholics are sympathetic to some of the issues raised by movement members.
My main impression is that the movement does not give much thought to the Catholic Church. Movement supporters assume the church does not give much thought to them either. While there is a degree of awareness of the church’s various social, educational and health care ministries that make a positive contribution to black communities, the primary impression some movement supporters have of the church is that it is a large, white, conservative (mainly Republican) institution that stands aloof from confrontational movements like Black Lives Matter. (As a matter of fact, many Catholics are Democrats.) Some movement members think the church is more a part of the problem than of the solution because it has a necessary allegiance to “white privilege.” The movement sees an incompatibility between itself and the church’s “out of touch with the times” moral teachings on marriage, contraception and abortion, and homosexual activity.
Members of the Black Lives Matter movement see the church as a complex bureaucracy tied to the status quo and unwilling and unable to “speak truth to power.” One activist told me, “When the church does speak about social justice it is always in measured, balanced, reserved and qualified language.” When I asked which church documents they had actually read, they said they had only read excerpts online. I explained that the church’s social doctrine may be more forceful than they think. I also pointed out that Catholic beliefs about the nature of marriage, the meaning of human sexuality and the dignity of human life from conception to natural death are not mere cultural norms or social issues. The church cannot and will not change these moral doctrines. However, does this necessarily mean that a representative of the church cannot have a meaningful conversation with representatives of the movement about these and other issues where there may be greater accord?
In my conversations, I learned that the traditionally black Protestant churches do not play the same role in the Black Lives Matter movement that they played during the civil rights era. While there is an appreciation of the presence of ministers and priests on the streets during urban disturbances, this movement does not embrace traditional Christian theological ideas about praying to keep the peace and change hearts. One person wrote, “turning the other cheek is not in our playbook.” They are not interested in a “passive respectability” type of Christianity. They embrace a radical theology of inclusion inspired by a revolutionary Jesus.
I was present in the gallery on Sept. 24, 2015, when Pope Francis became the first pontiff in history to address both chambers of Congress, with remarks that, to the surprise of his listeners, focused on four influential Americans: President Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day, the Trappist mystic Thomas Merton and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Each of them affirmed, in different ways, that black lives mattered. While President Lincoln’s pragmatic, political motives for opposing human bondage have been idealized and romanticized, his efforts to bring an end to slavery and his “Emancipation Proclamation” demonstrated an atypical regard for black lives even though he did not equate them with white lives. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was consistently outspoken in her opposition to racist attitudes in the United States. Her movement was prophetic in its concern for the poor, many of whom were people of color. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander and Letters to a White Liberal, the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton wrote searing condemnations of racial prejudice and provided the spiritual and theological foundation for his unambiguous affirmation that black lives matter, if not in those words. Dr. King sacrificed his life for the cause of racial justice and the still deferred dream that African-Americans would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.
By calling to mind the legacies of these four remarkable Americans, the bishop of Rome clearly wanted to associate himself with their beliefs that black lives do indeed matter. By word and deed (especially during his pastoral visit to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic on Nov. 25 to 30, 2015), Pope Francis has demonstrated that the lives of the people of African descent matter very much to the church. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church has not always demonstrated that black lives matter. The church was not a major force in the opposition to human slavery. Historically, the church has been actively engaged in conversations with African-American communities at the level of ideas, major movements and the emergence of black consciousness. Sadly, I personally know black Catholics whose personal experience has led them to believe that their black lives do not really matter to the church.
Because the Catholic Church believes that all lives matter, from conception to natural death, the Catholic community has been deeply involved in efforts to argue forcefully in the public square in defense of developing human life in the womb and in increasing its opposition to the death penalty. The Black Lives Matter movement would generally agree with the church’s concerns about the death penalty, which is imposed disproportionately on offenders who are poor people of color and lack adequate legal representation. However, the movement is outspoken in its defense of what it calls “reproductive justice” and “reproductive rights” and in its embrace of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision of the Supreme Court. Like many Americans, including, sadly, some who consider themselves Catholics, the Black Lives Matter movement rejects the arguments of those who speak in defense of human life in the mother’s womb.
Like many defenders of abortion “rights” in the larger secular society, many in the movement express a strong acceptance of the position that the fetal organism does not have the legal status of a human person at any stage of gestation. As a result, that life can be ended at any time. The position that fetal life is not human—or, at the very least, becoming human—is asserted without serious biological, philosophical or theological argument. The spiritual dimension of a human being is ignored or rejected.
Black Lives Matter advocates, along with most others who favor abortion, place their focus not on the ethical question of what is being done to the life in the womb but on the legal question of a mother’s “rights” to control her own body and determine when, or if, she will have children. Movement spokespersons are generally opposed to any federal or state law that would place limits on a mother’s “right” to have an abortion. They reject any assertion that black women are killing their own children. This position has led some African-Americans to protest against “black genocide” and declare that the most dangerous place for an African-American is in the womb. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 765,651 abortions were performed in the United States. Black women continue to have the highest abortion rate of any racial or ethnic group.
Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter movement argues that traditional Christianity is selectively “pro-life.” Where are the tens of thousands of white Christians marching in “pro-life” rallies when black children are gunned down in the street by white police? Don’t those lives matter as much as the lives of those yet to be born? African-American women and men who disagree with Black Lives Matter concerning abortion firmly stand their ground: “If you genuinely believe that black lives matter, you should be working to see that every black infant is accorded the very first civil right, the right to life.”
Some voices, black and white, have condemned the Black Lives Matter movement as a violent ideology urging attacks on police officers, encouraging the disruption of the daily lives of innocent citizens by blocking traffic on major thoroughfares, closing down places of business, interrupting gatherings of political candidates and, perhaps unwittingly, participating in black genocide by its strong support for the “right” of women to terminate their pregnancies.
Many of the Christian faithful who serve in urban communities around the country raise the same burning question. Why does a movement that is rightly calling attention to violent, deadly conflicts between white police officers and young African-American men seem to almost ignore the obvious reality that most young black men who die violent deaths do so not at the hands of racist white police but at the hands of other young black men? Ninety-three percent of black murder victims are murdered by other black people. (Eighty-four percent of white murder victims are killed by other white people.)
A Painful Reality, a Reason for Hope
Black Lives Matter is painfully aware of this reality. Supporters argue that the high homicide rates in impoverished black neighborhoods is fed, in part, by the structural racism that has been in place for generations since the Great Migration, maintaining segregated neighborhoods, inadequate housing, dreadful public schools and bleak employment opportunities. Young people with nothing to do and no hope are easily ensnared in the world of gangs and selling drugs, which leads to internecine murders. The movement believes that these factors do not excuse violent crime in black communities. However, they do help to explain a tragic pattern seen in many cities from Baltimore to Chicago to Los Angeles. If those who have political power really cared about black lives, they would address these issues and, by doing so, help to reduce urban violence.
The church as an institution is only as committed to living Christ’s law of “loving our neighbors as we love ourselves” as the individuals who make up the institution. The Gospel, as Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz wrote recently, requires “ongoing personal and social transformation.” This transformation takes place in the hearts of individuals, and those individuals can change institutions. Even though they would be unlikely to use the expression “black lives matter,” perhaps because of certain ideas associated with it, I do believe that many people at every level of the church have a desire to purify the church of bias, prejudice and discrimination. Nevertheless, we have a very long way to go. Otherwise, Pope Francis would not have called us to a holy year of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation. Nor would he have asked us to envision the church as a hospital on the field of battle tending the spiritual wounds of the injured, including those injured by prejudice in the church.
Nevertheless, I remain optimistic because of the encouraging signs I see around the country. And, of course, as Christians, who affirm the redemptive truth of the incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ, the transformative power of the amazing grace poured out by the Holy Spirit and the powerful nourishment that we receive when we are fed by the bread of life in the Eucharist, we must never grow weary of grace-filled efforts. The church has a grave responsibility to contribute to the ongoing conversion and spiritual transformation of us all. Working tirelessly day by day, we are co-workers with Christ.
We must pray that the Holy Spirit, who comes upon us at Pentecost, will give us the strength not to maintain the “appalling silence of good people” that Dr. King once warned about. Instead, we must pray, listen, learn, think and act in such a way that all people everywhere will know that we truly believe that “black lives matter” precisely because all lives matter.