‘We are seduced by temporal power’: Gloria Purvis on racism, pro-life politics and the lure of the devil

Gloria Purvis in St. Paul, Mn. in 2017. (CNS photo by Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

As host of EWTN’s “Morning Glory” radio show, Gloria Purvis has made a name for herself in Catholic media and in pro-life advocacy circles. More recently, she has received attention for speaking out against racial inequality and police brutality, and was featured in a New York Times article on anti-racism and the Catholic Church. She has spoken at several conferences about the topic, including one coming up this week hosted by Seton Hall University.

This interview has been edited for style and length.

SA: As a talk show host for EWTN and a vocal pro-life advocate, your name has become well-known in traditional Catholic circles. Some in those circles have been struggling with, and several actively pushing back against, your being vocal about racial inequality. How do you navigate that kind of pushback?

GP: First of all, my allegiances are to Jesus Christ. Because of that, I’m not afraid to speak the truth on these matters. People know that I deeply believe in the inherent dignity of the human person. Most people know me through my advocacy for the unborn child and for women in crisis. They know that I speak using language that they understand, and it helps them understand that racial justice is the same thing—it springs from the dignity of the human person. I talk about police brutality and the abuse of police power using that language to help them see the connection.

Now, some people get uncomfortable. There is a crowd of people who have let American politics influence the lens of their faith, rather than using the lens of their faith to look at politics. Instead of being able to hear that you’re advocating for a culture of life, they can only hear it in terms of a political point of view.

I try to continually remind people of the Gospel imperative for why we visit the sick, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. We do these things because these are acts of love. How can we say we have an authentic witness when we turn a blind eye to a person being murdered in the streets by a paid agent of the state. How similar is it that [Catholics] would like the child in the womb to have legal protections, and not allow the state to fund what they consider killing this child in the womb? The state is not supposed to take our lives—it’s supposed to protect us. Nothing that person can do, or has done, can diminish the truth that they are made in the image and likeness of God and are worthy of dignity and respect. They too have a right to life and a right to a natural death. Either we’re going to stand on that principle or our witness is not true.

There is a crowd of people who have let American politics influence the lens of their faith, rather than using the lens of their faith to look at politics.

It’s one thing to talk to other people and want them to convert. It’s another thing to look at yourself and say, “I’m the one in need of conversion.” That’s what I’m inviting people to do.

SA: And this is why I think your voice is getting lost, or at least misconstrued, in the noise of our current political situation. Your advocacy for racial justice is coming from a pro-life ethic rooted in the church’s teaching. But that ethic doesn’t fit so neatly into mainstream political boxes. Why do we idolize our party loyalty over our belonging to Christ’s Body?

GP: We are seduced by temporal power. We fear not being in power, and we fear persecution. But this is what it means to be Christian. We understand that to follow Christ, you’re going to carry a cross. While it would be nice to be in power, it should not be at the price of what is good and holy and true. No political party is perfect. I keep saying that no matter who’s in the White House come Nov. 3, Jesus Christ is still on the throne. We should take comfort in that. What I would call a demonic confusion has been set upon our people, by our making idols out of political parties, and it is only through a recommitment to the Gospel, a recommitment to Christ that we can get rid of this chaos, get rid of this demon.

The background of having a family of Black people living in the United States in the South, in Texas… we never could look to the government for real protection. Having lived through slavery, abolition, reconstruction… the hostility toward our existence, our ability to move about unencumbered and not having the protection of the law. But we still trusted in God, and we persevered. [Why are we willing] to jettison who we are for something as small as temporal political power? Do we serve a mighty God or not? I know that we do. Our role is not to serve political ideology, but to serve Jesus Christ. And that may not mean that we are going to be comfortable. But the Cross isn’t comfortable. As soon as it’s comfortable I start to question whom we are serving.

No political party is perfect. I keep saying that no matter who’s in the White House come Nov. 3, Jesus Christ is still on the throne.

SA: What you’re saying is making me realize how much our positions are colored by our personal experiences. My ancestors didn’t have to deal with laws that restricted their freedom. I don’t have to worry about being abused by the police. But when we forget that our own experiences aren’t universal, it becomes so much easier to deny the experience of the other. I’d imagine this is what allows some people to come to the conclusion that racism is no longer an issue.

GP: While I know I have more rights now and better protection by the law, I also recognize that the state has failed my people time and again. Yes, we’ve had civil rights laws. But what we haven’t had as a country is a massive conversion of hearts. You can’t legislate love and respect. Look, I love my country, I love the United States of America—I just want it to love me, too. The end all and be all for me is not a “political group” winning but a spiritual renewal of our country… where we really can have a culture of life, where we actually do value the human person, and not just the human person that we think is so perfect—but I mean, the most abject, oppressed, rejected, unlikable person.

With George Floyd, you had Catholics going around and saying, “He did this in his background,” and some of the things they were saying were not even true. I keep saying—how can any Catholic say such a thing without being repulsed by the very words that have come out of their mouth? It’s so contrary a witness to the Gospel. People can say, “Oh, it’s just a fetus.” Well, that’s true. [But] don’t hide behind “statements of fact” when the intention is to diminish the other person’s humanity. I’m calling people out on it. Just like I’m calling anybody out that tries to diminish the child in the womb or tries to diminish mothers who are poor or tries to diminish mothers who are unwed. I think every time we act and behave in that way, we call judgment upon ourselves because we’re giving a completely counter witness to Christ.

SA: Many Catholics have expressed concern with Black Lives Matter because of its alleged Marxist and atheistic platform… so much so that some think that we shouldn’t even use the phrase itself. What can you say about this wariness toward the B.L.M. movement?

GP: It’s very interesting to me that some Catholics for some reason, although we are a religion that’s full of nuance in trying to understand things, have fixated on this organization as if it has the monopoly on truth. This organization has a particular name that is the rallying cry of a global racial justice movement. They want to focus on the organization and what’s wrong with it, rather than focusing on why there is a rallying cry that Black lives matter in the first place. It’s almost as if the organization is a greater evil than the actual injustice of killing Black people unarmed in the streets.

Let’s organize specifically as Catholics to ask what we can do. And yes, Black lives matter. That’s the Gospel truth.

Again, I think this is demonic, that the devil is having us focus on another group outside of the church and how they don’t align with us rather than saying, “You know what, these are our values. We believe these things about the human person, and let’s organize specifically as Catholics to ask what we can do. And yes, Black lives matter. That’s the Gospel truth.” I mean, justice is our thing! What are we doing? Why are we spending all this time and energy worrying about a group outside of the Catholic Church when there’s evil in our face?

SA: You keep mentioning the role that “demonic confusion” plays in all of this. I know plenty of Catholics that get squeamish at the mention of the devil. The Greek name for the devil, diabolos, literally means the one who divides. That’s exactly what racism does. I’m happy that you’re not afraid to put it bluntly.

GP: To not recognize that there is an enemy of the human person is to go into battle completely unarmed and unprepared. We end up battling each other over foolishness when we have this common enemy that would love for us to join him in hell. This is why it’s so important to pray, to read Scripture, to fast, to go to the sacrament of reconciliation and to go to Mass. Right now, a lot of us are having to watch Mass virtually. But that desire to go, when it's pure and good, is so pleasing to God. This is a time of spiritual growth, a time of looking inwards, a time of communing with God. Hopefully, we develop that habit so that when we’re able to move about, we’ve developed our interior life to such a degree that what’s going on in the world won’t shake us.

SA: I know you’ve also read Father Cyprian Davis’ book The History of Black Catholics in the United States, which I found so enlightening. In it he mentions Sister Thea Bowman, who once said something about how the experience of Black Catholics in the U.S. is the epitome of American Catholicism. What does the presence of Black Americans offer the church today?

GP: Our existence reminds American Catholics of an uncomfortable past. But at the same time I think it’s a reminder of how true the faith must be. Despite the way we have been abused and ignored, we have persevered. In fact, we have even taken on evangelizing our own. I think of Daniel Rudd and Father Augustus Tolton and the work of the early Black congresses—of what they did to evangelize the Black community when our shepherds wouldn’t. It’s almost mind-boggling to think that the descendants of the enslaved persons who were owned by Georgetown to this day are still Catholic. What does that tell you about how much the faith means to us?

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SA: That reminds me of the research that Dr. Shannon Dee Williams has done on the Black women’s religious orders who stayed in the church despite prejudice and mistreatment. She says that there has to be something true in the church for them to have stayed.

GP: You know, I’m a convert. No one in my family is Catholic. I came into the church of my own choice when I was 12 , after having a mystical experience during adoration. I was blessed that my family didn’t get in the way. They took me to Mass every Sunday and left me there. [laughs] But I knew it was true, based on that experience, that no one is going to deprive me of him. No one.

The descendants of the enslaved persons who were owned by Georgetown to this day are still Catholic. What does that tell you about how much the faith means to us?

I say that because being in the pro-life movement and putting yourself in that space as a Black Catholic, you will deal with racially aggressive comments. I’m willing to bear with those experiences for the sake of this truth. Not everybody’s willing to do that, and that’s okay.

I brought a whole bunch of people, Black people, to the March for Life many years ago. Let me tell you, if I saw a Black person even standing near a Catholic church, they were getting ambushed. I was like, “Join us!” So here we are gathered at the end of the Mall, and this white man comes up and says something so racially insensitive.

SA: But why would someone say something like that at the March for Life, of all places?

GP: [chuckles] People don’t take a moment to think. He had this sort of superior attitude that he knew the truth and that we were just some unenlightened, childlike people that needed to hear the real truth from him. It was just like being spoken down to in the most racially condescending, sickening way.

We deal with it enough in everyday life—in our workplaces, at the grocery store, with the police, just living. So in that space, really? No.

SA: You were recently featured in a New York Times article by Liz Bruenig about how the Catholic church has been facing racism. What kind of feedback have you been getting?

GP: It’s been good. But of course, with that kind of attention, you get more people that are animated by a spirit of fear and rage. Also you get people that want to be in conversation. Who say, “let’s talk about this.” I think they aren’t used to people talking about it from a spiritual perspective. I talk about white privilege in a way that is not going to get people all enraged.

The idea that being just towards somebody else imposes some injustice on you is ridiculous. That’s not how justice works.

To have people who don’t understand that there’s such a thing as white supremacy… Somehow everything’s been made into a zero sum game. The idea that being just towards somebody else imposes some injustice on you is ridiculous. That’s not how justice works. Sometimes so much of the way we think about things as Americans can harm our ability to fully grasp what the church teaches us. There’s this idea of scarcity, that we get the goods that we come to understand as Americans, but justice and love and virtue and all that doesn’t fall into that category.

Related content: What would Jesus say about white privilege?

SA: Several of my family members who come from Europe comment on how attached Americans are to their money. It’s definitely different for people coming from a Catholic country where the relationship with money tends to be different from how it is in the U.S.

GP: When my husband and I were in Germany for World Youth Day we stayed with this couple. The man was from Germany, the woman was from Italy. And he said, “We Germans don’t work without our beer.” And she said, “And we Italians don't work without our coffee.” And I said, “We Americans don’t work without our money.” And we all just laughed. It’s that comfortable life and the money, and again, the temporal power. Sharing seems to be a very difficult thing for us...we like to say we like it, but when it comes down to it, you better get yours, and to hell with everyone else.

SA: You attended the March on Washington last month. What was the experience like?

GP: It was like being at a Black family reunion! You saw the diversity of D.C.—you saw white people, Asian people, Hispanic people, medical students, doctors, nurses… people out there with their rainbows. The whole human family. We were all out there for a common cause. It was hopeful. I wish more people could have been there. There was such a spirit of unity and love out there and a desire for justice for the entire human family that pervaded the whole experience, the whole crowd.

SA: Why do you have hope? When you see what’s going on right now and how the devil is at work, how do you maintain that hope?

GP: I have hope because I know the victory has already been won. I have hope because I know each and every one of us has the ability to repent and convert. And this is what God wants. I have hope when I talk to people that are truly trying to grapple and understand and desire what is right.

SA: Tell me more about your spiritual life. How do you pray?

GP: I’m a Third Order Carmelite, so my spirituality is focused on meditation. I’ve always been drawn to mysticism, since I was young. I am continually working on developing a deep interior life. This is my life project, my life’s work. The goals I have are daily Mass, a half hour of meditation every day, the Liturgy of the Hours every day. I take Mary as my model for how to have a relationship with Jesus. My personal mission is to see the dignity in each and every human person and treat them with respect.

I have hope when I talk to people that are truly trying to grapple and understand and desire what is right.

SA: A lot of us struggle with living that kind of connection between our inner spiritual life, our interpersonal relationships and civic engagement. But when you use the language of recognizing the dignity of the person, you start to see how all of this is unified.

GP: How can I go out and advocate for justice and then in my one-on-one relationships not be just? This is an interior conversion that is outwardly expressed… and expressed in all the ways in which we live with another human person, whoever God has put in front of us and even yourself. I really can’t stand when I hear Catholics belittle Catholic Social Teaching and act as if it’s some kind of extraneous thing when it’s integral to the faith. It’s not some kind of optional appendage. It’s surprising to me that people get caught up in these exterior devotional things as if that’s some kind of guarantee of their fidelity and holiness.

I really can’t stand when I hear Catholics belittle Catholic Social Teaching. It’s not some kind of optional appendage.

I say this, because I’m thinking about the kinds of messages I get from people who claim to be praying to end abortion, and then turn around to say “you ugly Black people,” or “you and your Black Lives Matter” type of stuff. They say it in the most derogatory way. And these are the same lips that receive Christ in the Eucharist, with not even a slight pang of conscience. That’s what I mean by the demonic confusion.

SA: Where would you say Christ is most concretely present for you right now?

GP: When I look interiorly and wait on him. You’re waiting on someone that you love, and he knows you’re waiting. You’re okay in the waiting because you know he’ll come eventually.

SA: Sounds a lot like John of the Cross’ Spiritual Canticle, when you know that the Beloved is coming, but there’s still the pain of longing, the pain of that lack.

GP: Yes. But in the time that you spent there just thinking about him, his beauty, his goodness, his love, and the time that you’re asking him to help you… [tearing up] When you just love him so much that the suffering becomes this sweetness. And you want to take some of that off of him because you love him. I wish I could use better words to help you understand the answer to that question of how he is concretely real to me. I don’t know how to explain it. But he’s there and he’s real.

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