Tuesday, August 29, 2017

U.S. Catholic Bishops Address Racism After Charlottesville: Critical Questions Arise

After Charlottesville, the U.S. Catholic bishops have created an Ad Hoc Committee on Racism. The committee will presumably address racism within the U.S. Catholic community — as a problem worth talking about in an open way, a problem we can no longer pretend about as we vote in tandem, year after year, with white evangelical voters whose resistance to the agenda of the Democratic party is patently rooted in racism, while we claim that voting in this way is a "pro-life" choice and that motivation exonerates us of racism. As some commentators are noting, this facing of reality is going to prove to be a difficult task for the U.S. bishops, given their choice some years ago to ally themselves with overtly racist right-wing white evangelicals, and to bless the Republican party as God's anointed party, when it has been using race-baiting as a potent political tool since the Nixon era. 

How do we talk about ourselves as a major aspect of the problem to be addressed? Here's a selection of commentary about these matters I've read in the last week, prefaced by an excerpt from an op-ed piece by conservative Republican David Brooks in today's New York Times, with the Times' subheading summarizing the article as follows:

The Republican Party has become a vehicle for white identity and racial conflict.

Brooks writes, 

[T[he Republican Party has changed since 2005. It has become the vehicle for white identity politics. In 2005 only six percent of Republicans felt that whites faced "a great deal" of discrimination, the same number of Democrats who felt this. By 2016, the percentage of Republicans who felt this had tripled.

Bishops, it appears we have a problem here, given the political choices you have made for quite some time now and urged on Catholic voters, a solid majority of whom — white Catholics — chose, under your moral and pastoral leadership, to place Donald Trump in the White House in 2016.

Other commentary:

Anthea Butler for Washington Post

The committee will have its work cut out for it, as the USCCB's last major effort on racism in America was in 1979. 
The last major statement on racism in the church and America was "Brothers and Sisters Among Us," a pastoral letter from 1979, 38 years ago. Black Catholic bishops answered that letter in 1984 with a response: "What We Have Seen and Heard." Since then, while various groups within the church have dealt with issues of race, the establishment of the new committee, and the promise of a pastoral letter on racism from the bishops in 2018 are important first steps for the Catholic Church in America. The bigger question is how will that translate into practical steps to counter racism?

1979: Brothers and Sisters Among Us

1983: The Challenge of Peace

1984: What We Have Seen and Heard

1986: Economic Justice for All

A series of fine pastoral statements from the U.S. Catholic bishops. And then total silence about these issues for nearly three decades now, as the freeze on creative engagement with contemporary culture, critical thinking, theological reflection not controlled by the hierarchy, a freeze instituted by Pope John Paul II and his orthodoxy watchdog Cardinal Ratzinger, stopped all these discussions in their tracks. One theologian after another was silenced during the years of ice. Lay theologians who were vulnerable — often, because they were gay or lesbian — were purged from Catholic universities in the U.S., tacitly so through firings that they could not contest, since no laws protected them from such discriminatory treatment.

To address the problem confronting us now, when some 60% of white Catholics in the U.S. chose to elect Donald Trump last year, we have to address our silent complicity in all of this for almost three decades now. As all of this happened, the voices of leading lay Catholic intellectual leaders in the U.S., its scholars and journalists, were troublingly faint or silent. This, too, is at the core of the problem to be addressed now.

Patricia Miller for Religion Dispatches

As Thomas Edsall notes, racial identification among whites has skyrocketed in reaction to the nation’s shifting demographics and the racially polarizing Obama years, causing political scientists to reexamine their conviction that white identity isn’t a major electoral variable. 
Edsall points to a stunning new analysis that links white identification among Republicans to the likelihood that someone voted for Trump in the GOP primaries. . . . 
As 60 percent of white Catholics ultimately voted for Trump, there’s no reason to believe that many of these Catholics weren't as motivated by fears of racial usurpation as their Republican counterparts. This means that the Catholic Church is dealing with a significant portion of white Catholics who have been racially radicalized around issues of perceived anti-white bias and discrimination. 
A recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute confirms this. Nearly half (48 percent) of white Catholics say that African Americans don’t face a lot of discrimination, making them second only to white evangelicals in saying blacks don’t face significant discrimination, which is a key marker of perceived racial persecution among whites. By comparison, 65 percent of Hispanic Catholics say African Americans face significant discrimination. 
The problem for the church is that this may require more of an exorcism than the statements from the bishops and community meetings Murry envisions to address racism. Anyone who has spent time around conservative Catholics can attest to the degree to which animosity toward those they believe are gaming the system based on racial preferences has seeped into the core of their identity along with opposition to abortion and taxes—which is itself a racially tinged issue as it’s often framed as less-deserving minorities getting handouts from white taxpayers’ dollars. And, as with abortion, once an issue becomes fused with political and religious identity, it can be difficult to expunge. 
For the Catholic bishops the real problem is they have allowed the issue of racial identity to fester for too long because it was politically useful to have conservative Catholics committed to the anti-abortion, anti-LGBT rights agenda of the Republican Party. The bishops were unwilling to see the even uglier parts of that agenda that were dragged along and that Charlottesville pushed into the daylight.

I think what needs to happen in dioceses around the country is that, first, they need to study and own the ways in which their local church, through action and silence, has failed to address the sin of racism, how they have been actively and tacitly complicit in this evil. Then, they need to publicly come forward and, without any kind of equivocation, say, "We were wrong. We need to lament, we need to seek contrition."

And, finally, surely this mouth-dropping conclusion to a recent statement made by Father Tom Reese for Religion News Service is pertinent to this discussion:

The bishops are exhibiting all the signs of a potential breakup with Trump. The honeymoon is over. Corporate America is already distancing itself from Trump as if he were a lame duck with no future. Even Republican members of Congress are grumbling. Since in the bishops’ minds this marriage never took place, it may be easy for them to quietly climb out of bed and disappear into the night. They have gotten most of what they wanted out of the liaison; it is time to move on before it is too late.

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