Sr. Patricia Chappell was invited to be a part of Georgetown University’s panel, “Overcoming Polarization Through Catholic Social Thought.” See the video or read the transcript below.

Sr. Patricia’s Remarks

The causes of the polarization that we observe in our church and nation today are certainly NOT new.  What is new are the overt manifestations of hatred, hostility and bigotry, and the equally intense reactions and feelings that get evoked in the face of such rage and anger.

The polarization in both our church and nation has ideological and political roots, it has generational and gender roots, both of which our panelists will address…the polarization also has sociological, historical, theological and philosophical roots…but I truly believe that the seed that gave birth to those roots is the seed of RACISM that runs so deeply in ALL of the social systems in the United States…and our dear Catholic Church is not exempt from this scandalous social sin.

Today, we are observing a narrative that is rooted in a sinful and warped world view being played out because that world view has become our reality.  Allow me to explain:

I define racism as PERSONAL RACIAL PREJUDICE + THE MISUSE OF POWER BY SYSTEMS AND INSTITUTIONS.  For racism to work someone has to have POWER  over someone, things have to be either/or, right or wrong, good or bad, and these lists of opposites keeps the systems working.  This country was founded by and for the white men…laws were enacted to keep the power in their hands (and white women, when they got the right to vote, colluded with that very same system).

Because of this power dynamic, the human beings forced to come to this new country for economic reasons were not considered human nor treated as such.

Most of us in this room have read or seen films about the Middle Passage, the slave trade, plantation life and death, you may have even visited some powerful museums in this country depicting in pictures, in quilting and in sacred relics the torture and cruelty inflicted on our brothers and sisters.  You leave these viewing experiences troubled, saddened and disturbed. However, we pack that experience away somewhere and go on with life.  Why have we not been taught to question the stark reality of the WHY behind this brutality?  Why have we not confronted the role and influence of whiteness in the reality of racism?  Why have we not sought repentance and transformation for this sin and taken redemptive actions to redress this wrong?  Why has life gone on as usual for most of us?

BUT for those of us in this room of African American ancestry and heritage that nightmarish reality of racism is deeply embedded and seared into our souls and psyches and has become a vital and critical part of our historical memory.  We never get a break from our racial reality.

The history of chattel slavery in the US is rooted in a sinful and warped world view that over the years has become our US reality.  Racism is our reality and we have all failed to understand HOW RACISM HAS DAMAGED ALL OF US.

We African Americans have been damaged by internalizing the racial oppression that we live with day in and day out.  This oppression is defined as a complex, multi-generational process that has taught us, people of color to believe, accept and live the negative social definitions of ourselves and our role in society.  This has profound ramifications on our self-concept and self-esteem.  It has left us never feeling competent enough, good enough, professional enough and the stress of overcoming that is killing us.

Members of the white community have been damaged also by internalized racial superiority.  That is also defined as a complex, multi-generational process that teaches white people to believe, accept and live out superior definitions of themselves and their roles in society.  White privilege manifests itself in finding excuses and explanations for hurtful and/or inappropriate behavior, becoming defensive and hurt when our ‘looking good’ strategies fail us.  The thought of soon no longer being the dominant racial group in this country is, in part what seeded the slogan, (MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN),  of the last presidential election and the continuing aftermath.

Connected to racism is the other narrative that we do not make connections with what is happening in our nation today.  It is easier to pit people against each other than it is to see how we are all connected.  The bitter and hateful reactions to  Immigrants, DACA and DREAMERS and Refugees seeking asylum, or wanting to remain in the US along with the refusal of this country to admit people from certain Middle Eastern and African countries…have you connected that all these are people of color?  Have you asked why is Puerto Rico still ravaged by the hurricane that destroyed the island almost a year ago and that in recent days the death toll of 50 is now estimated to be 5,000…more deaths, by the way MORE than the Twin Towers disaster in NYC?  These are American citizens who are all people of color!!

Do you see the connections of what is happening at the Mexican border?  Those being denied due process, having their children taken from them, and living in cages are from communities of color.  Young women and men of color have been murdered on our city streets and there is little to no accountability or outcry from us…but when white, upper middle class students in FL are shot, there is a national outcry and demand for sensible gun control?  Don’t you see the connections?

I could go on and on with examples but will suffice to say that this is institutionalized, systemic racism at work…and we wonder why people are polarized?  Right now we have at least 8 people running for state and federal offices who are White Nationalists and proud of that fact.  They are neo-Nazis who deny the Holocaust, have a profound hatred of Jewish, Islamic and Black people, claim association with the KKK, fear they are becoming the white minority and who believe that diversity in any form, but especially racial diversity is not a strength but a weakness, liability and threat. Racism is the seed at the root of this divide.

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And now to our beloved Catholic Church who also has the seed of racism embedded in its structures and its systems.

The sociology of religion tells us that religion has 2 functions:

  • to maintain the status quo
  • to engage in, and bring about social change

In order to maintain the status quo one must rely on tradition, keep a strict, impermeable border between Church and State, and “play nice” so to speak with the power brokers.  If you want to maintain the status quo, than in the midst of social and political turmoil, the response Is SILENCE.

On the other hand, In order to engage in and bring about social change one must take the Gospel and Catholic Social Teaching seriously– one cannot be silent but a risk taker and a public one at that.

It has been widely accepted, at least in this country that the churches speak with moral authority on issues affecting the common good.

However, no one can remain silent in the midst of great social turmoil and still retain any moral authority.  There is no such thing as a political issue without moral consequences.

The 300+ years of racism in the United States was, for the most part, met with silence from our clergy.  There were a few who spoke out against the institution of slavery pleading for their owners to allow their slaves to be Baptized.  The conditions of slavery under which these children, women and men were living and working under were not challenged.  Even after Emancipation a few local churches did open schools for the children but there was never a concerted effort on the part of the institutional church to address the issue and root causes of slavery.

During the Civil Rights Movement 200 years later, no real response from the Church in the US was forthcoming.  The writing of Pastoral Letters on Racism was an exercise of a few Bishops, but these efforts were not proclaimed from pulpits in local parishes on Sunday, nor were the tenants of Catholic Social Teaching.

We have recently begun to see some efforts by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops to address racism and only time will tell if these efforts and others (such as this program at Georgetown) will change anything.

The cost to healing our nation and our church of the polarization caused in by racism will be risky; it will cost white people their comfort and will cause people of color to work together instead of pitting ourselves against one another.  (Give examples)

The question becomes how do we create a space for the old narrative of racial oppression and privilege to pass on in order to allow what is emerging in the hearts and minds of so many of us to arrive?

What steps need to be taken towards interracial reconciliation and healing of the psychological and social wounds caused by racism?

I suspect that part of the answer lies in:

  • TRUTH TELLING, allowing ourselves to truly listen to each other without interrupting, butting in, judging, or matching what we’ve been through with the pain of another
  • MUTUALLY agreeing on what issue we will address
  • Analyzing our Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats
  • Being accountable and responsible to each other by following up and showing up
  • Being courageous enough to ask our Church to assist with affirmative redress to this sin of racism.
  • Needing concrete Plans of Action or else all of the above will be an exercise in futility

The face of our country and of our Catholic church is changing…it is getting closer to the actual brown/black face of Jesus the Christ.  How welcome will we make this Jesus feel?

Sr. Patricia Chappell
Georgetown University
June 4, 2018

2 thoughts on “Watch Sr. Patty on Panel: “Overcoming Polarization Through Catholic Social Thought”

    1. Powerful! And True! There is such a persistent, studious denial and avoidance of this critical reality. Thank you, Sr. Patty!

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