by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

The recent outstanding Pax Christi USA National Conference gave much attention to the  scourge of racism in U.S. society. The original sin of the United States has not been atoned for nearly enough, much less eradicated from our cultural expressions – political, educational, penal, economic, and sadly from our churches.

There is certainly no need in this column to review what was presented at that gathering. However, I do want to reflect on another racist society in which I lived for 15 years and, after detailing its contours, perhaps offering insights which may add to ongoing challenges to this sin in our country.

As a missioner first in Bolivia then Peru in South America, one of my early learnings was taught me by an astute Peruvian. He wanted this uninformed American clergyman to understand that Peru was a totally racist country. He knew that any pastoral work there demanded knowledge of that basic social reality.

His conversation with me on this subject remains imprinted on my memory. He said: “What you must understand, Jose, is that the ‘tela de fondo’ (backdrop) of our society is racism. (The phrase in Spanish, I believe, conveys much more than its English rendition. “Tela de fondo” means the underlying and all-encompassing reality of a given situation.) The lesson came from a Peruvian who, I came to realize, loved his place of birth passionately and consistently refused to leave it when lucrative opportunities in other countries were offered him. 

The racism of Peru was similar to how we experience it in our country. In general terms Peru suffered from a deep cultural divide between the “white” (actually brown) skinned population and the darker indigenous peoples – Indians; i.e. between those who had some European blood and the ones directly descended from the aboriginal Inca peoples.

It crossed virtually every aspect of Peruvian life and seemed to me even more overt than here: it had never really been described openly and comprehensively and it was defended vociferously by the elites who profited from its injustices. Scandalously, the effects of racism were defended “theologically” for centuries by the dominant Catholic Church there and all through Latin America.

Providentially – miraculously – the institutional Church in Latin America finally confronted the racism within its own ranks and beyond. After centuries of conformity and cooperation with the racist status quo there, in what can only be ascribed to the work of the Holy Spirit, representatives from every local church in Central and South America and the Caribbean gathered to confront and at least begin to deal with it. While this historic conference never used the word racism in its final documents, it was clear that their revolutionary social analyses were informed by this “tela de fondo”.

One of their reflections described the situation of enormous inequality (racist at its base) as that of “Institutionalized (systemic) Violence”. The challenge laid down by these lay, religious and clerical representatives of the institutional Church was a call to the whole People of God for a “preferential option for the poor”. I cannot exaggerate the change in pastoral approaches which resulted.

For example, henceforth it was common for every decision about the Church’s work to be judged by how it affected the poor and significantly how the poor experienced it. Even more striking were the emergence of base Christian communities which normally functioned under the leadership of poor people, particularly poor women. Lifestyle questions came under the same examination. (The Cardinal-Archbishop of Lima moved from a palace on one of its most elegant neighborhoods to a modest house in a “barrio”.)

Perhaps the enormity of this institutional conversion can best be understood in the example of Pope Francis. He constantly reflects the sea change in the Latin American Church of that time which produced him. Could we hope for a similar process in the American Catholic Church?


Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.

2 thoughts on “The preferential option for the poor was Latin America’s response to racism

  1. Please let us know what years you were there. And who is continuing the work there. The problem of the Synod on the Amazon makes this issue of “tela de fondo” even more important to address head-on. THANK you for this reflection.

  2. “Scandalously, the effects of racism were defended “theologically” for centuries by the dominant Catholic Church there and all through Latin America.” I would very much like to know more about this “theology”. Where can I go to learn more?

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