by Vicki Vernon Lott, Ph.D.
Member, Pax Christi Anti-Racism Team (PCART)
I recently watched the powerful Netflix docuseries “Colin in Black and White”, which depicts how Colin Kaepernick’s high school years led him to become an activist. To me, certain challenges that he faced in both Black and White spaces are similar to my experiences and observations as an African American female in the predominantly white Catholic Church.
I could point out numerous instances of the Church’s historic systemic racial exclusion, racial exploitation, racial oppression, and racial marginalization of Black people based on race. However, my purpose here is not to admonish the Church for past and present shortcomings regarding the life and dignity of all human beings — the first theme of Catholic social teaching. Rather, my purpose is to briefly consider challenges among Blacks and Whites in the call to family, community, and participation by “seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable,” the second theme of Catholic social teaching. Moving forward in this regard requires that we take a few strategic steps based on historic lessons we should have learned. But first, it’s imperative that we tell the truth about history.
The Black Catholic Church
The lingering effects of centuries of the oppression of African Americans has resulted in what Joy DeGruy calls “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome”. It’s necessary for Black people to be aware of history in order to avoid inadvertently continuing “internalized racial oppression” due to unawareness. In the Church, this trauma often manifests itself in overt or covert ostracization, or if not, in self-isolation or a siloed effect after having been diminished as a people for so long.
There are serious issues of distrust based on centuries of dehumanization. The reluctance to engage even in conversations about race is often due to unhealed generational scars about which we may even be unaware. This deep-seated historical mistrust sometimes results in an unwillingness to fellowship with White people. By the same token, work is needed internally within the Black community to discuss historic, intergenerational trauma, and explore ways to heal.
Unfortunately, recent Church history in terms of either complicity by silence, such as today’s voter suppression efforts, or criticism of issues that matter to Black people, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, have only served to widen the chasm.
Consequently, Church people should not be surprised when an event is organized for Black people’s involvement without their being co-designers in all phases of the planning process, and then only a few Black people show up. In this regard, my Pax Christi Anti-Racism Team (PCART) colleagues and I know of and have talked about several cases in point around the country.
The White Catholic Church
A prerequisite for community-building is trust. A prerequisite for trust is telling the truth. Telling the truth requires an awareness, understanding, and acceptance of real history. It is imperative that the Church not only acknowledge the truth about the history of this country from the days when the first Africans were enslaved on these shores in 1619, but that they understand their lingering effects today. This requires intentionally talking about race in depth.
All — ALL — layers of the Church must be involved.
- For clergy: diocesan and parish priests should receive anti-racism training as a part of their continuing education to the extent that they become comfortable preparing and delivering homilies on social justice issues, and that they do so. Deacons and seminarians should also have this training.
- For the laity: workshops or classes in anti-racism should be required for directors of religious education (DREs), CCD classes, and Catholic schools.
If the Catholic Church truly wishes to be pro-life, then anti-abortion must be only one portion of right-to-life campaigns. In other words, the Church must visibly promote infant and maternal health, opposition to excessive use of force in policing, and abolition of the death penalty. Their words and actions must also demonstrate that Black lives do matter.
For more information, or ideas on how to become more engaged in anti-racism work, contact Pearlette Springer, Chair of the Pax Christi Anti-Racism Team (PCART) at email@example.com.
One thought on “The Catholic Church in Black and White”
Systemic racism is so deeply ingrained in our society that I, and most other whites, are not aware of it because it is all we have ever known. We do not question the all-white figures depicted in the statures and paintings in church buildings, the hymns that are of western European origin, or band-aids in the first aid kit are NOT flesh colored for much of the population. We need to develop a list of examples of such unconscious reflections of racism to realize that the part of the Church that is growing has been marginalized, even victimized by their exclusion from being part of the ‘us” that defines everything about the society in which we live. It is so deeply ingrained in us that we do not even think of ourselves as “white” unless we are asked on a form. The rest of the time we are simply people, and people who only notice and name not-white peoples as having a skin color. It will take discernment and practice to surface our racism.