To address the longstanding racial divide within the United States — and within the Catholic Church in the country — Catholics should learn more about the history of that divide, and honestly engage with that history, and with others attempting to tackle similar issues themselves. “Don’t whitewash the misdeeds and silence of our history,” said Bishop Edward Braxton, of Belleville, Ill. in a Sept. 21 lecture at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Bishop Braxton urged participants to teach children the history of the Catholic Church — including parts of the history which are painful or shameful — “not to belittle those people, not to harshly judge them as bad people, but to understand but they are all people of our own era and history and if they have blind spots so do we.”
The bishop's talk was one of two held at the university on the theme of the racial divide in the United States and the Church. The first talk, which focused more on how to address the racial divide, was part of a “teach in” sponsored by the university’s National Catholic School of Social Service, and a second talk, part of the campus Theology on Tap program, discussed the Black Lives Matter movement and how Catholics can respond to racism.
Bishop Braxton, originally from Chicago, is the bishop of Belleville, Ill., outside of his hometown, and one of nine African-American bishops in the United States. The bishop’s talks discussed what he described as the “flaw at the foundation” of racial relations in America — particularly within the American Church — and how it lead to many of the tensions seen today in American politics.
Bishop Braxton pointed to the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, which in 1857 ruled that African-Americans could not be citizens. That opinion was penned by Chief Justice Robert Taney — a Catholic. The bishop also noted that some American bishops in the years leading up to the Civil War actively opposed abolition efforts. Furthermore, early American bishops and religious organizations, such as Bishop John Carroll and the Jesuits, owned slaves themselves
These actions, the bishop said, beg the question “Is there a flaw at the foundation?” of racial relations.
He added that many Catholic churches and religious orders remained segregated after slavery’s end. This history has impacted both the African-American Catholic community and the Church’s efforts to evangelize within the broader African-American community, he said. On top of that, the Church’s previous efforts to address the racial divide, such as the 1979 pastoral letter “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” have yet to be fully implemented.
Knowing this “painful, shameful history,” Bishop Braxton said, is necessary for the Church to help the country heal its racial divides in the future. “We can’t rewrite history. We must acknowledge it and never repeat it,” he told the crowds.
Pointing to the shortfalls and blind spots of those who came before is not judgment, he said, nor does admitting flaws pose a threat to the universal teachings of the Church. “We don’t know what we would have done in the 1840s or ’50s or ’60s,” Bishop Braxton reminded listeners, and even saints “have blind spots.” Instead, acknowledging the full truth and history can help us to appreciate the fullness of the task ahead of us and make us more attentive to the moral blind spots and shortfalls of our own age.
With the need for a comprehensive education on race in mind, Bishop Braxton urged Catholic schools — seminaries in particular — to educate children and future priests on American and Catholic history regarding race, and urged all Catholics to learn more about African-Americans who have open causes for canonization.
While education is a key component in mending the racial divide, so too is engaging and listening to others involved in similar efforts, Bishop Braxton said. He urged Catholics at both talks to “Listen. Learn. Think. Pray. Act.” and shared his own experiences dialoguing with members of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Before discussing the movement itself, Bishop Braxton noted that he does not believe that “Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter are necessarily incompatible.” However, he continued the “point of Black Lives Matter is that some in the African American community face existential threats that cannot be ignored.”
Pointing to those concerns in particular — such as the increased likelihood for African Americans to face violence during routine police interactions, while other offenders like Dylan Roof can be apprehended without being shot — does not negate that other issues of human dignity exist, he said. “In this instance, while all lives matter, their lives are in peril.”
He also explained that while there are Catholics within the Black Lives Matter movement, and that not all members hold the same views, many within the movement are cautious when dealing with the Church because of some of its history. Some members perceive the Church as being opposed to addressing the racial issues the movement sees as a problem, he said. In addition, Bishop Braxton explained that many — though not all — members of the movement have fundamental differences with the Church on matters of sexuality, marriage and abortion.
Bishop Braxton challenged the movement to address the issue of abortion in particular, affirming the life of the unborn child, and noting that the “alarmingly” high number of abortions within the African-American community brings “an abrupt end to the nascent black lives in their mothers’ wombs. Those lives also matter.”
By listening and learning from the members of Black Lives Matter within his community, Bishop Braxton said that he was also able to explain the richness of the Church’s social teaching and its applicability to issues of race, poverty and discrimination.
“I also pointed out that Catholic beliefs on marriage, the meaning of human sexuality and the dignity of human life from conception to natural death are not mere cultural norms or social issues,” he added. “These beliefs represent what the Church holds to be fundamental moral principles, natural law, biblical revelation and the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
Overall, conversations like this have been fruitful and can provide a way for engagement in addressing the racial divide, Bishop Braxton offered. “They did not lead to agreement on every point, but they lead to a focus on the need to be open to hear those with whom we disagree with an open mind and an open heart.”