Although the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is far from over, already assessments are being delivered of how various countries around the world responded, and the overall verdict so far is fairly grim.
Experts charge there have been critical failures of both long-term preparedness, exemplified in the U.S. by the Trump administration dismantling a pandemic-readiness arm of the National Security Council two years ago, and short-term measures once the contagion was upon us.
Much the same, in all honesty, could be said of the U.S. response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the convulsions that have gripped the country since. Let’s face it, anger over racial injustice in America is a pandemic all of us should have seen coming.
Here, too, failures of both the long term and short term are clear. Well before anyone had ever heard of George Floyd, it was obvious the lingering problem of racism and economic inequality represented a threat to cohesion and stability.
It was equally clear that one preeminent expression of those injustices is the treatment of African Americans, especially males, by police forces around the country, exemplified in periodic killings of unarmed African Americans.
The fact that those long-term, structural flaws were largely unaddressed by leaders of both major parties helped set the stage for where the country is today.
Short term, authorities were unprepared for the surge of anger the Floyd case has generated, both in terms of addressing the legitimate grievances of the vast majority of peaceful protesters and also controlling the violence and property damage caused by a minority of vandals and looters.
In that context, what can be said about the response of the Catholic Church?
Certainly, Church leaders around the country have done their best to act as a voice of reason amid the current turmoil, among other things calling the country to a serious examination of conscience about race.
Nor can one accuse the bishops of having been caught off guard. In 2017 they formed an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism in response to the events in Charlottesville, which resulted in the 2018 pastoral letter “Open Wide our Hearts: A Call to Enduring Love.”
In it, the bishops used language that can’t help but seem prescient now: “Despite the great blessings of liberty that this country offers, we must admit the plain truth that for many of our fellow citizens, who have done nothing wrong, interactions with the police are often fraught with fear and even danger.”
In the document, the bishops were also candid about the Church’s own failures.
“The truth is that the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have been complicit in the evil of racism,” they said. “We also realize the ways that racism has permeated the life of the Church and persists to a degree even today. … All too often, leaders of the Church have remained silent about the horrific violence and other racial injustices perpetuated against African Americans and others.”
“Acts of racism have been committed by leaders and members of the Catholic Church — by bishops, clergy, religious, and laity — and her institutions,” the bishops said. “We express deep sorrow and regret for them.”
All that, of course, is to the credit of America’s Catholic leadership.
Going forward, the Church can certainly continue to advocate for political and economic reform, and to issue “mea culpas.” However, if the guiding principle of successful evangelization is supposed to be witness, perhaps the real question should be how the American Church can give witness to a more racially just society.
In terms of where to start, here are just two immediate possibilities.
First, following the death of Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, on June 5, there are only two African Americans in charge amid the country’s almost 200 Catholic dioceses and other jurisdictions: Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., and Bishop Shelton Fabre of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux in Louisiana.
That dearth of African American leadership may not make the Catholic Church much different than the NFL or Fortune 500 companies, but that’s hardly the standard Catholicism strives to set. One constructive response to the Floyd uprisings thus might be a serious and sustained effort to identify potential Africa American leadership, beginning with vocations efforts at the grassroots level.
Second, it’s long been a source of pride for the Church in America that when most other institutions abandoned the country’s largely minority inner cities, Catholic schools remained.
According to the National Catholic Educational Association, African Americans today represent 7.3% of the enrollment in Catholic secondary and middle schools and almost 10% in Catholic high schools, even though overall African Americans are just 4% of the country’s Catholic population. Further, an abundant body of research suggests that minority students in Catholic schools tend to out-perform their peers in other environments.
Yet in recent decades, inner-city Catholic schools have been closing as a result of shifting demographics, unsustainable financial burdens and declines in the priesthood and religious life.
Another way for Catholicism to demonstrate its commitment to racial equity, therefore, would be to make a serious investment in the inner-city schools that remain. That’s likely to be especially crucial on the back of the coronavirus, as economic contractions will threaten the viability of many Church-run institutions.
There are, of course, many other possibilities: accelerating the sainthood causes of African American candidates such as Thea Bowman; naming lay African Americans to prominent positions in dioceses and institutions such as Catholic colleges and hospitals; and providing resources to parish priests to preach and teach on racial justice.
One idea might be to form a corps of “missionaries of justice,” modeled on Pope Francis’ “missionaries of mercy” during the 2015-2016 jubilee, drawing especially on pastors of America’s almost 800 predominantly African American parishes, and commissioning them to offer guest homilies and other presentations all around the country.
The point is that if the Church is to lead by example, there’s work to do, but also no shortage of tools with which to do it.