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What the Church Owes Families

Eight weeks ago, I gave birth to my second child. Today, I’m expected to return to my job at a Catholic university. As I write this at eight weeks post-birth, my body is still healing. I can walk a few blocks, but my typical fifteen-minute walk to work is beyond my capabilities. My breast-milk supply is still regulating, and my clothes—which are still maternity clothes—are often drenched in breast milk or sweat from my postpartum hormones. I am acutely aware that I am barely sleeping. Some nights I only wake up once to feed the baby. Other nights, I am awake for hours at a time with an infant who can barely tell the difference between day and night. My constant state of exhaustion makes me worried about my job performance, where decisions often rely on my quick judgement calls.

At eight weeks old, my daughter’s habits and needs are also constantly changing. During the day, I breastfeed her every two to three hours, and she needs to be held constantly. When she turns two months old, I will take her to the pediatrician for her first round of immunizations. But this vital appointment falls outside of the eight weeks of paid family leave my Catholic employer provides, as required by a new city mandate. Decisions surrounding childcare, which are typically marked by concerns about cost and extensive waiting lists, are even more fraught in a pandemic. My spouse and I weigh our concerns about COVID-19 exposure with our exhaustion at working full time and caring for a newborn. My experience underscores what so many new parents know to be true: a lack of paid parental leave impacts all aspects of family life. And when paid leave is provided, it too often falls too short and does not correspond with the healing of a parent or the needs of a child.

My eight weeks of paid leave, while inadequate, exceed the time offered at other workplaces. Catholic institutions in the United States, such as schools, universities, parishes, and diocesan offices, have no standard practice for parental leave, or more broadly, paid family leave. While some Catholic organizations provide paid parental leave, many provide none at all. Often, their policies are determined by their local jurisdiction; before my city mandated eight weeks of paid family leave, my employer offered only short-term disability for the birth parent, and the length of leave was determined by one’s doctor. Despite advocating for pro-family public policies, the U.S. Catholic Church doesn’t require adequate paid family leave for its own institutions, failing to support families in a concrete way as they navigate the birth or adoption of a child, or care for a family member.

The debate over paid family leave is a uniquely American one; the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not offer paid maternity leave. Not only that, out of almost two hundred countries, we are one of the very few to have no national paid parental leave policy whatsoever. New moms in the United States are eligible for twelve weeks of unpaid leave—and only if they meet certain employment criteria (which I did not). According to one study, “close to one in four new mothers who are not eligible for paid leave return to work within ten days of giving birth.” Anyone who has given birth or been around someone in that early postpartum period knows that at ten days, a person is not even physically healed from birth, to say nothing of the mental and emotional impact of caring for a newborn.

Imagine if instead of simply talking about a culture of life, Catholic employers actually started to build one.

The research on paid family leave is clear: paid leave helps children, mothers, and workplaces thrive. Less than eight weeks of paid maternity leave leads to higher rates of depression and lower rates of mother-baby attachment. More than twelve weeks leads to higher rates of vaccinations and lower rates of domestic violence, infant death, and postpartum depression. Unsurprisingly, you’re more likely to have access to generous leave policies if you have a high income. For instance, 62 percent of mothers earning less than $30,000 per year receive no paid leave. But only 26 percent of people making $75,000 or more did not have access to paid leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act provides unpaid leave for qualifying employees, but taking unpaid leave is often not an option for families. Of those with unpaid leave, 37 percent reported taking on extra debt to cover parental leave and 33 percent were unable to pay bills.

It’s clear that providing paid leave often corresponds with better physical outcomes for mothers and newborns. But what if we shifted the question away from what kind of parental leave is medically necessary to what kind of family policy is just? What if we created a culture of life? Imagine if pro-life clubs at Catholic high schools and universities directed their advocacy toward their schools’ paid family leave policies. Imagine if parish social justice groups ensured that paid leave was available to parish staff. Imagine if colleges provided paid leave and benefits to all faculty and staff, modeling a holistic way of life for students grappling with the question of how to balance work and family. Imagine if instead of simply talking about a culture of life, Catholic employers actually started to build one.

How might that change the way we think about work and family? Politically, providing a robust paid family leave program would help change the conversation between stratified pro-life and pro-choice groups. Being pro-life isn’t simply about opposing abortion; it should include caring for families and children after birth as well. As pastor and author Dave Barnhart observed, “The unborn are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you.” Addressing the injustice surrounding family leave would require a shift to addressing groups that make demands, such as parents and newborns. It would also offer a more expansive vision of “life” and “family.” Too often, these words feel like dog whistles: they mean one thing, while actually signaling another. Life does not mean all stages of life, but only birth. Family means only a mother, father, and children, leaving out same-sex partners or divorced and remarried couples. By requiring a generous paid family leave policy for its organizations, the Catholic Church could visibly stand for life, supporting families as they navigate life in all its complexities.

It would also address issues of credibility and authenticity for young Catholics who may one day start families of their own. I see this firsthand with my students at the Catholic university where I work. Many of them believe in aspects of the Catholic faith, but often fall somewhere between questioning their role in the Church and leaving the Church entirely. They don’t take issue with Catholicism’s teachings; they just don’t see those teachings being lived out. When the Church preaches the value of life and family, but fails to enact practices that can help life and family flourish, the Church fails to live out its mission authentically. Rather than providing concrete support to families, the Church remains in a world of platitudes, preaching about the importance of the family while avoiding actually supporting them. We need Church officials to shift their thinking about what employees are owed, and how financial resources are allocated, if we want a Church that truly lives its mission of creating a more just world.

Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on the family, opens with that vision: “The joy of love experienced by families is also the joy of the church.” The joy of the family cannot be the joy of the Church if employees of Catholic organizations are unsupported in family life. Catholic schools, parishes, nonprofits, and even the Church hierarchy have the potential to model what truly pro-family paid leave might look like—one that goes beyond complying with our current inadequate national policy.

Accepting the Most Royal of Invitations: To Suffer

Let’s begin with something that is painfully obvious: Life is hard, and nobody gets out of it without a measure of suffering. No one. We need only look at the crucifix to understand the truth of it—to see the very embodiment of innocence and goodness brought into a torture and torment most unjust, enduring his suffering unto death. We need only look at the Woman, his mother, standing with him, never leaving his side, but instead consenting to suffer her own agonies as her baby, her adored little boy, is shredded, drained of his lifeblood before her eyes, defiled unto death and even beyond. The Woman—the Theotokos, the God-bearer—and her son, the God-man, consented to endure their trials because their sufferings were meant both to effect something and teach something to all of humanity. First, that the God of creation and salvation and sanctification is The God Who Knows. The pains…

False Choices

A train is hurtling down the tracks. Ahead of it lies a group of five people, tied to the tracks and unable to escape. The only way to save their lives is to switch the train onto a different track—a track on which only a single person is tied down. You stand at the lever that can switch the train. No one else is around. No other options are available to you. What should you do? Kill the one to save the five, or let the five die because you refuse to kill the one?

For the past fifty years, scenarios like this one have played an outsized role in popular and academic discussions of moral decision-making. Such discussions are not, perhaps, without some value. But one of their bad effects is the way they invite us to conceive of the moral life as a series of decontextualized choices between strictly fixed options, with the outcome of each one guaranteed in advance. Kill the one or the five will die. Torture the terrorist suspect or the plane will be hijacked. Lie to the Nazi soldiers or he will certainly find the Jews who are hidden in your basement. What’s missing is the role of creative practical thinking—what the scholastics called prudentia—in considering the possibilities and determining how to act. Also missing, the importance of reflection on how we got here—what the decisions are that we and others made to land us in a morally challenging situation. Here I am, standing alone at a lever in a railyard, the lone person responsible for the lives of five captive people…well, what in the world can have happened to me? Did I get involved with a bad set, perhaps? Isn’t this a thing we ought to be thinking about, if we want to think about how a person ought to live?

When moral life is conceived of as a series of fixed choices, each of which arises in what might as well be a vacuum, a natural response is to evaluate those choices simply in terms of the number of people affected: in every case, the correct thing to do is the thing that will minimize suffering. This response is natural, but not inevitable. We can and must consider not only the consequences of our possible actions, but also those fixed principles that rule certain options out no matter the situation we are in. It is precisely for this reason that prudence is so essential. Such is the consistent teaching of the Church through its history: that one must never do evil—not even to avoid a seemingly greater evil or achieve a very great good. The teaching can be a difficult one. Sometimes it calls for great sacrifice. But the Christian’s commitment to it is rooted in our confidence that the world is in the hands of a loving and provident God, whose commands are just and ordained to our own happiness. This, again, is the unbroken teaching of our Church. And it is hard to see its rationale when we allow the moral life to be construed in the way that we have just described, as a series of fixed choices that may as well have no history or wider context.


What’s missing is the role of creative practical thinking in considering the possibilities and determining how to act.

All these mistakes are on display in George Weigel’s recent attempt, online at First Things, to defend Harry Truman’s bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is the framing of Truman’s choice as between a totally fixed set of options: to firebomb Japanese cities, to starve the Japanese by blockade, or to use atomic weapons in an effort to “stun Japanese politicians” into capitulation. Nothing else could be done. There is the certainty that, in each case, we knew exactly what the outcome of a given choice would be. The choice saved lives. And there is the failure to consider the wider context of Truman’s decision, the past choices that made these seem like the only available options. It is irrelevant how we arrived in this position. In each case there is inattention, in particular, to the way that America’s demand for unconditional surrender by the Japanese was a crucial factor in keeping the nations from negotiating terms of peace. Ignorant or neglectful of the actual historical context, Weigel’s account of Truman’s calculation is simply fanciful. And, finally, his defense of Truman’s choice makes a mockery of the Christian belief that evil cannot be required of us, lest God show himself to be a liar.

We begin with the historical record. Writing in 1957, the great Catholic philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe claimed that “the root of all evil” leading to Truman’s decision “was the insistence on unconditional surrender” by America and her allies. She was surely right about this much: other terms of peace were conceivable, and the decision, enshrined in the Potsdam Declaration, to demand unconditional surrender by the Japanese, lest their nation face “prompt and utter destruction,” only strengthened the Japanese resolve to continue fighting. Indeed, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson’s original draft of the Potsdam Declaration allowed Japan to retain a constitutional monarchy. And in a 2007 article published in the Asia-Pacific Journal, the historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa contends that Stimson, Admiral William Leahy, General George Marshall, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, and Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew all preferred alternative peace terms than what Truman insisted upon. If Truman had not changed Stimson’s Potsdam proposal, Japan may well have surrendered in short order.

Why would Japan have accepted Stimson’s original proposal? By July 1945, after the U.S. conquest of Okinawa, Japanese leadership knew they could not attain their pre-war goals. In his article “The Winning Weapon?”, Ward Wilson expresses the Japanese perspective well: “The issue was how to obtain acceptable terms, not whether to seek peace.” Acceptable terms for Japan included retaining their emperor. And one can easily imagine the emperor intervening sooner if the terms included a constitutional monarchy.

In Weigel’s telling of this history, Japanese leadership was fanatical and could only be punished into submission. Again, this is untrue: in the summer of 1945, Japanese leadership was already requesting that Moscow mediate a surrender. These hopes for mediation vanished on August 8, when the Soviet Union attacked and overwhelmed Japanese forces in Manchuria. Given the timing of the Soviet invasion and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki just a day later, it is impossible to conclude that one of these events was decisive. Yet significant evidence points to a key role for the Soviet invasion. The bombing of Hiroshima, for example, did not lead to acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration. In contrast, Soviet entry into the war prompted a crisis for Japan. With hopes for mediation dashed and fearing Soviet occupation, Japan’s leaders met to discuss these events. According to political scientist Robert Pape, “The most important factor accounting for the timing of surrender was the Soviet attack against Manchuria.” Hasegawa likewise concurs with this conclusion. Weigel’s version of this history, in which Truman’s act was the event that brought the war to an end, belongs to the realm of fiction, not fact.

Finally, Weigel’s account of Truman’s reasoning ignores one of the obvious possibilities available to the U.S. military. According to Weigel, the atomic bombs were dropped with the aim of “shocking Japan into surrender.” Yet if this was his sole purpose, then Truman could have chosen to demonstrate the power of the atomic bomb in some other way, perhaps by dropping it in the ocean near Tokyo. Indeed, the idea of such a demonstration was proposed by the scientists who built the bomb. In a memo that came to be known as the Franck Report, which was sent to Secretary of War Stimson in 1945, physicist James Franck and others argued that “the use of nuclear bombs for an early, unannounced attack against Japan [was] inadvisable.” Given the moral and political costs of such an attack, they advised instead that the force of nuclear weapons should be “first revealed to the world by a demonstration in an appropriately selected uninhabited area.” Even if, in fact, merely demonstrating the power of the bomb would have carried less shock value than actually using it to destroy entire cities, anyone committed to upholding the prohibition on killing innocent civilians should recognize this as a superior choice to the one that Truman actually made.

We conclude that, contrary to Weigel’s inaccurately clear-cut narrative, Truman had other options available to him than the one he ultimately chose, and it is far from clear that the dropping of the bombs played the decisive role Weigel imagines in bringing about Japan’s surrender.


We conclude that, contrary to Weigel’s inaccurately clear-cut narrative, Truman had other options available to him than the one he ultimately chose.

When Anscombe opposed Oxford’s decision to grant an honorary degree to President Truman in 1957, her stance drew international attention. The Collegium Institute’s archive of Anscombe’s papers at the University of Pennsylvania contains a number of letters she received from people who wrote to criticize or commend her arguments, the most striking of which is from a survivor of the Nagasaki bombing who wrote from a hospital where he was being treated for radiation sickness.

In his letter, Anscombe’s correspondent describes his suffering: “For several years [after the bombing] I continued to be quite normal, but in 1947 I began to be unwell. I began to suffer from atom bomb sickness, a disease formerly unknown to human experience, and I have now been an invalid for nine years.” He writes that he was hospitalized about three months earlier, and was expected to stay another three to six months. Upon leaving the hospital he would have to cover the cost of his own outpatient treatment, without any assistance from the Japanese government. The letter to Anscombe continues:

Most of us atom bomb sufferers will never get up again, or, in any case, not in one year or two years. Many are reduced to penury by ten years of sickness and the expense of treatment in all that time and suicides of individuals and of whole families increase in number each year. Even if they live they are a great burden to their families, and they are without hopes and dreams, just like living corpses. Such misery is the present state of those who have the atom bomb sickness.

People like him, and like those whose faces we see in photographs and videos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the wake of what Weigel calls Truman’s “terrible choice,” are made in the image and likeness of God. Such is the teaching of our Church, and it is for this reason that we are strictly forbidden to kill an innocent human being, no matter the consequences of not doing so. To conduct a war by murderous means is to call down God’s vengeance upon us. To defend such conduct as Weigel does, as the “correct choice” to make from among an artificially limited range of options, is to defend the state-sponsored murder of innocents.

But if God promises vengeance on those who disobey his commands, he also offers his pledge of protection when we uphold them. Anscombe recalls this pledge in her 1961 essay, “War and Murder,” which she would later describe as having been “written in a tone of righteous fury about what passed for thinking about the destruction of civilian populations.” She writes that, as Catholics, “we have to fear God and keep his commandments, and calculate what is for the best only within the limits of that obedience, knowing that the future is in God’s power and that no one can snatch away those whom the Father has given to Christ.” To refuse God that obedience is to deny that his power over the future is what he claims. Anscombe imagines what such a person must be prepared to say to the Lord: “We had to break your law, let your Church fail. We could not obey your commandments, for we did not believe your promises.”

Baptizing White Supremacy


Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, reading group, or Commonweal Local Community? Click here for a free discussion guide.

Robert P. Jones is the CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and writes regularly on politics, culture, and religion for the Atlantic, NBC Think, and other outlets. He holds a PhD in religion from Emory University and a MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of The End of White Christian America, which won the 2019 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. Assistant editor Regina Munch spoke with him about his new book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, and current attitudes among white Christians on issues of racial justice. You can listen to the full episode here. A transcript of the interview follows, edited for length and clarity.

Regina Munch: Tell us about the argument of White Too Long. What makes it so urgent today?

Robert P. Jones: The subtitle of the book is The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. I think when we talk about the Church and civil rights, most people think of African-American churches and the role that they played in promoting civil rights and helping to organize the civil-rights movement. But what has not received that much attention is the role that the white Church played in resisting the civil-rights movement. White Christianity and white churches have been wrapped up in and infected with white supremacy all the way back to the beginning of the country.

RM: The argument in your book goes further than saying that white Christianity was merely complicit in racism and racial injustice. You argue that white Christians and white churches actually built and reinforced white supremacy. How did they do that?

RJ: I think at best you’ll hear that the church was complicit, that it somehow got dragged along by some outside force—by Southern culture, for instance. But I think a plain reading of history doesn’t support that. What you see is white Christian churches serving as hubs of white supremacy, just as the African-American churches were serving as hubs for civil-rights organizing. The first Confederate battle flags, for example, were sewn by women organizing through churches.

But even more important than that is the legitimizing factor that white Christianity played. It baptized a worldview of white supremacy. By “white supremacy,” I don’t only mean people in sheets burning crosses, but a worldview in which whites were literally superior to African Americans, and anyone whose skin was darker than theirs or who didn’t originate in Western Europe. There was a belief in a divinely ordained world where whites were, by God’s design, meant to be at the top of the social, political, and cultural pyramid. There’s no greater source of legitimacy than to say something was dictated and handed down by God and supported by the Bible, and this is exactly the role that white Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, played.

RM: You talk about the type of relationship with God that’s encouraged in Evangelical Christianity, a very individualist way of thinking about one’s salvation. What does that have to do with white supremacy?

RJ: One of the consequences of the emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus is that it is so hyper-individualistic—an internal, psychological, and emotional kind of connection to God. When the beginning and the end of religion is seen in that kind of relationship, what gets screened out are social injustices and systemic injustices, particularly around race. It becomes a way for white Evangelicals in particular to feel very comfortable with their own personal religion in a way that’s very disconnected from any claims about inequality or injustice by their African-American brothers and sisters. It falls on deaf ears because it’s considered outside the realm of what’s most central to being Christian.

RM: This is a very personal book. You grew up in a church that was part of the Southern Baptist Convention. What was it like to grow up in that church, and how did your view of it change as you grew older?

RJ: I grew up for the most part in Jackson, Mississippi, as a Southern Baptist. Our denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, was founded in 1845, literally over the issue of slavery. There was a dispute between Northern and Southern Baptists over whether a member of the clergy could legitimately own slaves, and whether that was compatible with Christianity. The Southern churches took the position that it was, and when their Northern Baptist brethren disagreed with them, they split to form their own convention so that they could hold on to the idea that slavery, white supremacy, and Christianity were compatible. By the middle of the twentieth century, that denomination was the largest Protestant denomination in the country. It really does mark American Protestantism.

I didn’t find that out until I was in seminary in my early twenties. I was at church all the time—five days a week, for worship services a couple of times on Sunday, and then all kinds of church activities like youth group—and I had never heard this. I felt a little betrayed, actually, by not getting a serious understanding of our history—hearing zero sermons on racial justice, white Christianity’s complicity, or this entanglement of white supremacy in our history.

I felt a little betrayed, actually, by not getting a serious understanding of our history—hearing zero sermons on racial justice

RM: In the book you keep coming back to a paradox: How can a church that has done so much demonstrable good for people within the church also have been so violent and destructive toward others? You bring up two words: protection and purity.

RJ: This book is not a finger-wagging book by somebody from outside who thinks there’s nothing good in the church. I wouldn’t have written this book if I did not have a great love for the church. I’ve been deeply shaped and formed by this tradition in both good and bad ways. This idea of purity and innocence I think is the biggest stumbling block. It’s personal, right? If some of the best parts about ourselves have been formed by the church, how can it also be true that some of these awful things in our history are true? I just think those two things can be true at the same time. If we white Christians want to hold on to and pass down the good to our children and grandchildren, I think there’s no way to do that without seriously wrestling with the bad and doing everything we can to put a sharp and bright light on it so that we can excise it, so that we’re handing less of a muddled mess down to the next generation.

RM: What did Catholics have to do with white supremacy in the United States?

RJ: Catholics in this country have a complex history. Where I live now in Maryland, which was a heavily Catholic state, records show that as many as a fifth of the Catholics even in the late 1700s in Maryland were enslaved Africans, most of whom had been forcibly converted to Catholicism after their enslavement. But Catholics have faced their own history of discrimination. I think people often forget that the Ku Klux Klan, which had a revival in the early part of the twentieth century, was not just an anti-Black organization. It was also an anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish organization that literally saw Catholics as a threat to American democracy.

At the same time, during the Great Migration, African Americans sometimes moved into what had been historically Catholic neighborhoods, and there was racial conflict there. One of the ways that the official Church responded was with segregation. Rather than letting African Americans go to the local parish, they designated one parish, St. Mark’s, as the place where African Americans were to go and where their children had to attend Catholic school. As one African-American priest said, that’s not in the “bad, bad South”; that’s in the “good, good North” that this happened.

In the 1960s and ’80s,  the bishops released statements on race that called on people to support equal rights for African Americans. But Fr. Bryan Massingale has shown that by 2004, two-thirds of Catholics reported that they had heard no homilies on race through the entire three-year lectionary cycle. Only 18 percent of bishops had issued a statement. Formal statements don’t make it down into the pews, and when we look at contemporary attitudes among Christians, white Catholics have attitudes regarding race very similar to those of white Evangelicals and white mainline Protestants.

RM: You did a study about racist attitudes among white Christians and compare them to opinions among white Americans who are not affiliated with a church. How did you go about that study and what did you find?

RJ: One of the patterns that I noticed was that on issues of race, and particularly on issues of systemic racism, there were huge gaps between whites who identified as Christian of any kind, whether they were Protestant or Catholic, and whites who claim no religious affiliation at all. And in virtually every one of these questions, it’s whites who were not Christian who held views closer to those of African Americans.

We set up what I call a “racism index” that used fifteen questions to cover topics from Confederate monuments and flags, to systemic issues like the killing of African-American men by police. We scored this index on a scale of one to ten, with ten meaning the most racist attitudes. White Evangelicals score eight out of ten on this racism index. But what I think is more surprising is that white Catholics and white mainline Protestants score seven out of ten, while white, religiously unaffiliated Americans only score four out of ten. It was consistent question after question. Even when we controlled for things like partisanship and location, this independent relationship between white Christian identity of any kind, Protestant or Catholic, and holding more racist attitudes stood up in a very robust way.

This independent relationship between white Christian identity of any kind and holding more racist attitudes stood up in a very robust way.

RM: Those are very startling findings. How do you account for this? What are some things that white Christians and white Americans in general are doing to address white supremacy?

RJ: I think if you’re someone who has a history like me—if you’re white and you’ve had a fairly positive experience in the church—I think the reaction to hearing those numbers is shock. I should also add that in the study, attending church does not make one less racist, and that’s true for both Catholic and Protestants. That’s pretty shocking if you’re from inside that world. But what’s notable is that the people who aren’t shocked about these numbers are African-American Christians.

We actually have some new data from PRRI that shows some movement among white Catholics on the issue of the killing of Black men by police. In 2015, right as the Black Lives Matter movement was getting started, we asked whether killings of unarmed Black men by police were isolated incidents, or part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans. Seventy-one percent of white Catholics said they were isolated incidents; this was similar to responses from white Evangelicals and white mainline Protestants. But in our last survey, seven out of ten white Evangelicals are still saying that these are isolated incidents, while the number of white Catholics saying that has actually dropped down to 56 percent. Far more white Catholics today than five years ago are seeing these events as part of a pattern of how African Americans are treated by police.

So what can be done? What’s not going to fix this are statements from denominational hierarchies or bishops. What does matter is what happens at the local congregational and parish level. At the end of the book I talk about two churches: the two First Baptist churches in Macon, Georgia, the town where my parents grew up. The churches have a shared history. One of them is predominantly white and the other is predominantly Black, and the ancestors of the African-American church were enslaved by the ancestors of the white church. In the last few years, the two pastors have gotten together to talk about this shared history and begin to build some bridges that have demanded some serious soul-searching by the white church. One example: The white church found in their archives that early in their history, the church was having a hard time paying the bills. One way they balanced the books is by selling enslaved members of their own church. You can actually see in the ledger money coming in from the sale of their own enslaved members, and then money going out to pay for the building and the pastor. I think coming face to face with that history has been a real turning point. It is in these kinds of covenanted, long-term, community-building, relationship-building, organic exercises where the change is going to come, not from declarations and statements. The work is much harder than that.

RM: The title of the book comes from James Baldwin, who said that many Americans have been “white too long” to reckon with racism. What message do you want white Christians to hear about their own whiteness and their relationship with God?

RJ: I read a lot of James Baldwin in doing the research for this book. He, like Martin Luther King Jr., was deeply disappointed in white Christians. He wrote these words in a New York Times editorial:

I will state flatly that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long; they have been married to the lie of white supremacy too long; the effect on their personalities, their lives, their grasp of reality, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii.

Those words really stayed with me. When you hear these contemporary public-opinion numbers, one reaction I hear from many of my fellow white Christians is, “How can this be?” How can it be that church attendance makes no difference? How can it be that white Christians have such a difficult time seeing systemic racism compared to whites who are not Christian? But I think when you take the history seriously, the question shifts from “How can this be?” to “How could it be otherwise, given this history?” The challenge for white Christians is what I titled the first chapter of the book: “seeing.” Just to see what’s in front of us, and then once we see it, to have the courage to tell the truth.

I’m resisting the urge to move straight to reconciliation. It’s too easy to say, “Okay, we’re going to see it. We’re going to lament this awful past. We’re going to apologize for it. Black people are going to forgive us and then we’re going to move on.” But that skips the deeper question of justice and repair. If we’re thinking about a Christian understanding of repentance, it has to be much more than just an apology. The white pastor in Macon said to me, “I’ve stopped talking about reconciliation and we’re just talking about justice.” I think the reason he said that is because if white Christians do enough of the work of repair and making things right, the question of reconciliation is going to work itself out. That’s a product of the work of repair and justice.


Stealth Evangelization Through Music and Beauty

One of the eight principles of the Word on Fire movement is “leading with beauty.” This principle is on glorious display in the newly produced Word on Fire Bible, where beautiful art illustrates the Word of God in visible form and is an extension to our senses of the written Word placed beside it. This edition of the Gospels got me thinking of the multiple ways the Word of God can be communicated through means other than the written Word. I think here of sacred art, mosaics, iconography, frescoes, architecture, and, of course, music. Over the centuries, it was through the medium of music that the Psalms were prayed, the Scriptures were proclaimed, and God was praised in the liturgy. Music was, and continues to be, a wonderful gift from God through which he can speak to us and uplift us in worship and praise. From the Old Testament, we…

5 Ways Saint John Henry Newman Can Help You Through This Year

One year ago today, Pope Francis canonized John Henry Newman. What a year it has been since then. Bishop Robert Barron was present for the canonization Mass last October in St. Peter’s Square, where in Pope Francis’ own homily, the pontiff quoted one of Newman’s: “The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not.” Newman spent twenty years as an Anglican priest before being received into the Catholic Church, a journey he describes as “like coming into port after a rough sea.” As a former Anglican priest myself, Newman’s witness is powerful to me; but at this moment in the life of the Church and the world, St. John Henry Newman has much to say to all of us. We all seek peace, and we all need a vision of home amid the rough seas of 2020. Here are five ideas from Newman that…

On Going through Hell

Recently, during the summer of rage, my eighth-grade daughter stood gazing at the television news with furrowed brow and a shaking head. When she realized that I had been looking at her, she blushed and confessed, “With everything going wrong in the world, it’s hard not to get down.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. There is a clever (but depressing) cartoon showing the spines of books neatly ordered on a shelf. Each volume had a date (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019)  indicating that between each book’s covers is the story of that year. When one arrives at 2020, however, there are well over a dozen books grappling with all that 2020 has been. Just think about it: a paralyzing pandemic; a tumultuous economy; riotous racial strife; vulgar, sophomoric behavior from our elected leaders (from both parties); dislocation from family and friends. It is a time of fear and anxiety,…

Examining the Encyclical

October 3, the day that Francis signed Fratelli tutti in Assisi, also happened to mark the twentieth anniversary of a somewhat less illustrious moment in the Church’s interreligious outreach. In 2000, a planned day of dialogue between Jews and Christians in Rome had to be canceled because of the negative reaction to Dominus Iesus, a recently published declaration from the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, led at the time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Around the same time, the Jesuit theologian Jacques Dupuis was under trial on charges brought by the Holy Office for his work on the theology of interreligious dialogue. How far we’ve come in twenty years, thanks to Jorge Mario Bergoglio. His new encyclical may signal not only the papacy’s shift from a strictly Roman Catholic tradition to one more oriented toward global Catholicism, but also a new paradigm in how the Church approaches relations with other faiths. 

Fratelli tutti comes a little more than five years after Laudato si’—the longest interval in papal encyclicals since the gap between Pope Gregory XVI’s Commissum divinitus (“On Church and State,” 1835) and Probe nostis (“On the Propagation of the Faith,” 1840). Of course, after Humanae vitae, Paul VI did not write another encyclical in the remaining ten years of his papacy, because of the new bishops’ synods.[*] Given Francis’s vision for a Church that gives more importance to synods and to other kinds of documents, especially post-synodal exhortations, the space between encyclicals isn’t that surprising. This is also the first time a pope has issued an encyclical outside of Rome since 1814, when Pius VII signed Il trionfo in the Italian city of Cesena, after five years of imprisonment in France during the Napoleonic Wars. (In the same year, he also restored the Society of Jesus, which had been suppressed in 1773.) Coming in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic that highlights the crises of globalization and the social order, the timing couldn’t have been better. The encyclical quotes—and therefore includes as sources of the Catholic magisterial tradition—Blessed Charles de Foucauld, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as the German Jesuit Karl Rahner (who was under investigation by the Holy Office through the time he was working with the German bishops in preparation for Vatican II). Cinematographic citations have also now entered the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church: the document mentions Wim Wenders’s 2018 documentary on Pope Francis three times. There are also five mentions of Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar, with whom Francis signed the February 2019 Abu Dhabi document Human Fraternity, in many ways the predecessor of Fratelli tutti

The language of “Fratelli tutti” is less systematic theology than spirituality and psychology.

The early reception of the document has been largely positive (deservedly so), while its most important teachings have been highlighted in Commonweal and elsewhere. Fears about rejection of the encyclical because of its title have not materialized (in the original Italian, the title sounds more gender-inclusive than in other languages). But it’s a long and deep text, one that should be read closely not just for what it says, but also for how it says it, given that it now becomes part of the long magisterial and theological tradition of the Catholic Church.

The language of Fratelli tutti is less systematic theology than spirituality and psychology. From this point of view, it makes sense that Francis quite often cites himself: there’s an enormous number of quotes from previous documents (especially Evangelii gaudium and Laudato si’) and from his speeches and homilies. He continues the tradition, inaugurated with Evangelii gaudium, of also quoting from the documents of national and continental bishops’ conferences, which is very important from an ecclesiological standpoint.

But compared to his other writing, there are fewer references to the settled magisterial tradition. Francis doesn’t even mention Rerum novarum, the 1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII that inaugurated modern Catholic social teaching (this was also the case with Laudato si’). This could very well end up affecting its reception by certain neo-fundamentalist and integralist Catholics, especially in the United States, who apply a more legalistic reading to how the magisterium of the Church is discussed while looking for evidence of material continuity with tradition. Though there are important teachings in Fratelli tutti on, among other things, social responsibility and property, the death penalty, and war, these readers are not likely to receive it with an attitude of papal positivism—that it’s Catholic because the pope said it. 

It is surprising that Francis so frequently quotes himself when there are precedents he could draw from. In modern Catholicism, the idea of human fraternity and the one human family emerged explicitly at Vatican II, from Pope John XXIII’s inaugural speech, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, to the first public message of the council, Message to Humanity, on October 20, 1962. But this is barely evident in Fratelli tutti, which quotes twice from Gaudium et spes and only once from the conciliar declaration on non-Christian religions, Nostra aetate (paragraph two, but not paragraph five, which would have been useful for the reference to the “imago Dei,” the creation of all in the image of God as the root of human fraternity). A beautiful section on religious liberty does not reference Dignitatis humanae, which brought a momentous change in the Catholic Church’s teaching on this subject. It’s curious, because Francis is clearly a Vatican II pope. While the council has become so much a part of the ecclesial consciousness in Latin America that quotations from its documents can seem superfluous, the same cannot be said for other parts of the world, such as the Catholic Church in the United States.

There’s also something interesting about the tone Francis strikes in this encyclical, in terms of how it relates to Vatican II. The first chapter is a list of calamities; it reads almost as the opposite of Gaudium et spes, in which the council emphasized the intent of the Church to share “the joys and the hopes” of the modern world. With the election of Benedict XVI, there emerged a clearly anti–Gaudium et spes theology, with papal teaching that was more pessimistic about modernity. Francis here expresses his own type of pessimism: even as he takes the side of justice for the poor, the marginalized, and the displaced, he makes clear to this generation of post–Vatican II Catholics that the situation facing the world today—especially climate change—constitutes a major challenge for the interpretation and application of Vatican II.

Also worth noting is how Francis reflects on the relationship between religion and violence. He makes clear that religion is predisposed to coexistence and dialogue: “The truth is that violence has no basis in our fundamental religious convictions, but only in their distortion” (282). What seems to be missing, though, is a call to religions (beginning with Christianity) to come to grips with the elements of their respective traditions and teachings that in fact have been used to justify violence and religious war. This brings to mind the council’s approach in Nostra aetate—which explicitly “deplored” anti-Semitism, but did not confront the theological problem of anti-Judaism as a religious sentiment rooted in the previous theological tradition. Since Vatican II, and mostly thanks to Pope John Paul II, the Church has made progress in not exempting itself from reexamining problematic teachings. But an encyclical like Fratelli tutti, with its emphasis on interreligious relations, will face greater scrutiny on this front, not only within the Church, but also from Jewish and Muslim authorities and scholars, not to mention in the secular world.

No matter Francis’s previous statements on clericalism and synodality, fraternity within the Church is a secondary subject in “Fratelli tutti.”

Then there are the issues that are simply missing in Fratelli tutti. Setting aside the flap over the title, not a single woman is quoted. It doesn’t even mention St. Clare of Assisi. Certainly, on issues ranging from immigration and social justice to interreligious dialogue, there are more than a few female saints and thinkers who could have been cited. The sections on racism and anti-Semitism are very short and sound perfunctory, especially given the rise of populist leaders with links to xenophobic Catholics. Even more troubling is that there is nothing on the problem of sexual abuse. If there’s something that wounded not only the sense of fraternity in the Church, but also the credibility of the Church to teach on human fraternity, it’s the scandal of sexual abuse. In the institutional Church, Pope Francis included, there remains a complete and dysfunctional separation between what leaders say about sexual abuse and what they say on all other issues. 

This underscores a key feature of Fratelli tutti: no matter Francis’s previous statements and writing on clericalism and synodality (two words that do not appear in the document), fraternity within the Church is a secondary subject. His primary focus is on the Church in the world and for the world. It envisions a new social system while treating the current ecclesial and ecclesiastical system as a given. In that sense, Fratelli tutti is a major document in terms of the Church’s shift toward global Catholicism. It deserves to be received as a statement reorienting the posture of Catholicism worldwide, aligning the Church with the poor in the quest for justice. Some will welcome Francis’s emphasis on the ad extra. But some will also wonder, with reason, what the impact might be for both the Vatican and Francis’s pontificate. 

[*] This story was updated on October 13 to include information about Paul VI and Humanae vitae.

“We Lepers”: The Mimetic Saint

Born on January 3, 1840, in Tremeloo, near Louvain, Joseph De Veuster (Damien is his religious name) was the youngest surviving and seventh of the eight children of Frans and Anne-Catherine, Flemish-speaking farmers. Forty-nine years later, he died from leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, during Holy Week on Monday, April 15, 1889 in Kalawao of Molokai, literally on the other side of the world, having ministered to those living and dying in exile in the settlement for sixteen years. Pope Benedict XVI canonized St. Damien of Molokai on October 11, 2009 at St. Peter’s Basilica. It may seem odd that it should have taken over a century to canonize a man who devoted himself ardently to the care of the poorest of the poor, and literally spent his life in the imitation of Christ. A reading of Gavan Daws’ biography Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai in light of…

In a World of Miracles, We Can’t Look Away from Ourselves

Maybe “don’t cry, baby, don’t cry” is just another way of saying, “do not be afraid.”