The other thing that the document does is that when it speaks of racism, it speaks of it in the passive voice. African Americans were excluded from opportunities, but it never says who did the excluding or why. In other words, the document was written by white people for the comfort of white people. And in doing so, it illustrates a basic tenet of Catholic engagement with racism: when the Catholic Church historically has engaged this issue, it’s always done so in a way that’s calculated to not disturb white people or not to make white people uncomfortable. Even when the document talks about police violence, it does so in a very, to me, bizarre way. It says that we must admit that people of color their encounters with police officers to be fearful. But then it goes on to say it condemns violent language directed at police. They never condemn police abuse of power or police misconduct—despite the fact that at that time, the Department of Justice had investigated over twenty-four police departments in the United States and entered into consent decrees with them over blatant police abuse of power. But that’s never reflected in the document.
So, I think that the document really is woefully inadequate to the challenge of the time. And I think there are a couple of reasons for it. One is that they never use the Catholic Church’s leading scholars on racism and racial injustice in composing the letter. I think the other major factor is, again, the Catholic Church wants to deal with these issues in ways that won’t disturb the comfort of whites.
I think this is a very critical point. Whenever I give workshops on racism, sooner or later someone will ask a question that goes something like this: “Father, how can we talk about this in my parish, in my classroom, at my university, and not make white people uncomfortable?” I challenge them to think about that question. Why is it that the only group in America that is never allowed to feel uncomfortable about race is white people? Doesn’t that discount the real discomfort, the real fear, the real terror that people of color have to live with and endure because of racism? And if white comfort sets the limits of conversation, then that means we will never face the difficult truth: the only reason for the persistence of racism is because white people benefit from it.
I challenge them to think of this: if it were up to people of color, racism would have been over and done, resolved a long time ago. The only reason that racism continues to persist is because white people benefit from it. If we’re always going to have conversations that are predicated upon preserving white comfort, then we will never get beyond the terrible impasse that we’re in, and we will always doom ourselves to superficial words and to ineffective half-measures. That difficult truth is something that the Catholic Church in America has never summoned the courage or the will to directly address.
RM: Part of the reason for such accommodation for white people’s comfort, you’ve said, is that the church sees itself as white, for white people. Can you say more about that?
BM: In my book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church there’s one sentence that goes something like this: what makes the Church white and racist is the pervasive belief that European aesthetics, European music, European theology, and European persons, and only these, are standard, normative, universal, and truly Catholic. In other words, when we talk about what makes something Catholic, the default is always to the products that reflect a white cultural aesthetic. Everything else is seen as Catholic by exception, or Catholic by toleration.
We see it in a number of ways, so let me just sketch out a few. One instance I could point to is when I went to celebrate a Mass at a suburban parish in Milwaukee. A priest friend of mine had suddenly taken sick and he asked me to say Mass for him. I showed up at church and I asked the usher to direct me to the sacristy. He looked at me and he wanted to know why I wanted to know. So I explained the situation, thinking that the Roman collar that I was wearing would make it kind of obvious why I would like to know where the sacristy was. And he said, “You’re a priest? Who sent you?” I explained the situation again. Then he said, “Well, next time, I hope he sends us a real priest.”
Now, we can get very upset with him and his individual insensitivity, his bigotry. But he’s reflecting something that’s very ingrained in the Church, and that is that we expect the person who’s going to be the priest to be white.
Another example came during Pope Benedict’s pastoral visit in 2008, when he celebrated Mass at the stadium in Washington D.C. The theme of the liturgy was to celebrate the cultural diversity that’s present here in the United States. The readings were done in a number of languages. The first reading was the classic account of Pentecost where the Spirit descended and enabled the peoples of the world to hear the Gospel proclaimed in the world’s languages. The prayers of the faithful were offered in a variety of languages. The gifts were presented to the accompaniment of vigorous Gospel and Spanish singing. After which the commentator on EWTN opined—and I remember these words because they’re emblazoned in my mind—“We’ve just been subjected to an overpreening display of multicultural chatter, and now the Holy Father will begin the sacred part of the Mass.”
I note the disjunction between “multicultural chatter” and “sacred.” “Sacred” had nothing to do with “multicultural”. Being “sacred” means speaking in a white idiom, praying in a white idiom, using European hymns. It’s this normative whiteness that’s ubiquitous in the Catholic Church—which is its greatest hindrance to dealing effectively with issues of race.
People always ask me, well, how many African-American priests are there? Currently there are less than a hundred of us on active duty in the United States, out of tens of thousands. And it’s always been that way. African-American priests in the United States constitute less than one half of 1 percent of the total Catholic clergy. That’s not by accident. It’s a reflection, a manifestation of this normative whiteness that, to be blunt, is a form of idolatry—that God can be imaged and God can only manifest God’s self through Europeans and European cultural products. Yeah, there is a normative whiteness present in the Church, but I would also say that it’s a form of idolatry. It’s the worship of a false god.
RM: You’ve talked about courage as a sort of neglected virtue. Why do Christians need courage? What happens when we don’t have it?
BM: Courage, I discovered, is perhaps the least studied of the virtues. For example, we learn in the Catechism that the cardinal virtues are prudence, temperance, fortitude (or what we call courage), and justice; the theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity. We say a lot about every virtue except courage.
But Thomas Aquinas taught us that courage is the precondition of all virtue. Without courage, we’re not able to be prudent. We’re not able to be just, because courage is that virtue that allows us to surmount the fear that comes with the following of the Gospel. If we’re going to do anything that is difficult, there is going to be hesitation; there are going obstacles and opposition, and the fear that those obstacles engender in us. Courage is that virtue that enables us to not be afraid. We still feel afraid, but it’s a virtue that enables us to not let fear keep us from doing the right, actualizing the good.
Another way of putting it is that moral courage is what translates conviction into action. To put this into the conversation we’re having today: there are a lot of good white people who know what the right thing to do is. But they don’t do it because they’re afraid of the disapproval of their friends or family, or they’re afraid of the consequences of speaking up and speaking out, being in solidarity and being an ally. Courage is what enables conviction to be translated into action. It isn’t that people don’t have the conviction, but they don’t have the courage to act on those convictions. So this is the reason why we need courage, especially in the pursuit of racial justice.