Racial Justice and the Catholic Church

by Bryan N. Massingale

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D Profiles in Catholicism



The author allows us to investigate racial justice. He states that racial justice must take account of the seismic shift occurring in the composition of our population. The commonsense understanding discusses racism as personal acts of rudeness, hostility, or discrimination usually but not always directed against persons of color. He further states that racism is a cultural phenomenon, that is, a way of interpreting human color differences that pervades the collective convictions, conventions, and practices of American life. Four observations that the author attends to are: cultures or group realities are shared; cultures are learned communal beliefs and values; cultures are formative, that is, they shape the personal identities of a community’s members, as they express their way of being in the world and their understanding of their place within it; a group’s et of meanings, values, and beliefs about life are expressed symbolically. He extends a caveat when he states that mastering the external symbols of a culture does not make one a member of that culture and carries a very limited understanding of its adherents. Regarding the diverse African people brought into this country into an identifiable community in the United States was that of slavery and its aftermath, the experience of having one’s humanity denied, questioned, or attacked. What was common to all was the experience of being regarded and treated as less than fully human. The fundamental and pervasive struggle to be recognized, welcomed and accepted as a human being entails a passionate quest for freedom, equality, and dignity in a racially hostile milieu. On the other hand, white Americans, the phrase “white culture” is meaningless. A key component of black culture is “ the expectation of a struggle then a core element of white culture is the presumption of dominance and entitlement. The culture of racism is also formative as racism is a communal and learned frame of reference that shapes identity, consciousness, and behavior – the way a social group understands its place and worth. Racism functions as an ethos—as a pervasive symbol system of meaning, identity, and significance –much more than as a set of discrete, consciously motivated acts. This understanding of racism as an identity-shaping culture explains the diffuse yet palpable “culture shock” and intense resistance encountered among not a few white Americans at the election of an African American president.


As a result of this fundamental racial ambivalence, most whites while endorsing equality of opportunity in the abstract, endorse it far less when equal treatment results in close or frequent social contact; involvement of significant numbers of blacks; or blacks being promoted to positions of significant power and decision making. Martin Luther King commented: “White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap—essentially it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious but in most respects to retain it.” We can see that white privilege is the reason for the ongoing presence of racism and the resistance that efforts to unseat it encounters. White privilege illustrates how pervasive beliefs about the inadequacies of people of color become expressed bu or entrenched in our society’s institutional policies, social customs, cultural media, and political procession. The author then gives us pages of examples of white privilege and could give us many more but the ones presented suffice to demonstrate how white privilege was deliberately created and often state-sanctioned. Today’s continual resistance to racial equality, despite undeniable progress, can be largely explained by a fundamental ambivalence on the part of the majority of white Americans: their desire to denounce blatant racial injustice, and yet preserve a situation of white social dominance and privilege.


US Catholic ethical reflection, if it is to be adequate and effective, must adopt a structural and systemic approach to racism. This means approaching this social evil as a cultural phenomenon, that is, as an underlying color symbol system that justifies race-based disparities; shapes not only behavior but also one’s identity and consciousness; and often operates at a preconscious-or non-rational level that escapes personal awareness. In Chapter two the author contends that racism is a deeply entrenched symbol system of meanings and values attached to skin color that provides group identity, shapes personal consciousness, and justifies the existence of race-faced economic, social and political disparities. The diversity of the Catholic Christian community is not always seen as a cause for celebration; too often it is a source of tension and discomfort. The author points out that there are four doctrinal baes upon which the bishops based their moral judgment of compulsory segregation: 1. The universal love of God for all mankind revealed especially in the expiatory death of Jesus for all; 2.Jesus mandates to love one’s neighbor sisters and neighbors to one another; 3. The intrinsic universality of the Christian faith, which knows not the distinctions of race, color or nationhood and 4. The natural moral law that God has implanted in the souls of all men which teaches that each human being has an equal right to life, to justice before the law, to marry and rear a family under human conditions, and to an equitable opportunity to use the goods of this earth for his needs and those of his family.


Racism is a sin. A sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family and violates the fundamental dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world...


This is the first time the body of bishops forthrightly declared that racism is sinful (1968). The promulgation of the pastoral on racism was soon forgotten by all but a few. A survey revealed a pathetic, anemic response from archdioceses and dioceses around the country. Since the publication of Brothers and Sister to Us, only 18 percent of the nation’s bishops have issued statements condemning the sins of racism. The official investigation details the significant lack of compliance with the church’s recommendations for action contained in Brothers and Sisters to Us, It concludes that the Church’s statement condemning racism have not had their intended effect of reducing the pervasiveness of racist attitude over the last twenty-five years.


Although the research is dense and somewhat formidable, it is meaningful and a delight to read. It is a book every person should read to awaken the transformative powers a book can have. I thank this author for his work and see the immense benefit of this text. Read it and pass it on to another.

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