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Racial Justice and the Catholic Church

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Racial Justice and the Catholic Church;  Bryan N. Massingale; Maryknoll, N.Y., Orbis Books, 2010; 224 pp.  paper $26.00

 

             Racism is alive and well in the United States.  Racism lingers on in the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church has precious little to say about racial justice.  The responsibility of the African-American Catholic theologian is “passionate participation in reasoned inquiry on behalf of God’s oppressed and despised people.” (p. 160. quoted from M. Shawn Copeland)  While these statements are not a summary of Bryan Massingale’s important study, they are salient points he develops.  Obviously, the information and insights in this book will help when we preach on the sin of racism; however, they are equally valuable as part of our general store of information and insight that nourishes all our preaching, as well as our other work and relationships.

             Bryan Massingale, the 2009-2010 President of the Catholic Theological Society of America, writes from his experience as an African-American Catholic, as well as from his extensive experience as Catholic theologian, author of more than sixty books, book chapters, articles and book reviews.  He writes tightly reasoned argument in wonderfully readable prose.  He is not afraid to include song and poetry in his argument; in fact, he insists on the need to understand emotion and passion in order to understand the African-American experience.

             Massnigale delves deep when he defines terms.  Racism, for example, has little to do with one person’s actions against another; “racism is a cultural phenomenon. . . .”  (p15. emphasis in original)  And culture is more than the symbols that identify a group.  Culture is “a people’s soul, a set of meanings and values that is an individual’s and a social group’s identity.”  (p.18)  The soul of African-American experience is struggle; the soul of white experience is a “worldview that. . .sees itself as the measure of what is real, standard, normative and/or normal.” (p 22)  The results of this worldview are economic advantage and political power. These are hard words for us white, privileged persons to accept.  Yet, as I read this meticulously reasoned, documented argument, I had to agree. 

             After tracing the history of the U.S. bishops’ statements on racism, and acknowledging the particular significance of Brothers and Sisters to Us, Massingale brilliantly critiques this document.  He points out, for example, its dearth of social analysis, its lack of theological or ethical reflection on racism, and the bishops’ failure to provide directions for implementation of the teachings and exhortations of the document.  Massingale’s most scathing criticism of Catholic teaching on race in the U.S.,

I think, is that it “has neglected or slighted an essential step in social reflection, namely, listening to the voices of the victims and examining the situation from their perspective.” (p.75)

             In the chapter “Toward a More Adequate Catholic Engagement,” Massengale addresses the issue of reconciliation.  “Our racial divides,” he posits, “stem from a history of abuse, neglect, and abandonment; from the legacies of exploitation and the realities of humiliation; in short, from an absence or miscarriage of justice.  Overcoming them requires social transformation.” (p.96)  Social transformation, in turn, requires truth-telling and affirmative redress.  Massingale describes various forms of affirmative redress, and assesses their relative effectiveness or non-effectiveness.  As contexts for initiating a process of truth-telling in the U.S. cites the South African Truth and Reconciliation process, as well as Pope John Paul II’s call for “a purification of memory.”

             Massingale’s moving description of, and challenge to, African-American Catholic theologians is a voice of prophecy.  In addition to telling some of his own story, he lays out a series of “non-exhaustive” questions that call for theological investigation.  Finally, he insists that the African-American Catholic theologian is “not a hybrid,” part-time African-American and part-time theologian.  Rather, “Our vocation is shaped by the reality of simultaneous truths and multiple identities, being indivisibly members of the theological academy, the black ‘community-in-struggle,’ and the Catholic faith communion.” (p.160)

 

Patricia Chaffee, OP

Racine, Wisconsin

 


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