Catholic Social Teaching on Racism: From Examination of Conscience to Examination of Culture

Maureen O’Connell[1]

While public outcry about the murder of 17-year old Trayvon Martin gathers momentum on social networking sites such as Change.org and Facebook, and in various public demonstrations and prayer vigils around the country, chances are it is not weighing too heavily on Catholic consciences. Or at least the consciences of white Catholics. And in many ways, we have Catholic social teaching—the body official church teachings from Popes, global synods of bishops, and local bishops conferences on a variety of social questions—to blame for our relative silence.

The tradition—which began in 1891 with the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum about the plight of workers in Europe’s industrial revolution and most recently includes Pope Benedict XVI’s 2011 Christmas address about the global economic crisis—is itself silent on the issue of racism. While several documents briefly mention racism as an impediment to life in community, none examine it as a root cause of various injustices that these same documents address, whether labor issues, human rights, human development, or crime and punishment. In these documents, racism is viewed as a symptom of social ills such as educational disparities or lack of a living wage, rather than a driving cause of them.

In addition, when the Catholic social tradition does take up racism explicitly, as is the case in the US Bishops’ 1979 document, Brothers and Sisters to Us, the teachings tend to present it in terms of voluntary, deliberate and conscious acts on the part of individuals, the response to which is one of examination of conscience and personal conversion. While the Bishops acknowledge that “the structures of our society are subtly racist” and call for an evaluation of racism in the economy and institutions including the church itself, Catholic ethicist Bryan Massingale notes in his latest book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, that they fail to examine critically the underlying cultural beliefs or myths that give rise to and justify racist behaviors. Instead, they make strong appeals to individual consciences to avoid them.

But racism is not about isolated acts. Rather it is a way of perceiving ourselves and others shaped by our collective way of being together. Failing to name racism as a cultural phenomenon—a collective set of dispositions and perspectives on the world that are collective learned and symbolically shared—only perpetuates white complicity in racism. Since few of us have probably ever committed conscious, intentional and deliberate acts of racial hatred, most whites can be assured of our lack of culpability with the events related to the Martin case in Florida and shirk any kind of responsibility for it that others try to foist on us. Catholic social teaching tells us our consciences are clean.

And it’s the clean white conscience that philosopher Barbara Applebaum in her book Being White, Being Good sees as the biggest impediment to racial justice. Invocations of white moral goodness are a form of denial—of knowledge of self, of others, of vulnerability, of suffering, and of a culture that awards us benefits based on our skin color. Catholic moral theology and ethics has yet to take up white privilege which historians, sociologists, critical race theorists and activists see as the root cause of internalized, personally mediated and structural racism. This is no doubt a reflection of the Euro-American orientation of the tradition itself, an orientation that is not easy to detect in a culture where being white is considered “normal” and everyone else is something different. It took feminist sociologist Peggy McIntosh months of interrogating her subconscious to come up with her now infamous inventory of the “invisible knapsack”—a series of privileges that whites enjoy by virtue or our white skin. If you want evidence that whites are indeed complicit in a culture of racism, consider the fact that we are usually unable and at times unwilling to accept responsibility for the privileges afforded to us by our white skin. Like the privilege to wear a hooded sweatshirt without fear of reprisal from the neighborhood watch association, for example.

If you want evidence of white Catholics’ complicity, ask yourself whether you’ve heard anything about Trayvon Martin’s murder from the pulpit, or do a Google search of Catholic responses to it. For now, Max Lindeman at Patheos and Jesuit Rick Malloy, Director of Campus Ministry at the University of Scranton, are among the few white Catholics speaking publicly to this issue.  A friend and colleague, Alex Mikulich of the Jesuit Institute for Social Research at Loyola University of New Orleans has consistently examined this issue and his work is worth taking a look at too.

Don’t get me wrong. As a professor of theological ethics I am a proponent of Catholic social teaching given its rightful instance that our faith tradition has something meaningful to contribute to public discourse about a variety of social justice problems. I’m just not sure that is the case quite yet when it comes to racism.  There is work to be done here and we might begin by naming the limitations of our tradition when it comes to racism, so that it might not limit Catholic responses what’s going on out there. It is time we examine our culture, as well as our individual consciences.


[1] Maureen O’Connell is Associate Professor of Theology at Fordham University and the author of Compassion: Loving Our Neighbor in an Age of Globalization.

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4 Responses to Catholic Social Teaching on Racism: From Examination of Conscience to Examination of Culture

  1. Maureen, thank you for the helpful insight. A number of scholars have explored the construction of race and locate European colonialism as its genesis. To your knowledge, has anyone looked at the interplay of Catholic theology, colonialism, and the construction of race?

    For anyone interested in a contemporary history of race in the Catholic community, I highly suggest “Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North” by Notre Dame’s John McGreevy. For those in the Philadelphia area, the chapter on the Gesu parish is particularly fascinating.

  2. sherine says:

    brilliant! well said.

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