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Race and Polarization in the U.S. Church and Public Life

In a recent CNN op-ed, LZ Granderson argues that both major U.S. political parties are complicit in perpetuating racially-based political polarization in the United States by employing rhetoric that fails to appeal across racial divisions. Unfortunately, the social construction of race has infiltrated every institution in the US, including the US Catholic Church, the rhetoric only exacerbates while it ignores the systemic reach of racism. A two-party system that maintains racial division prevents the ideals of a more perfect union as it thwarts the common societal good. The politically, culturally, and racially diverse U.S. Catholic Church is in a unique position to resist divisions based on race. In order to overcome a racially divided society and to strengthen the common good, however, our Church must first acknowledge its own participation in history and this polarizing rhetoric and second incorporate racial justice more fully and explicitly into our social teachings and practices.

U.S. Catholics are a tremendously diverse church, united by faith and a commitment to the good. Guided by a rich tradition of social thought that calls us to think critically about society and political initiative, Catholics are equipped to defy uncritical political allegiances that threaten to dull the prophetic edge of our faith. When our scriptural and teaching traditions are read in light of the signs of our times, Catholics are directed to seek unity across racial difference as members of one Body of Christ and social community.

While the tradition equips its members with important tools for responding to social division and injustice, the US Church still struggles to address racial polarization in our teaching and practice. Indeed, Catholics often engage in the same racially and politically polarizing rhetoric as other citizens, obscuring the depth of our teachings by marching lock-step with dominant political forces. We have often failed to model or pursue the virtues of justice, charity, solidarity, and fortitude in our public witness to Christ’s saving Word. We have often failed to engage the affects of racism on our teachings and practices and in them. We have often failed to raise a prophetic voice for those who are racialized as “other”. These failures erode the Church’s moral authority in American public life.

How can U.S. Catholics deepen our commitment to racial justice and resist racial polarization?  Two plenary presentations on race at the 2010 Trento Conference serve as guideposts for a response. Maria Teresa Davila emphasized the need of Catholic social teaching to acknowledge the pervasive problem of race in and to engage a process of atonement for the historical wounds of racism. Bryan Massingale demonstrated the persistent invisibility of black and other racialized bodies in Catholic ethical thought and invited us to take the experience of black bodies seriously in the study and articulation of theological ethics. Taking our cue from Davila and Massingale, we must position ourselves to attend to the experiences of racialized people for meaningful moral reflection on the pernicious effects of racism in the Church and on the societal common good.

Catholic social teaching must be matched with a commitment to engage in practices that resist racial polarization and promote the common good. The practice of charitable listening in solidarity with others across racial, social, and political difference is one fundamental step toward seeking unity across difference. The practice of justice informed by a preferential option for those who are vulnerable and/or marginalized is another. And fortitude for the journey of remembering, healing, and atonement is another.

The Catholic Church has a prophetic duty to resist racial polarization wherever it is expressed. As theological ethicists we are called to investigate our own teachings and practices for their lip-service to or complicity in the sin of racism, to align our responsibility to the Gospel’s challenge of a discipleship of equals and solidarity with all people, and to practice what we preach. Perhaps the best we can do at a time of entrenched political gridlock is to work for racial justice and witness the common good.