Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there has been a great deal of upheaval in this country. A great deal of outrage has been expressed about racial inequality and police brutality. In addition to this, there have been violent riots in many of America’s cities, causing even more strife in our country. Taking a sample from self-identified Catholics on social media, even within our Church, there seems to be a great divide on how one should react.
The purpose of this article is not to lay out a specific program of action. I will leave it to you, dear reader, to work that out within your conscience. However, in order to help guide the conscience, I will lay out what we as Catholics believe regarding racism and protesting. This should help to act as a framework, within which you may make your decisions on how best to respond to the current crisis.
Regarding racism, the US Catholic Bishops released a pastoral letter about racism in 1979. While that was many years ago, the principle still holds. Many things were said, but it was stated that racism is a fact and it is a sin.
That people are discriminated against because of their race is a sad fact in the world today. We should define racism as “acting upon a racial prejudice.” In order for an act (and this could include how someone speaks) to be racist, it must be motivated by a racial prejudice.
I have encountered people who say that everyone harbors some kind of racial prejudice and that therefore there exists an institutional racism. I have also encountered others who would claim that they have no racial prejudice in them. These people would claim that they treat everyone the same regardless of their race. You will have to do your own self-examination to determine where you fall on this spectrum.
I am not someone who automatically assumes that my interior motivations are pure and virtuous. Sometimes our own prejudices can be hidden from the surface of our thoughts. How often have we been confronted by our own attitude towards another person (regardless of race) that we were not aware of before? Self-reflection while examining your conscience is a healthy moral exercise.
At the same time, it is not necessary to assume racial prejudice in myself or others. To say that racism is a fact is not to say that everyone is racist. Nor is it to say that someone, because of their race, harbors racial prejudice in their heart. In any case, an honest examination of our hearts and souls under the light of the Holy Spirit is always a good thing.
That racism is a sin is clear from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Quoting Gaudium et Spes, the Catechism states, “Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1935)
We are all made in the image of God and have equal dignity in His eyes. To treat human beings less than this is an affront to God’s creation.
Christ Himself broke down racial barriers. Samaritans were separated from the Jews by many cultural prejudices. And yet, Jesus spoke freely with a Samaritan woman (John 4), He healed Samaritans (Luke 10, Luke 17), and even one of His most famous parables was about a Good Samaritan (Luke 10). St. Paul said that in God’s eyes, we have equal dignity, no matter our ethnicity (Galatians 3:28).
As Christians, we must stand up to racism in all of its forms, both in our lives and in society at large. That is because we must stand up to all sin in this world, as Christ called us to be His body.
Some have taken to the streets in the form of protesting. It should be noted we do have a duty to obey our civil authorities. “It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2239)
St. Peter also wrote “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17) This means that because we live under the civil laws of our society, we must obey them when they are just. If possible, it is better to live in peace with a harmonious society.
But the problem is that this may not always be possible. If the laws are unjust, we have an obligation to not follow them, as did the ancient martyrs who refused to worship the emperor. “The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2242)
We have the right to peaceably assemble under the Constitution. If someone so chooses to take part in protests, so long as it does not support things which are contrary to the Catholic faith, they are free and have the right to do so. However, as we have seen, many of these protests have devolved into looting and violence.
The Catechism states “Armed resistance to oppression by political authority is not legitimate, unless all the following conditions are met: 1) there is certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights; 2) all other means of redress have been exhausted; 3) such resistance will not provoke worse disorders; 4) there is well-founded hope of success; and 5) it is impossible reasonably to foresee any better solution.” (2243).