Bishop addresses race in the U.S.

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Bishop addresses race in the U.S.

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Catholicism, compassion and empathy in race relations

Bishop: Edward Braxton discussed the relationship between the Catholic Church and the racial divide that he sees present in the United States. Javier Muro de Nadal / Staff Photographer

On Wednesday, April 8, SLU’s Catholic studies program hosted Bishop Edward Braxton, bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, in the Center for Global Citizenship. Braxton, who is a nationally published commentator on Catholic theology and social issues in America – his works have been published in the Jesuit magazine “America” and in “Commonweal” magazine, to name a few – gave a talk entitled “The Racial Divide in the United States.” It was a presentation that sought to examine the relationship between racially divisive issues – the shooting in Ferguson, grand jury decisions across the country and police profiling in jurisdictions nationwide – and Catholicism in the United States.

“Catholic people, like other Americans, have reacted in a variety of ways to these deaths, court decisions and widespread protests,” Braxton said.

Braxton, in discussing the relationship between the Catholic Church and African-Americans, posed a number of questions to the people gathered in the CGC; what does the “racial divide” mean; are there points that we must acknowledge and agree upon; and are there really minority Americans and minority Catholics?

Before addressing these questions, though, Braxton presented the crowd with a scenario. What if, he said, the situation of whites and blacks in the Catholic Church was reversed? What if the majority of people filling the pews were black and the angels and saints adorning the walls of churches were not depicted as being of European descent? For Braxton, this empathy is at the heart of creating a more inclusive Church – and society.

The racial divide, Braxton said, means that issues of race – prejudice, bias and ignorance – still exist in our country and the Church today. An example of this contemporary struggle can be seen, Braxton iterated, in the presidency of Barack Obama.

“The president at times seems to embody, within himself, the racial divide in his own person … To some African-Americans, Mr. Obama does not speak forthrightly enough about racial prejudice in the United States. To some white Americans, Mr. Obama sees racism everywhere and never stops talking about it,” he said.

Braxton also noted that the Church in America has a murky past when it comes to slavery and race relations with African-Americans; some Catholic organizations – and even some individual Jesuits – were involved with slavery in the United States. Moreover, until relatively recently, with statements released by United States bishops in 1958, 1979 and 1984, the Church did not have a firm stance against prejudice and racism, and people of color were often barred from entering the religious life unless they were directed to a special order that allowed their entrance.

A good way to break down this divide, then, Braxton countered, is to understand – and quit using – the ambiguous categorization of people into minority and majority groups – both of which, he said, are misleading; in a country like America, Braxton sees a difficulty in categorizing anyone as a minority.

“You see a program in the news that says ‘tonight there will be a special about minorities in America.’ You think it’s going to be about people whose families come from Sweden? People whose families come from Luxembourg?” Braxton asked. “These are statistical minorities in America. However, when [people] hear this term, they know very well that these expressions are used as almost code words, often with several negative connotations: the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed, those in broken homes, those prone to violence, those who are trouble-makers, those who are feeding off of society.”

Ultimately, though, Braxton argued, the Church already has the essential tool to helping people break through the culture of indifference that perpetuates the racial divide in America today: its belief in Christ.

“For those in the Catholic Church, we know that, faithful to Scripture, the Church teaches that in Jesus Christ, there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, north or south, east or west,” he said.  “All are redeemed sinners, transformed by Christ as members of his mystical body — with equal dignity before God.”