Academic journal article Theological Studies

James Cone and Recent Catholic Episcopal Teaching on Racism

Academic journal article Theological Studies

James Cone and Recent Catholic Episcopal Teaching on Racism

Article excerpt

AT A CATHOLIC SPONSORED justice conference held in 1983, Professor James Cone gave what he called "a theological challenge to the American Catholic Church." His contention, in short, is that there are critical faults and deficits in Catholic reflection on racism. He adduces this, in part, from a disparity between Catholic concern regarding issues, on the one hand, such as poverty and the sanctity of life, and, on the other hand, the peripheral attention given to the endemic racism of U.S. society. Here are his stirring words: "What is it about the Catholic definition of justice that makes many persons of that faith progressive in their attitude toward the poor in Central America but reactionary in their views toward the poor in black America? ... It is the failure of the Catholic Church to deal effectively with the problem of racism that causes me to question the quality of its commitment to justice in other areas. I do not wish to minimize the importance of Catholic contributions to poor people's struggles for justice, but I must point out the ambiguity of the Catholic stand on justice when racism is not addressed forthrightly."(1) Given that virtually every pressing social concern--education, care for the environment, access to health care, capital punishment, immigration, workers' rights, HIV/ AIDS, criminal justice, right to life, concern for women--is arguably entangled with or aggravated by racial bias against people of color, Cone's challenge is a fundamental one. Catholic failure to engage adequately the pivotal issue of racial injustice would decisively compromise its theology of justice and renders its praxis of justice ineffective.

Cone's reservations concerning the adequacy and effectiveness of U.S. Catholic reflection on racism also have been expressed by official voices within the Catholic Church. In 1989, the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Black Catholics issued a statement commemorating the tenth anniversary of the national conference's pastoral letter, Brothers and Sisters to Us: U.S. Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Racism in Our Day.(2) However, this committee found little worth celebrating. Instead, it concluded that:

The promulgation of the pastoral on racism was soon forgotten by all but a few. A survey ... revealed a pathetic, anemic response from archdioceses and dioceses around the country.... The pastoral on racism had made little or no impact on the majority of Catholics in the United States.... In spite of all that has been said and written about racism in the last twenty years, very little--if anything at all--has been done in Catholic education; such as it was yesterday, it is today.(3)

Two years later, at a symposium celebrating the centennial anniversary of modern Catholic social teaching, Joseph Francis, an African American and at that time auxiliary bishop of Newark, declared that the lack of attention given Brothers and Sisters to Us made it "the best kept secret in the church in this country." He concluded by voicing sentiments very similar to those expressed by Cone:

Social justice vis-a-vis the eradication of racism in our church is simply not a priority of social concern commissions, social concern directors and agencies. While I applaud the concern of such individuals and groups for the people of Eastern Europe, China, and Latin America, that same concern is not expressed, is not incarnated for the victims of racism in this country nor do I hear voices raised against the violence and carnage taking place in some African nations and, closer to us, especially in Haiti. The question is, Is the quality of our mercy strained when black people are concerned?(4)

Written in 1979, Brothers and Sisters to Us was the last pastoral letter devoted specifically to the subject of racism issued in the name of the entire national body of Catholic bishops. In this article, I propose to survey statements on racism written by individual bishops and state conferences of bishops within the period from 1990 to 2000--the time that has elapsed since the observations I have just cited. …

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