A Conversation About Race With Damon Clarke Owens
A popular Catholic speaker known for his work on marriage, family and theology of the body challenges conservative Catholics to learn more about the history of racism and what they can do to confront it today.
Damon Clarke Owens doesn’t want to be talking to me about race.
Marriage and family life are his passion and the heart of his apostolate. For decades he has maintained a full speaking schedule at Catholic conferences, seminars, parishes and schools and on Catholic television and radio, presenting Catholic teaching on marriage, sexuality, theology of the body and natural family planning (NFP).
Owens’ distinguished credentials include serving as the first executive director of the Theology of the Body Institute, New Jersey director for the National Organization for Marriage and coordinator for the Archdiocese of Newark’s NFP office. In 2018, Pope Francis honored Owens with the papal Benemerenti Medal.
Most recently, he and his wife, Melanie, founded Joyful Ever After, a nonprofit ministry focused on helping couples “get the marriage you want from the marriage you have.”
“My ministry is devoted to marriage and family because I know marriage and family are at the heart of everything,” Owens tells me in a telephone interview. “I didn’t expect to be drawn into this new fire around racism. I’m not asking for it. But it’s drawing me in. And I’m being called to it. And I’m like, ‘Lord, I trust you; I will do whatever you ask me to do.’”
Although he and I have been friends for nearly two decades, this is the first time I can recall that we have talked directly about race. (Our families met in 2002 through mutual friends, and for many years we worshipped together at St. John’s in Orange, New Jersey, where my family still attends and where I serve as deacon. Damon and Melanie now live in the Philadelphia area with their eight children.)
I’m talking to him now out of a conviction that the discussion among Catholics about race and racism should be led by Black Catholic voices. I’m talking to him because I trust him, and whatever he has to say, I want to hear it — and I believe other white Catholics should hear it, too.
This is not the only such discussion I’ve had recently. Among the 24 members of my diaconal formation class are three Black deacons, and I’ve had conversations with them, as well.
In these and other exchanges I’ve found that, among other things, there is no single Black experience of race and racism. Different individuals from different generations and social backgrounds arrive at different perspectives.
In one respect, though, my Black friends appear to share a common conviction: When it comes to race and racism, a lot of white people don’t get it — and don’t want to hear it.
“We all hate discomfort. We all hate being challenged,” Owens tells me. “We hate being stretched out of our comfortable categories, even if we count ourselves as intellectuals and reasonable, faithful Catholics.”
As an example, Owens cites the experiences of his longtime friend Gloria Purvis, who is well-known both for her pro-life work (among other pro-life activities, she has worked with the Northwest Pregnancy Center and Maternity Home in Washington and the Maryland Catholic Conference’s Respect for Life Department) and also for her anti-racism activism (she served on the National Black Catholic Congress’ Leadership Commission on Social Justice) — both topics she talks about regularly on her EWTN Radio show, Morning Glory.
“Conservative Catholics love Gloria’s passion and strength when she talks pro-life,” Owens observes, “but when she does the same thing on race, some of them go apoplectic. She’s the same person. There’s no guile in her, no attenuation based on audience. When people love the topic she’s talking about, she’s a hero, but when they don’t, to some she’s a ‘Marxist.’”
Owens doesn’t indict only Catholic conservatives. “It’s very clear to me that across the whole political spectrum — progressive, liberal, libertarian, conservative, even independent — we Catholics too often place our politics before our faith,” he says.
But, like Purvis, Owens’ work brings him into dialogue with an audience that is more conservative than not. “Given my work over the past few decades in marriage, pro-life and family ministry, I’m very plugged into Catholic folks on the politically conservative side,” he acknowledges.
“I’m calling out conservatives because I don’t have a lot of experience on the progressive side. But far too many Catholic conservatives are conservatives first, and that becomes their lens for understanding everything in our faith, instead of our faith informing their politics,” he says.
“These are people I have so much in common with. I know them. I’m comfortable with them, which is why the response on the race thing from conservatives in the last few years, the last few months in particular, has been deeply disappointing.”
As with other hot-button topics, including abortion, marriage and sexuality, Owens believes that a complete understanding of race and racism can emerge only from a fully Catholic anthropology founded on Jesus Christ.
“We have everything in our Catholic faith,” he contends. “The sacramentality, the Christological anthropology, the understanding of the human person, of virtue, of the story of salvation. That’s the only paradigm that’s going to address fully these -isms: racism, sexism, all these things now and for eternity.”
Owens believes Catholics should be active and creative in leading society through these topics.
“We need to learn what our role is in the public square as ‘strangers in a strange land,’ per Chaput,” he says, alluding to Archbishop Charles Chaput’s 2017 book Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World.
“We need a boldness in speaking these truths to the public square — and using new terms, a new vocabulary, new terms of engagement that really get at the heart of things.”
This challenge contrasts dramatically with the bleak track record of failure to offer moral leadership that Owens sees from the hierarchy as well as from lay Catholics.
“You want action?” he asks dryly. “All right, we’re going to write an encyclical or a letter — and nobody reads it. We’re going to do a commission — and by the time that commission writes their third-year report, nobody gives a rip.”
While acknowledging that the U.S. bishops and the Vatican have produced “beautiful treatises” on race and other moral topics, Owens charges that “these things are like lagging indicators. They’re never leading indicators, never leadership documents, like ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail.’ They’re post facto: what we learned yesterday, not what we need to be taught and to teach others tomorrow.”
The Church’s failure to lead on race, Owens says, is nothing new.
“Can you imagine,” he asks rhetorically, “what the world would be like if the Catholic Church had been healthy enough to be Christ to the slaves the moment they were released in 1865? No place to go: kicked off the plantation, no job, waiting to get arrested for vagrancy … and where’s the Church? Where are the Catholics? What about during Reconstruction or the decades under Jim Crow?
“What if the Church had really taken on a role of advocating? Do you have any idea how many Black Americans would be Catholic today? And not just Black Americans. The Native Americans would have seen it. The Chinese would have seen it. But Black Americans continue to suffer the most because of those missed opportunities to lead — to be Christ when he is needed most.”
Such missed opportunities, according to Owens, have left the work of opposing racism to others with inferior tools.
“The Black Lives Matter organization is exploding,” he states, “because too many Christians abdicated true leadership on personally and actively opposing racism. Many Catholics still don’t feel like addressing it! They dismiss the gravity of racism today and the urgency of fighting it because they’ve gone through the litany of the ‘greater sins’ of the Black Lives Matter organization.”
A mark of spiritual maturity, for Owens, is an ability “to dialogue with people who don’t think like us without being afraid of their imprecision, of their language that is deficient or even outright wrong, without thinking you’re being sullied. It’s not just white people. People do this. Black people do it. We’re allergic to people who aren’t in our tribe. We can’t even dialogue with someone who says something that whiffs of political error.”
One measure of our priorities, Owens suggests, is what moves us to outrage.
“Some people say, ‘Of course what happened to George Floyd was wrong; that officer should be punished — but the looting! That’s what’s really outrageous!’ Your outrage is a revelation of your heart. You can intellectually recognize something as wrong, but when you’re outraged, it’s a personal sense of injustice from the heart.
“When someone says, ‘Yeah, it was really wrong,’ but what really outrages them is the looting, that says to me that racism is not yet an injustice in their heart. They know it’s wrong, but they’re not weeping watching that video of a man dying the way Floyd did at the hands of police. They have no sensitivity to the long history behind such encounters for Black Americans from their everyday experiences and from U.S. history.”
Discussions about policing, criminality and the Black community often lead to the topic of fatherlessness in the Black community, which “some people blame as the real issue,” Owens says. Given his apostolate at the service of marriage and family, Owens is the last person to discount the impact of fatherlessness. But he says it’s a mistake to end the discussion there.
“These are not issues where we can just hit the reset button and tell people to buck up and pull up by the bootstraps. There’s history here,” he explains. “It began in the 1860s after the Civil War, with the presumption that these freed slaves — particularly the men, and really all Black men — are criminals. Before a crime is even committed, they’re criminals, and whole systems are set into place to fight against the presumed criminality of the ex-slaves.”
He’s referring to the post-Civil War Black Codes, including laws criminalizing vagrancy and unemployment in Southern states, imposing harsh labor terms and in some cases restricting the movements of Black people. The Black Codes were succeeded by Jim Crow laws, which held sway until the 1960s.
“So when you fast-forward 100 years, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You set up the system against the expected criminality, and now you’ve got statistics to back it up, when, in fact, the criminality was very much a result of other historical factors, including specific laws aimed at the newly freed slaves and the different ways that people were policed, tried and sentenced depending on race.”
“The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Housing Act, the ability to vote, Brown v. Board of Education — these were all landmark legal and legislative victories, but they’re blunt instruments,” Owens contends. “You don’t think changing laws automatically changes hearts, or that cultural systems are somehow magically purged? You can’t just wake up and say we hit a few home runs in the ’60s in terms of the laws, and therefore everything is now equal in terms of opportunity or access.”
When explicit legal discrimination ended, Owens says, long-standing cultural perceptions that “there is something fundamentally criminal about Black people and Black men in particular” found other forms of expression, from the War on Drugs to “law and order” policing. “Everyone wants law and order. Everyone. But our history is that ‘law and order’ was used as a reforged weapon to maintain white supremacy and superiority.”
What are some unofficial ways that discrimination contributes to ongoing inequality? Owens rattles off examples.
“I don’t know why I can’t get this loan; I’ve got an 816 credit score. I’ve got a house that’s worth $500,000, and all my neighbors sell their houses for $6- or $700,000. Or when the third Black family moves into the neighborhood and all of a sudden all these ‘For Sale’ signs go up — is it a coincidence? I don’t know. I take down my pictures of my Black family and my house sold in two weeks after being on the market for six months. These things aren’t just the whining minority.”
While marriage remains Owens’ focus, “challenging fellow Catholics to be Catholic first and then letting our faith inform our politics” appears to him an increasingly unavoidable calling.
“We need to have humble, rational conversations about what Black people in this country have had to deal with at the hands of the government and society,” he says. “We need to reckon with the injustice that persists in systems well beyond the police. We need to ask Jesus for eyes to see, for hearts pierced for one another. This is how love conquers. If someone isn’t willing to do this, they need to have a conversation with Jesus.”