WASHINGTON — As nationwide protests continue over the death of George Floyd, the U.S. bishops and other black Catholic leaders are calling on the faithful to listen to the concerns of African American communities and to reflect on Church teaching about race and the dignity of every human person.
Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, who serves as the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, told the Register he was saddened by Floyd’s death and the violent protests that have followed.
“I was brokenhearted to see George Floyd die right there in front of my face,” he said of the video of police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. “I was angry that this disregard for the life of another, that this continues in our country today.”
“I also thought with regard to the protests that people are not being heard,” Bishop Fabre said. “We’re not listening to one another, and we need to put more effort into doing that. I again prayed and asked the Lord to help us.” He called for people “to be more intentional in addressing the issue” and “to listen to one another and to see things from another perspective, especially from the perspective of people of color.”
The bishop also condemned the violence that has occurred following the death of Floyd. Regarding the shooting death of 77-year-old retired African American St. Louis police captain David Dorn during the rioting, he noted that “certainly the death of another is not acceptable, and I think it shows us that violence diminishes us all.” He added that, “unfortunately, the violence becomes the discussion, not: What is it that the peaceful protesters are standing for? It gets lost; that message gets lost, and the violence becomes the focus.”
He said that the Church can learn from the death of Floyd “that racism is not a thing of the past. It is still very, very present. It is still an evil and a sin that we deal with — and that particularly black lives are being lost to racism.” He added that Catholics in the U.S. “can learn that we need to expand our understanding of the life issues. The bishops have been saying consistently ‘racism is a life issue.’”
The Virus of Racism
During a virtual Georgetown University panel June 6 about race, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., said that Floyd’s death brought to mind “a whole collage of individuals who have been assassinated for no other reason than the color of their skin.”
Archbishop Gregory compared racism to a virus, asking, “How is racism, this silent but deadly virus, passed on to other people?” and “How can we render it ineffective?” He said that “a big sign of hope is the huge number of young people who have taken up this as a personal concern.”
Gloria Purvis, a host of EWTN’s Morning Glory radio show and chairwoman for Black Catholics United for Life, linked the pro-life and the anti-racism causes during the panel, saying both are “animated by the Gospel imperative that we must defend the vulnerable and the oppressed.”
Cardinal Peter Turkson, a Ghanaian cardinal and prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, joined the discussion remotely to voice concerns from bishops in Africa that, for young Catholics coming to study in the U.S. and Europe, “feeling welcome in some of our traditional churches over here is an issue.” He said the lack of acceptance in these churches “quickly drives them into the fold of evangelical movements.”
A representative for the Knights of Peter Claver, a traditionally black Catholic fraternal organization, told the Register via email that in response to Floyd’s killing, “the Catholic Church must not be complacent and must instead seek to be leaders and advocate for social justice — from the pulpit to the street. This comes through actions such as establishing and fully funding diocesan offices of black Catholics; tackling ‘uncomfortable’ situations with spiritual discernment and understanding; creating diverse worship, learning and working communities that expose varying cultures and ideas; and by being an example of Jesus’ love for all in the Church’s everyday operations.”
Church Teaching on Justice
Arthur Hippler, who teaches religion at Providence Academy in Plymouth, Minnesota, and is the author of Citizens of the Heavenly City: A Catechism of Catholic Social Teaching, spoke to the Register about the incident in relation to Church teaching on justice.
“The killing of George Floyd was an injustice, but it’s an injustice where the perpetrators have been arrested,” he said. “But what exactly did the people in these neighborhoods of St. Paul and Minneapolis do to deserve to have their grocery stores ransacked and their neighborhoods burned?”
In response to the rioting, Hippler quoted Pope St. John Paul II’s 1980 encyclical Dives in Misericordia on distortions of justice.
“‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ This was the form of distortion of justice at that time; and today’s forms continue to be modeled on it,” Pope John Paul II wrote. “It is obvious, in fact, that in the name of an alleged justice (for example, historical justice or class justice) the neighbor is sometimes destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty or stripped of fundamental human rights. The experience of the past and of our own time demonstrates that justice alone is not enough, that it can even lead to the negation and destruction of itself, if that deeper power, which is love, is not allowed to shape human life in its various dimensions” (12).
He also cited the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace’s 1983 document “The Church and Racism: Toward a More Fraternal Society,” which said “racism will disappear from legal texts only when it dies in people’s hearts.”
“The root of racism is in the human heart, so you can’t change the human heart just by laws,” Hippler said. “The only thing that changes hearts is conversion.”
He said Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to “people’s moral sensibilities” and called King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” “an important text for understanding what we in the Catholic world call the natural law.”
“The whole language of that letter is not ‘We need to pass a law; we need more statutes,’” Hippler said. “He’s appealing to people’s sense of fraternity and justice and goodwill. He’s appealing to people’s notions of a shared humanity; he’s appealing to people’s sense of the treatment of blacks as being historically unjust.”
Hippler said that as an educator he deals with young people who are relativists and don’t believe in natural law. He warned, “if there ever was a thing that dangerously feeds racism, it’s relativism because then you have no standard for saying racism is wrong. Unless there are duties to God and neighbor that are written on the heart there really is no kind of standard, then all you’re left with is power.” He called the violent riots after Floyd’s killing a “kind of act for justice outside of a moral framework.”
Harmful Narratives and Prudence
Joshua Blonski, the upper school dean of students at Providence Academy in Plymouth, said that when he first watched the video of Floyd’s killing he felt “overwhelming sorrow” at “the idea that someone taken into custody has their life taken from them when they are overwhelmingly outnumbered and surrounded.”
He added that his wife, who is white, “was more preoccupied with the thought, ‘What if that was you on the ground being restrained?’” Blonski, who is black, said that while he’s very supportive of the police, the video did make him question: “What systemwide problems are there that could lead to that incident? What can we do better?”
He called for improving “relationships between the police and the communities that they’re policing” and said people should be prudent about the messages they hear on social media, asking, “Are they giving a fair and balanced accounting of what’s happening?”
“Praying about something can actually be one of your strongest social-justice actions,” he added, “but to also not just limit it to prayer. … Whatever action an individual takes, it should be well thought out and it should just be informed.”
Blonski related an incident that occurred while his wife was getting groceries for their family and to donate to a food pantry serving those in damaged neighborhoods.
“She gets accosted by an African American man who starts yelling at her across the parking lot,” he said, “screaming, ‘You’re stealing food from blacks. Go to your own store. What are you doing here?’”
The man had no idea she was “bringing groceries home to her black husband and her black children, and we’re going to deliver a big portion of these groceries downtown to black families who have been left destitute,” he said. “We just really came to the conclusion — and this speaks to the larger picture — people have narratives and stories in their heads of others, black, white, whatever, and that story becomes their reality.”
As for the U.S. Church, Blonski said that this “is a time to reach out to those communities of color who are Catholic and to give guidance, to give counsel.” He added that “guidance for children” would be helpful, as it’s difficult “to talk to my 5-year-old, my 2-year-old about ‘there are some people who might not like daddy because of his skin color,’ which is a sad fact; but at the same time, it’s not everyone.”
He praised an open letter from a mother to her sons that his school shared on the topic.
A Call for Revival
Deacon Larry Oney, an international preacher and permanent deacon for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, discussed the death of Floyd and how U.S. Catholics can take this moment to pray and fast for an end to the sin of racism.
“We hear a man in the throes of death,” he said of the video of Floyd’s death. “It made me want to have another conversation with my 16-year-old son … the conversation that every black father has to have with his 16-year-old son, who’s taking his driving lessons this week, about how to not get killed.”
Deacon Oney said that the video made him think of encounters that he and others have had with police officers that could have gone the same way, saying, “They’re not all documented in police reports. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been stopped for no good reason.”
In terms of policies that could change following Floyd’s death, Oney asked, “Why don’t we as a nation outlaw the chokehold?” He also called for “state dollars and federal dollars to retrain, particularly the smaller police departments, but certainly in those large metropolitan areas where there’s a large number of minorities, about community policing; for example, teaching de-escalation, where there’s no threat to life or property.”
“When you really get down to it, though, we need a change of heart; people need to listen,” he said, calling for reconciliation “here in our country to deal with this legacy and the residue from slavery and Jim Crow. … We need to talk about the reality of the residue of what’s left there and ... about race and how we deal with one another. It needs to happen, and I think the Catholic Church can precipitate that.”
Referencing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that “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,” Oney pointed out that the Church has “codified our thoughts about social justice. Nobody else has. It’s detailed. The problem is we’re not exactly following what we teach. … There needs to be a revival.”
Register staff writer Lauretta Brown writes from Washington, D.C.