Statement of Catholic Theologians on Racial Justice

Catholic Moral Theology

Posted by David Cloutier

Advent is a season of waiting and of hoping. In the face of conflict, distrust, and division – in the wilderness – we are called to cry out for a different way. In consultation with several others, CMTer and former law enforcement officer Tobias Winright has prepared a statement of commitment to racial justice, which names the particularly difficult hope we might bring to illuminate darkness. We are happy to share the statement here on this blog. Many Catholic theologians, including myself and my co-editor, Jana Bennett, have already signed on to the statement. Please pray and act for truth and reconciliation this season…

Statement: Catholic Theologians for Police Reform and Racial Justice

The season of Advent is meant to be a time when Christians remember the birth of Jesus Christ, when God became human, born on the margins of society. To the poor shepherds, the angelic host proclaimed “peace, goodwill among people” (Luke 2:14), which refers to a shalom that is not merely the absence of conflict, but rather a just and lasting peace, wherein people are reconciled with one another, with God, and indeed with all creation.  But this Advent, hope for a just peace must face the flagrant failures of a nation still bound by sin, our bondage to and complicity in racial injustice.

​The killings of Black men, women and children – including but not limited to Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, 7 year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones and 12 year-old Tamir Rice – by White policemen, and the failures of the grand jury process to indict some of the police officers involved, brought to our attention not only problems in law enforcement today, but also deeper racial injustice in our nation, our communities, and even our churches.

As Eric Garner’s dying words “I can’t breathe” are chanted in the streets, and as people of faith, we hear the echo of Jesus’ breathing on his disciples, telling them, “Peace be with you.”  His spirit-filled breath gives his disciples, then and now, the power and obligation to raise our voices about the imperative of a just peace in fragmented and violent world.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” speaks searingly to our headline divisions today. The “cup of endurance runs over” again for African Americans and many others of good will. Our streets are filled with those exhausted by the need to explain yet again “why we can’t wait.”

King challenged “white moderate” Christians for being “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice;” and for preferring “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” This challenge to the White Christian community is as relevant today as it was over 50 years ago. Such a negative peace calls to mind the warning by the prophet Ezekiel, “They led my people astray, saying, ‘Peace!’ when there was no peace” (13:10).

Pope Francis’s warning of the explosive consequences of exclusion and fearful seeking of “security” based on such a negative peace are similarly prophetic:

“Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear.” Evangelii Gaudium, 59

As Catholic theologians, we wish to go on the record in calling for a serious examination of both policing and racial injustice in the US. The time demands that we leave some mark that US Catholic theologians did not ignore what is happening in our midst – as the vast majority sadly did during the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

● We pledge to examine within ourselves our complicity in the sin of racism and how it sustains false images of White superiority in relationship to Black inferiority. In the words of the US Catholic Bishops Conference, “Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.”

● We pledge to fast and to refrain from meat on Fridays during this Advent season and through the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, as well as during Lent, as a sign of our penitence and need of conversion from the pervasive sin of racism.

● We commit ourselves to placing our bodies and/or privilege on the line in visible, public solidarity with movements of protest to address the deep-seated racism of our nation.

● We support our police, whose work is indeed dangerous at times, but we also call for a radical reconsideration of policing policy in our nation. We call for an end to the militarization of police departments in the US, and we support instead the proven, effective results of community policing. Rather than perpetuating an “us versus them” mentality, a community policing approach is more consonant with our Catholic convictions that we are all each others keepers and should work together for the common good of our communities.

● We call for a honing of the guidelines for police use of lethal force so that they are uniform in all states within the US and so that the use of lethal force, echoing Catholic teaching on “legitimate defense,” is justified only when an aggressor poses a grave and imminent threat to the officer’s and/or other persons’ lives.

● We support those calling for better recruiting, training, and education for our police so that they may truly and justly do what they have sworn, namely, to “serve and protect” their communities.

● We support new efforts to promote accountability and transparency, such as body cameras for police officers.

● Regarding the widespread dissatisfaction with recent grand jury decisions, and the perception that a conflict of interest exists between local prosecutors and police departments, we call for the establishment of publicly accountable review boards staffed with civilian attorneys from within the jurisdiction and/or for the appointment of independent special prosecutors’ offices to investigate claims of police misconduct.

● Our nation’s pervasive yet too often denied systemic racial divisions compromise our structures of justice – in our view so much so that we support calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine race in America. A precedent would be the 2004 Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission in North Carolina.

● In view of the recent US Justice Department’s report on the pattern of excessive force found in the Cleveland Police Department, we call for similar investigations of the Ferguson Police Department, the New York Police Department, and other police forces involved in the killings of unarmed Black citizens.

● We call upon our bishops to proactively proclaim and witness to our faith’s stand against racism They have authored pastoral statements in the past, and these documents need to be revisited – in parishes, dioceses, and seminaries – and brought to the forefront of Catholic teaching and action in light of the present crisis.

● As Catholic theologians and scholars, we commit ourselves to further teaching and scholarship on racial justice. Our faith teaches us that all persons are created in the image of God and have been redeemed in Christ Jesus. In short, our faith proclaims that all lives matter, and therefore, Black lives – and Brown lives, the lives of all, regardless of color – must matter, too. As part of this commitment, we pledge to continue listening to, praying for, and even joining in our streets with those struggling for justice through nonviolent protests and peaceful acts of civil disobedience.

We pray that all of these actions will move us closer toward the fulfillment of the hope of the Advent season, toward a time when “love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss” (Psalm 85:10).