Fratelli Tutti: A Call To Love and Accept All

In his newest encyclical, Pope Francis calls on Catholics and people of good will to “dream together” (no. 8) as members of a “single family dwelling in a common home” (no. 17) in order to build a “community of belonging and solidarity” (no. 36). Fratelli Tutti reinforces themes Francis has stressed throughout his pontificate: the primacy of mercy, the need for solidarity, and the earnestness of living with hope. This encyclical reads like a summary and synthesis of what Francis has been trying to express over the last seven-and-a-half years, like a love letter from a loving parent and pastor who is distressed by the wounds he sees—and feels—in the global community.

If Fratelli Tutti repeats so many familiar concerns and commitments, what does it add to the canon of papal teaching and Catholic social thought?

First, it continues to stress the urgency of solidarity in a time of rising distrust and division. In church teaching, the focus on the dual command to love God and neighbor has been expressed mostly by charity, or self-giving love. While this has prioritized generosity and selflessness, it has eclipsed emphasis on confronting unjust inequalities by striving for structural justice in social, economic, political, and ecological arenas. Rather than repeat what has been said by previous pontiffs about the complementary nature between charity and justice (see Deus Caritas Est, nos. 26-29, and Caritas In Veritate, nos. 6-7, for example), Francis concentrates on solidarity as a virtue and moral principle rooted in dignity, freedom, and creating the conditions for all to flourish (nos. 114-117). (As an aside, it’s problematic that the word for love in Latin, caritas, is most often translated as ‘charity’ because in English this word often connotes pity, unilateral aid, or making a financial donation; Francis highlights solidarity as inclusive belonging produced through closeness (no. 30) that opens pathways for encounters marked by mutual respect, concern, and responsibility.)

Francis’ appeal to solidarity urges us to believe in our inherent goodness and in our shared belonging. When solidarity is defined in CST, it is usually in reference to Pope John Paul II’s line in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (no. 38). But aside from this commitment to the common good (it seems strange to explain one tenet of Catholic social teaching with another), solidarity is usually invoked to describe a posture of “social charity” or friendship. But what is lost in the typical definition of solidarity as “social charity” is the stress on inclusive fidelity and interdependence that spans the personal, interpersonal, and institutional levels of human community. Francis reaffirms a vision of solidarity as universal love expressed through communion; it is the habit of loving God by loving our neighbors both near and far. Solidarity also demands that we combat the beliefs and practices that degrade, exclude, or oppress any member of God’s family.

Second, Fratelli Tutti elaborates Pope Francis’ vision for building the “culture of encounter” that he’s championed over the last few years. This call to encounter others across difference provides a framework for putting into practice the principles of Catholic social teaching. He repeats his critique of “globalized indifference” (no. 30) and “throwaway culture” (no. 188) that trains us to look away from others in need (no. 64). Referencing the COVID-19 pandemic, Francis insists, “no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together” (no. 32, 54, 137). Death, poverty, and violence inflict suffering on so many, a heavy burden on God and God’s creation. But the answer lies not in condemnation, coercion, or collectivism; instead, Francis encourages us to celebrate the many gifts of life manifest in the richness and beauty of diverse perspectives and experiences. He invokes the Spanish term mestizaje (“mixing”) to embrace our roots while also committing ourselves to dialogue in the spirit of openness to others, to be enriched by blending together “a new synthesis that is ultimately beneficial to all” (no. 148).

Returning to a familiar story, he dedicates the second chapter of the encyclical to the parable of the Good Samaritan, reflecting that “All of us have in ourselves something of the wounded man, something of the robber, something of the passers-by, and something of the Good Samaritan” (no. 69). Through his extended exegesis of this passage, Pope Francis insists,

In the face of so much pain and suffering, our only course is to imitate the Good Samaritan. Any other decision would make us either one of the robbers or one of those who walked by without showing compassion for the sufferings of the man on the roadside. The parable shows us how a community can be rebuilt by men and women who identify with the vulnerability of others, who reject the creation of a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbors, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good (67).

Every encounter is a choice: to hide or reveal our true self, to engage or ignore the other. Francis’ vision for the “culture of encounter” is one that realizes the vision of Catholic social teaching rooted in universal inherent dignity, rights and responsibilities, participation in social, economic, and political arenas, and harnessing solidarity and sustainability for the global common good. He urges us to start afresh each day, “from below and case by case, act at the most concrete and local levels and then expand to the farthest reaches of our countries and our world, with the same care and concern that the Samaritan showed for each of the wounded man’s injuries” (no. 78). At the same time, elected officials and other leaders need to build a “new network of international relations” to combat “inequality and lack of integral human development [which] make peace impossible” (nos. 126, 235). In the face of so many reasons to be cynical or fatalistic, Fratelli Tutti is an appeal to exercise fortitude, tenderness, and generosity in the choices we make, the relationships we nurture, the places we inhabit, and the politics we pursue (no. 194). It invites us to live with open hearts by appropriating hospitality to extend God’s delight for everyone to everyone.

Third, Fratelli Tutti weaves together key tasks of discipleship that are often divided into various specialties or disciplines. This is a document that seeks to integrate wisdom, inspire courage, and pursue collaboration. Much like Laudato Si’, this encyclical envisions a global common good that connects economic policies with environmental impact and sustainability (nos. 29, 122, 125). It shines a light on many examples of abuse and trauma, ranging from human trafficking and sexual exploitation to terrorism and organized crime (no. 188), focusing especially on the injustice of war (nos. 256-262) and the need to resist violence (no. 270) as artisans of peace (no. 284), but regretfully without exploring what practicing nonviolence can make possible on the individual and collective levels. It incorporates the revised teaching in the Catechism that condemns the death penalty as “inadmissible” and reinforces the church’s call for its worldwide abolition (nos. 263-269). By dedicating the eighth chapter to interreligious dialogue and friendship—citing his collaboration with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb—Francis appeals to his reader to join in preventing cycles of judgment, misunderstanding, resentment, conflict, and violence. (However, this was a missed opportunity to explicitly endorse interfaith solidarity with followers of Islam and Judaism, especially given the rise of Islamophobia and Antisemitism.) It provides the fullest treatment of the perils of discipleship in a digital age as source of deception, manipulation, and loss of privacy and source of addiction and isolation (nos. 42-43) as well as the dangers for how it can be used to “exploit our weaknesses and bring out the worst in people” (no. 205). It’s too bad that more attention wasn’t given to the ways these digital tools and networks can be sources of support, empowerment, and accountability.

Fratelli Tutti offers a clear-eyed look at obstacles to solidarity rooted in “reductive anthropological visions” (no. 22) expressed by racism (no. 20), exclusion, mistreatment, and violence against women (no. 23), xenophobia (no. 39), and “narrow and violent nationalism” (no. 86). Francis laments the “insecurity and fear” (no. 146) as well as the “anxiety that prevents us from thinking of others” (no. 224). He also dedicates several paragraphs to problematic social, political, and economic trends—like populism and liberalism—that keep us from directing our vision toward a “universal horizon” (no. 146-150). Instead, Francis encourages us to adopt beliefs and policies rooted in humility and openness, a desire to listen and learn from the other, and embrace our shared source and destiny in God as motivation for “loving and accepting all our brothers and sisters” (no. 86). If we dare to dream together of such a world, then we should refuse to settle for anything less than what God makes possible through us as siblings who belong to each other.

This is a rich and moving document. But it is not perfect. Invoking the image of family gives rise to recognizing one another as siblings in God’s family, but does not adequately address the ways that power can be asymmetrical and sometimes abusive within and between families. Paternalism, patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny all go unmentioned in this encyclical, just like clericalism, which is yet another obstacle to solidarity, since exclusion can undermine full dignity and equal agency. It is unfortunate that Fratelli Tutti relies on the gendered term “fraternity” to communicate both inclusion and intimacy. For example, early in the document, Pope Francis urges us to cultivate a sense of “brotherhood between all men and women” (no. 8). Gendered terms like “fraternity,” “fraternal love,” and “fellowship” detract from acknowledging, welcoming, and affirming everyone in their unique identity and equal dignity. This reminds us that while the church has much to teach us, we still have more to learn about what universal love and solidarity require of us.


Reopening Schools is Immoral and Undermines Educational Values

I have spent most of my life in school. From preschool, elementary, middle, high school, and college to high school once again (this time as a teacher) to full-time graduate school where I now live in a first-year residence, nearly every waking year of my life has been spent in a school building. Despite my comfort and familiarity with being in school, I believe returning to in-person learning at this time is immoral.

In March, when schools closed, there were only a few thousand reported cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States. Now, months later, just as some schools have begun welcoming students back into their buildings, the United States still reports over 50,000 new cases on some days. If it was not safe with a few thousand total cases, how is it safe with a few million total cases?

In the past few months, we have seen how quickly COVID-19 can spread, especially in places like nursing homes and prisons, where people live in close quarters and frequently congregate for meals and social gatherings. Living on a college campus is not much different in this sense. Students live in small shared rooms, share common restrooms and showers, have limited and crowded dining facilities, and attend regular gatherings (classes, clubs, bars, parties, etc.). If the virus can spread quickly in nursing homes and prisons where mobility and activities are limited, imagine how quickly the virus might spread where people are less restricted in their actions and encountering more people in outside communities.

I understand the desire to return to school. The transition to online education is a difficult one, and it is not comparable to in-person learning. Yet, online school is working, it is effective, and people are adapting. (See: Sharon Jeffcoat Bartley, and Jennifer H. Golek. “Evaluating the Cost Effectiveness of Online and Face-to-Face Instruction.” Journal of Educational Technology & Society 7, no. 4 (2004): 167-75. www.jstor.org/stable/jeductechsoci.7.4.167 and Ni, Anna Ya. “Comparing the Effectiveness of Classroom and Online Learning: Teaching Research Methods.” Journal of Public Affairs Education 19, no. 2 (2013): 199-215.  www.jstor.org/stable/23608947)

Schools are much more than learning institutions. Schools are capable of teaching civility; instilling values; establishing community bonds and fostering friendships; and providing a safe environment for those who might not always have one. The value that schools provide would be hard to overstate.  Schools must continue to be mission-driven institutions that create welcoming environments for all people to grow, develop lasting relationships, and have a passion for learning.

By opening schools during a global pandemic, institutions are unraveling the fabric of schools. It is clear that some figures in our society, including those who run schools, are placing profits over people. By opening schools in areas where there is a clear risk to public health, institutions are contradicting their own values. By opening schools, institutions are creating unsafe working, learning, and living conditions. By opening schools, institutions are undermining their mission-driven charisms. And this includes Catholic schools.

Institutions of learning that pride themselves on “caring for the whole person” are failing to consider the safety of the whole person over the safety of their endowments. Institutions that believe in an option for the poor and vulnerable are jeopardizing the lives of the vulnerable in their communities.

For institutions that pride themselves on the quality of their liberal arts education, what philosophical or ethical system is being used to determine the decision to reopen? The greatest good for the greatest number of people? Nope, not utilitarian ethics. Is there a categorical imperative for reopening everything? Nope, not deontological ethics. If these schools cannot justify the greatest good, nor recognize a categorical imperative, how can they justify reopening schools?

For institutions that pride themselves on “community first,” what does one say when their school opens before others in the area, jeopardizing members of the school community and the local community?

For Catholic institutions that pride themselves on human dignity and respect for life, how does risking the health and safety of the students, faculty, and staff align with their understanding of Catholic Social Teaching?

As both a teacher and student, the idea of returning to on-campus learning is, in short, terrifying. For far too long, education has been placed on the national backburner. For far too long, schools have received limited resources: education budgets have been cut for other projects, teachers have worked exceptionally long hours with little compensation, and students have paid exorbitant tuition costs that never seem to stop rising. To expect students and teachers to be guinea pigs in uncharted and unsafe territory is reckless, craven, and asinine. And it shows a lack of respect for the dignity and worth of the human beings who are likely to suffer as a result.

Other options exist that do not involve bringing the entire student body to campus. Those options require creative and potentially uncomfortable solutions. However, by welcoming back the entire student body to campuses mid-pandemic, schools are clearly revealing that the only solutions they are willing to find are those that immorally put profits above people.

Bobby Nichols is a former high school theology teacher and campus minister from Louisville, Kentucky, currently pursuing a full-time Masters of Ministry and Theology from Villanova University. 


Even During a Pandemic, We Can Serve Others in Our Communities

When the threat of COVID is behind us and we’re allowed to meet new people again, I know one of the first topics of conversations will be: “What happened to you during the pandemic?”  So far, I have heard a range of life experiences, from the challenging to the traumatic, everything from getting laid off from work to having a loved one die from the virus.  No one has escaped the impacts of this pandemic.  It has been a solidarity-building experience for people everywhere, while also challenging our faith in ourselves and the direction to which God leads us. It has illuminated the greater need for collective responses to threats that transcend any divisions in our society. It has also called us all to service.

As a city councilmember of Burien, WA, about 15 minutes south of Seattle, I have seen how the public health crisis has directly impacted our local government and social service network.  Within the city government, we have lost out on expected annual revenue due to the decrease in economic activity, we have had to lay off employees, and we worry that the federal government will not supply us with the additional monies needed to fill the gap.  Additionally, the social service networks that provide the majority of the community work within localities have a shortage of volunteers and donations. Usually, the majority of volunteers for these kinds of programs (like St. Vincent de Paul or Salvation Army) are of the vulnerable age for exposure to the virus. No one was prepared for this kind of impact.

Marginalized communities are being hit the hardest, having trouble paying rent, not knowing where their next bag of groceries will come from, and worrying about getting COVID while at work.  According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 11.1% of the American population was food insecure prior to COVID, which is close to 38 million people.  Feeding America projects that the number could rise to 54 million, or 1 in 6 Americans, by the end of 2020.  We know these problems will continue throughout the period of the pandemic.

I struggled at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, feeling powerless to make change in my community at a time when I knew people needed support the most. How are Catholics able to serve the margins during a pandemic? Where can Catholics find outlets to support and encounter neighbors in need? Scripture calls us to provide this support and encounter in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” As Catholics, as millennials, and as community-minded individuals, it is our Christ-inspired duty to serve.  I grow more and more irritable with every news story of millennials seeking the beach or going to parties instead of working toward eradicating the social and economic inequalities exacerbated by COVID.

My personal saving grace from the feeling of powerlessness came in the form of a volunteer opportunity through AmeriCorps VISTA, delivering meals to families and youth who are food insecure. Every day, I took meals directly to the door of families so that their kids could eat breakfast and lunch and so they had access to fresh groceries.  Every delivery I made, I knew I was working to feed the hungry who are made in the image and likeness of God.  Whenever there were days where I didn’t want to leave the house, it didn’t matter.  Someone else’s hunger outweighed my disinterest in leaving my own comfort. As a Catholic called intto the service of my community, there is never an excuse to not help others who are less fortunate.

Catholic Social Teaching is not only a driving force for me as an elected official, but it challenges me to serve others in every element of my life.  It calls us to live out our values in the world, on the streets, in the lives of others; to live in radical solidarity with them.  You can’t live in solidarity with others if you’re choosing to not wear masks and ignoring social distancing guidelines. You can’t respect life and creation if you don’t work to ensure its protection.  And you can’t heed the call to service if you don’t listen to what God is asking you to do through prayer and reflection.  This service during COVID can renew a relationship with God through the charitable fruit of the Holy Spirit.  That spiritual connection creates a sense of purpose for us in our community, making new connections with those less fortunate.

Responding to the impacts of COVID reminded me of Christ’s goodness by working alongside partners at public housing authorities and nonprofits serving communities, but more importantly, through the people I served.  I struggled with the feeling of being unhelpful, locked in my apartment for months.  But through this response experience, I’m encouraging you to take actions that further your faith in Christ, further your faith in your community, and reestablish a hope in humanity—that we will get through this if we all act collectively with charity to be kind, overflowing with love to support our  neighbors.  At a time when many of us feel isolated and powerless, we should navigate our way through this imperfect time with the God-given abilities we have to make a difference.

Kevin Schilling is a millennial city councilmember of Burien, WA.


Bishops and Priests: Please Stop with the Petty, Selective Attacks on Joe Biden

There has been a growing chorus of Catholic priests and bishops who have become outspoken in their disdain for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, despite their shared Catholic faith. Some are blatantly partisan, while others are clearly incensed by his position on abortion and willing to set aside the basic civility applied to politicians who dissent from Church teaching on a whole range of other matters.

Biden’s faith has been a big part of his campaign, as he consistently reflects upon his Catholic faith and his Catholic upbringing on the campaign trail. It’s also not uncommon to see him holding a rosary.  However, Joe Biden’s position on abortion has shifted over time; he was once opposed to the federal funding of abortion and perhaps favored more restrictions on abortion, but he shifted in the primary toward more liberal policies.  Both his pro-choice stance and shift on these issues have clearly rubbed a growing number of Catholic clergy and prelates the wrong way, and they are becoming more and more vocal about Joe Biden’s faith. Others who consistently favor Republicans have used his position as an opportunity to chime in, as well.

Cardinal Raymond Burke went on Fox News to attack Joe Biden’s stance on abortion and claimed that Biden should not receive communion.  Influential conservative priest Father Dwight Longenecker called Joe Biden a “fake Catholic.”  And on the evening of August 21st, Bishop Rick Stika of Knoxville, TN proclaimed that he didn’t “understand how Mr. Biden can claim to be a good and faithful Catholic” and praised President Trump for being anti-abortion. These are just a few of the most recent examples of prominent Catholics who have attacked Joe Biden—and, frankly, enough is enough.

I am sad and embarrassed to watch priests and bishops selectively attack certain politicians, like Joe Biden, and attack Catholics who are supporting Joe Biden by calling them “fake” or claiming that they should be denied communion.  I am not in a position to proclaim the depth and sincerity of Joe Biden’s faith or the faith of those who support him politically (or those denouncing him and his supporters); however, I am deeply offended by the snide, petty, and demeaning comments that are being made by prominent Catholics who have the privilege of reaching tens of thousands (if not millions) of Catholics via social media and other avenues.  It is beneath the dignity of the office these men hold.  Are they not supposed to show love and compassion?  Are they not supposed to be charitable?  Are they not supposed to show grace?  Are they not supposed to evangelize and bring people into the Church, and bring back those who have left the Church? Do they imagine that this is what Christian witness should look like?

How will these malicious and nasty remarks help to evangelize?  They won’t.  There are those who left the Church who see these mean statements that pass harsh judgment on the faith of Catholics like Joe Biden and think to themselves: “Yes, that’s why I left.”  Perhaps the petty, bullying nature of these comments will attract some right-wing ideologues into the Catholic Church (though probably not many), but I fail to see how this callous and highly judgmental image that is being presented by priests and bishops will help the Church draw and retain people in the way that is desperately needed during this era of rising non-affiliation.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, at a time when millions of Catholics are sitting at home because of COVID-19 and are unable to attend Sunday services, it is more important than ever that the Church remind Catholics of why they need the Church and what good the Church does.  As bishops and priests attack, lecture, and demean Catholic Democrats, or Catholics who might vote for a Democrat, they risk pushing those Catholics away from the Church. They can challenge Biden on the issue of abortion, just as they can and should challenge Catholic and non-Catholic politicians on the whole range of issues that help to create the throwaway culture that Pope Francis has spent years highlighting and denouncing. But their behavior and rhetoric should reflect Christian virtue and respect for the dignity of other human beings.

Twitter, Facebook, and traditional media sources can be useful for evangelization.  They are tools that when used properly can spread the Gospel messages of love, mercy, charity, and justice.  However, when those who use them choose to spread malice, spite, and vindictiveness, all they do is sow seeds of resentment and anger.  So, before this election grows more brutal and our country becomes more divided and bitter, please stop. Just stop.


In an Election Year with Unprecedented Challenges, Catholics are Called to Protect Voting Access

This year, Catholics have important and difficult decisions to make up and down the ballot that will impact the trajectory of our country in the years and decades ahead. No matter what decisions each of us makes when casting our ballots, we all have a stake—and responsibility as Christians—in ensuring that every American who is eligible to vote is able to fulfill this most fundamental democratic right.

The coronavirus pandemic adds an additional layer of uncertainty as we vote this year. As COVID-19 case levels rise across the country and the death toll climbs above 175,000, it is likely that Americans will go to the polls amidst social distancing and even stay-at-home orders. Some of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters – including older Americans, people with various illnesses, and people with disabilities – will have the hardest time making it to the polls. Others will face both new and long-standing voter suppression efforts.

One of the central themes of Catholic Social Teaching is participation: “We believe people have a right and duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.” In our representative democracy, voting is a foundational component of participation. With so many challenges facing our country, we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines in 2020, and we can’t let systemic failures leave any of our brothers and sisters out of the process. We need voting systems that protect each individual’s right to vote while also protecting their health and safety.

In the spirit of this teaching, Catholic public officials, clergy, lay leaders, and media personalities must forcefully avoid spreading conspiracy theories for partisan political purposes, oppose voter suppression, and actively promote voting access.

Avoid Spreading Conspiracy Theories

During a recent appearance on a Catholic media outlet, President Trump put forth a flurry of inapplicable analogies, distortions, and outright falsehoods about voting access in the 2020 election. While pointing out that people continued to vote in person during World War I and World War II, the President labeled mail-in voting as “the greatest fraud ever”—and went on to accuse foreign governments of printing US ballots and claim that California election officials might send mail-in ballots to undocumented immigrants but not to Republicans.

Since the president’s claims were not challenged on air, it’s important to debunk them here:

Every state has voters who vote by mail. Five states already utilize universal mail-in voting, tens of millions of Americans have their ballot handed to them by their postal carrier (not a poll worker), and the number of fraudulent ballots is miniscule. The president himself voted absentee in the 2018 election. His statements about California are fabrications. And during World War II, service members did mail in absentee ballots, and regular polling places remained open because the country faced a different challenge during that war than it does right now. World War II was an overseas armed conflict; it was not a contagious virus at home. And the very Americans who fought in World War II are among the most at-risk to die from the coronavirus.

Catholic leaders have a responsibility to tell the truth, and they must demand the same from our public officials. Fear mongering with the purpose of decreasing voting access is unacceptable.

Ensuring voting access during the pandemic

To preserve voting access in the 2020 election, we need safe in-person voting, expanded early voting and absentee voting, and increased education campaigns so that every eligible voter knows how and when to exercise their right to vote.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides unique challenges to election administrators. Our leaders should focus on rising to these challenges, not making them harder. As my colleague Tammy Patrick has pointed out, we have laws on the books to prevent fraud and to discover and prosecute it when it happens. She told NPR, “If and when a bank gets robbed or a car gets stolen, we don’t stop using banks or cars. We enforce the laws we have in place.”

Furthermore, there’s no evidence that expanding voting access by mail benefits one political party or the other. With the coronavirus most affecting older voters – who voted decisively for President Trump in 2016 – it may even benefit his own election prospects to promote this option.  Catholics of all political persuasions should call on their federal representatives to fully fund election security measures in all 50 states and demand that their state and local leaders administer an election in which every eligible voter can safely cast their ballot.

Opposing voter suppression

As Catholics, we must oppose voter suppression that is aimed at preventing our Black and Brown brothers and sisters from voting. The USCCB’s Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship mentions voter suppression by name and it repeatedly calls on Catholics to oppose racism. It states that the wound of racism “continues to fester” and that racism of any form is an assault on human dignity.

As I recently told Charlie Camosy in Crux, racism is not just a problem of personal sin; it is a systemic problem. We must certainly “open wide our hearts,” and we must also open up our political processes to include every eligible American.

This includes a collective Catholic effort to protect against the elimination of polling places in majority Black neighborhoods, oppose efforts to reduce polling hours, speak out against “purged” voter rolls, and combat disinformation campaigns that would disenfranchise Black Americans.

We’re all called to protect the right to vote

Living out the principles of Catholic Social Teaching means promoting the dignity of each of our brothers and sisters—including their full right to participate in our civic processes. In the face of a pandemic, social unrest, and voter suppression, protecting every eligible Americans’ right to vote is a challenge every American Catholic is called to meet. No matter what disagreements we have when we fill out our ballots, we should ensure each one of our eligible brothers and sisters has equal access to the ballot itself. Anything short of that standard is a violation of our faith-based principles and the rights enshrined in the Constitution.

Chris Crawford is a Catholic activist in Silver Spring, Maryland. He manages the Faith in Democracy portfolio at Democracy Fund, a private foundation in Washington, D.C. that champions the leaders and solutions making American democracy more open and just. He previously worked in the pro-life movement for The Susan B. Anthony List and their affiliated Super PAC.

 


Love, Racism, and Alienation: James Baldwin’s ‘Conundrum of Color’ in 2020

What does it look like to be loved entirely? To give yourself, to be received, to be embraced, with all of your wounds and all of your beauty?

The desire for a love like this permeates the life and work of James Baldwin.

For a Black man born in Harlem during the Great Depression, the grandson of a slave, the stepson of a man who was part of the first generation of free men, these questions bear a unique weight and, for Baldwin, carry the urgency of  a prophet.

When you are met each day with the anger and bitterness of a father who, as Baldwin put it, was very black and beautiful, but who did not know that he was beautiful, and with a society that has conspired to teach you that you are worthless, that you are less than–a society in which  the basic freedoms taken for granted by most people in your country will have to be literally fought for, sometimes to the death—when this is the world in which one is immersed from the day of one’s birth, then the recovery of one’s “birthright” of human dignity and the necessity of grappling with what Baldwin called the “rock of ages” – that inheritance of suffering and pain that has accrued for hundreds of years, forming into the bedrock of the nation – becomes the work of a lifetime.

But for Baldwin, this work belongs to an entire people, to all of us. “The conundrum of color,” he wrote, “is the inheritance of every American.” Facing the fact that we are each created with this unimaginably deep need for love, a desire to be affirmed to the very core of our being as good, as worthy, as one who is, in the fullest sense of the word, a person, we also must face the fact that, in a unique and specific way, our world as Americans has been formed around both a denial of this love and a denial of this need.

After 244 years of brutalization and bloodshed, followed by a war that turned brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers against one another, it shouldn’t surprise us that many have felt inclined to try to forget this history—to, as they say, “move on.” And yet, if we actually listen to each other’s experiences, if we actually study what has occurred in this country since 1865, we will quickly discover that 244 years of slavery cannot be undone, that in some way our history will always shape us, and that if we truly want to be free, rather than determined by the past, we will have to grapple with this fact.

From the 1860s to the present, surges of violence and upheaval across our country have been followed by periods of relative calm and supposed stability, yet the calm hid what was just beneath the surface: the astounding reality of each person’s capacity to consistently deny the humanity of another human being—a denial that haunts us still today. In the face of this reality, we risk entering into bitterness, hatred, and nihilism, either through adopting a racist attitude ourselves, through continuing to ignore the problem at hand, or through failed attempts to resolve it. If we pretend it does not and never has existed, or repeat that mantra of complacency (“Well, I’m not a racist!”), we can live in a banal and lukewarm bath of contentment, patting ourselves on the back about “how far we’ve come as a nation.” Or, acknowledging reality, we might attempt to assemble a system that guarantees the total eradication of prejudice by eliminating those who transgress the norms imposed by the system, attempting to completely externalize evil by engaging in witch hunts and purifying our communities through violent exclusion. In the same country, even in the same city or home, we can live in a variety of parallel worlds that each respond or fail to respond to this traumatic past in different and often entirely irreconcilable ways.

According to Baldwin, none of these responses get to the root of the problem. He proposes that the origin of the slave trade was not necessarily the evilness of the traders and owners, but instead their lack of awareness of the needs of their own humanity. The trajectory of racism in the US is the result of a people alienated from who we are as beings created for relationship. This alienation from ourselves, this lack of understanding of our own need for love and unity, has often convinced us that power and hatred are more satisfying ends to pursue. In fact, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has recently argued, “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” In other words, the concept of race itself was generated out of this supposed need to oppress the other, rather than out of any truly fundamental difference between groups of human beings. It is our blindness that allows us to think we can own another human being, deny him rights, kill him out of an irrational fear—to consider him our enemy rather than our brother or sister. Baldwin suggests that the only remedy to this evil is an encounter that can reawaken our own personhood. It is those who take the risk of allowing themselves to be loved who can begin to discover their own need, and to respect that same need in their neighbor.

As we go forward into an unknown future, I invite each of us to engage in the work of deeply and sincerely listening. This starts within our own families, schools, and places of employment, but it doesn’t end there. Depending on our age, geographical location, profession and so forth, this listening could extend in different ways. It might involve entering into a serious study of the history of African-American experience in the United States. It might involve broadening our knowledge of American literature to include voices and experiences far outside of our own. It might involve volunteering in our local communities and spending time together with people of a variety of backgrounds with whom we might normally not interact. It might also involve familiarizing ourselves with our local governments and public institutions, and participating in needed reforms. It will always involve relinquishing the fearful, dismissive attitude that so often characterizes responses to the call for greater understanding of “the conundrum of color”. There are endless creative possibilities available when we begin from a position of openness and curiosity in the face of reality. Remembering our own experience, the experience that allows us to make a judgment about the fundamental positivity of reality, we should find ourselves with a profound freedom to encounter one another, to listen to one another, and to live with one another in a new way.

Rose Tomassi teaches Philosophy, History, and Craftsmanship at Martin Saints Classical High School in Oreland, PA.


Growing Up White in White Spaces: Incomplete Glimpses of Trinitarian Communion

Where did I—and you—learn Communion through human relationships? I learned it in Oakville, Missouri at Queen of All Saints Catholic Church: on Catholic Youth Council (CYC) sports teams, at De Smet Jesuit High School, and through my family. I was grateful for these loving communities. I still am. They inspired many moments of joy and laughter, offered me friendship, taught me teamwork and sharing—and patience and prayer and self-giving love—and in so doing gave me a glimpse of the ever-loving Communion of the three divine Persons whom we celebrated last month on the Feast of the Holy Trinity.

On that Sunday, amid the civil unrest prompted by the latest incident in our history of systemic racism, I once again noticed the incompleteness of the image of the Trinitarian Communion that my upbringing offered me. To be sure, no image of Communion offered in our finite temporal reality could ever completely convey the grandeur of the Trinitarian Mystery. Every child’s upbringing will provide glimpses of the Trinity in the communion they experience through ordinary human relationships, but they will each have blind spots in their vision of the Trinity that is the infinitely knowable Communion of divine Persons. Prompted by this intersection between our nation’s civic life and our liturgical year, I would like to offer a reflection on the blind spots that my suburban St. Louis upbringing left on my understanding of the God who is Communion. I believe such individual reflections can be a key step in unraveling systemic racism and living in full unity with God as members of His Mystical Body.

So I ask again, where did I—and you—learn Communion through human relationships?

Oakville, a community of about 10,000 people during my years there, sits at the southernmost tip of St. Louis County. The result of suburbanization, it offered a safe and calm environment as a child. I would run out to the ice cream truck in the summer, umpire at QAS, explore the natural beauty of Bee Tree Park, enjoy frozen custard with my CYC teammates after games, and excitedly pester police officers for the free Cardinals baseball cards they passed out to kids in this tranquil St. Louis community.

When I was 18 and geolocating myself in stories more expansive than Oakville’s, I researched the demographics of the suburban community, and what I discovered was striking but not surprising: Oakville’s population was 98% white. The most recent US Census data has “White Alone” at 96.2%. Neither percentage is surprising given the de facto segregation brought on by mid-century “white flight” to the suburbs, an American phenomenon particularized in suburban communities like Oakville.

Queen of All Saints, my local parish, reflected the racial makeup of Oakville itself. Through my nine years of Parish School of Religion (PSR) classes, my approximately 17 seasons of CYC sports, and my 15 years of weekly Mass attendance there, I can only recall knowing of a single black member of our parish community. (The fact that he stood out to me in itself reveals the distinctiveness of racial minorities in such an overwhelmingly white parish). When I listened to my priests’ and deacons’ homilies, I heard the wisdom and holiness of God’s ordained faithful, but only from the whites among God’s ordained faithful. When I lined up before the CYC soccer, baseball, and volleyball games to open our competition in prayer, I did so alongside loving teammates and coaches, but only white teammates and coaches. When I attended adoration, I kneeled in silent prayer with other broken yet devout searchers, but only the white subgroup of broken yet devout searchers. After I worshipped at Mass and waited as my dedicated mom and stepdad chatted with other parishioners, I was absorbing community life, but only community life between white parishioners. When I checked in with my supervisors and laid out pregame instructions to coaches as a CYC umpire and referee, I encountered men and women modeling the virtues cultivated by youth sports, but only white men and women with white cultural fluencies. My formation in Christ at QAS was rich and textured, but nonetheless incomplete in presenting me with the racial and cultural diversity that lives through, with, and in Christ’s Mystical Body.

At DeSmet Jesuit High School, a community still close to my heart, I gained a more representative, though still incomplete picture of the Church in St. Louis. Across 8 semesters totaling 54 courses, I had zero black teachers. On my six or seven high school retreat experiences, I don’t recall ever hearing a black speaker. During my one season playing soccer and four playing volleyball, I never had a black teammate or coach. In my all-honors core schedule, I do not recall having a single black classmate in my honors classes—meaning that I learned about the international slave trade and Western imperialism in AP World History class without any black classmates, I learned about the United States’ fraught racial history in an AP US History class without any black classmates, I had peer-to-peer discussions about Miranda rights and affirmative action in an AP US Government class without any black classmates, I considered the racial dynamics of Shakespeare’s Othello in an Honors World Literature class without any black classmates, I read Huckleberry Finn in an AP US Literature class without any black classmates, and I read through invaluable works of the Western literary canon in an AP World Literature class without any black classmates. Consequently, some of the most valuable insights afforded by my academic education were cultivated in my mind without being filtered through the perspectives, objections, insights, and experiences of any black members of the Mystical Body. Some of my most unconscious assumptions about authority, intelligence, academic knowledge, course content, and social norms were established in the wonderful, loving, academic environment of De Smet, but one nonetheless lacking the presence of any black voices.

Systemic racism, to be sure, was addressed in my Morality and Faith & Justice courses. The former was taught by Mr. Donahue, a man I privately criticized at the time as a “bleeding heart liberal”—a “snowflake” before the word itself gained such as disparaging and politicized definition—but whom I now recognize as a Christian more fully attuned to Christ’s summons than my argumentative, intransigent teenage self would allow. I grew more deeply in love with Christ at De Smet, and that Jesuit Catholic community certainly set the moral foundation that makes this very reflection possible. Still, my experiences there left me with blind spots in my conception of the Holy Trinity’s Communion which we find reflected in our human relationships.

I share all of this for several reasons. Let me first address some objections that I have come to expect given the ideological blinders worn by too many Americans when discussing race-related experiences. I do not share these reflections as a performance of self-flagellation for white guilt. I do not share these reflections out of deference to the illiberal demands of leftist, identitarian zealots. I do not share these reflections to heap shame on white St. Louis Catholics or on faithful communities as beautiful and good as Queen of All Saints or De Smet Jesuit High School. (De Smet in particular appears to have begun intentionally addressing the racial disparities in society and in their school community by increasing the racial diversity of their faculty, establishing race-conscious scholarships, and providing student programming to heighten racial consciousness.)

Rather, I share all of this so that my fellow white Catholics can reflect on their own blind spots and work to see and hear the nonwhite members of the Body of Christ. My hope is that white Catholics throughout the US might commit to, as St. Louis’s Archbishop Carlson recently urged, “listening to our brothers and sisters of color and learning about their experiences, their triumphs, their struggles and sorrows” so that we Catholics can walk together through these tense and perhaps transformative moments in our nation’s history.

How can we do this? Plan parish movie nights around racial justice topics. Start a small group to read the US Bishops’ pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts.” Email your Catholic school’s administration and request new programs. Ask your diocese to host a Theology on Tap series about being bridge builders across our nation’s and your city’s racial divide. Speak to your children about systemic racism—not just overt prejudice—and share with them the names and stories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Such actionable and reasonable steps, even if potentially uncomfortable, would strengthen Christ’s Body and provide a new angle from which to see the Trinitarian Communion alive in our world.

Michael Jezewak is a high school theology teacher who has been formed by Jesuit, Christian Brother, and Augustinian Catholic educational institutions.