Catholic Misrepresentation of Pope Francis Today Shows the Subtle Silencing of Black Voices

Read the news carefully. Find the quotations and the firsthand accounts. I, and many other Twin Cities residents, have been struggling to keep a focus on the key issue underlying so much unrest today: racism. Many (perhaps unconsciously) want to distract us by connecting the fight against racism to every act of violence that has come out of the preceding days.

One cannot deny that violence is inimical to the life of Christ. And the Church works as a force for peace and justice. These and many other principles must undergird the Catholic response to these problems. However, one principle that has been overlooked has been the Catholic focus on “both/and,” an outgrowth of its universality, it’s catholicity. A refusal to use a “both/and,” and the insertion of a “but,” reveals how many Catholics gaslight those crying out in defiance of racism and police brutality.

Take, for example, the opening summary of Pope Francis’ recent remarks in the National Catholic Register: “The pontiff called for the confrontation of racism, but said violence is ‘self-destructive and self-defeating.'”

The actual quote (which the Register includes but separates into two paragraphs) is this:

“We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life. At the same time, we have to recognize that the violence of recent nights is self-destructive and self-defeating. Nothing is gained by violence and so much is lost.”

The Register’s opening summary is not the same as Pope Francis’ statement. The difference is subtle, but important. Pope Francis condemns racism and violence. The Register (and many Catholics) state a condemnation of racism. However, instead of also condemning violence, they attach a qualifier to protests against racism. The Register’s summary might be restated: “confront racism, but violence is self-destructive.” Observe what happens in this statement. It links the two (protesting and violence) together, such that the violence is tied, not to racism, but to racism’s confrontation. Violence and protest are not separate nouns in the statement, but the former becomes an adjective of the latter. It pushes us to put our minds on not racism and violence but, rather, violent protest.

It’s important that Pope Francis draws on Archbishop Gomez’ recent statement, which itself draws on Martin Luther King’s ‘The Other America.’ Pope Francis and Archbishop Gomez call recent violence “self-destructive and self-defeating.” In 1967, King said, “Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice.”

Like Pope Francis, King then uses an “at the same time” statement:

“But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”

That is, protesting, that condemnation of racism, does not incite violent rioting. Rather, racism incites rioting. Looking at events today, it’s not even clear that those on the streets protesting are the ones causing all the damage. In my home, the Twin Cities, it’s just as likely that those escalating and causing violence are law enforcement and white supremacists. First hand-accounts and video evidence suggest as much with many of the incidents.

But many Catholics fail drop the inclination to tie violence to the raising up of black people. So we replace the “and” with a “but.” We don’t condemn racism and violence. Instead, the statement is: We condemn racism and violence related to the condemnation of racism. In this way, Catholics don’t confront racism at all. We perpetuate it.

Some resources, if you’re interested:

Other related writings:

Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

12 comments on “Catholic Misrepresentation of Pope Francis Today Shows the Subtle Silencing of Black Voices

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