A Catholic case for reparations

The argument is simple and straightforward. Which is shocking, given the fact that I've never before seen it made.

Before reading what I have to say, I’d recommend reading this piece by Shannen Dee Williams! Then, if you’re interested, come back and see what I have to say.

Catholics have not even begun to scratch the surface of addressing racial injustice in the United States. Certainly, a number of theologians are dedicating their careers to these questions. (Check out Shannen Dee Williams, Katie Grimes.) And Georgetown University has considered reparations with respect to slaves sold by the University’s Jesuits. But the American Church at large has hardly started to consider how Catholic teaching might be applied to the various forms of racial injustice.

One sign of this sorry state in the American Church is the fact that Catholicism has yet to have a serious national conversation on the subject of reparations, even though our theology and Catholic political theorists of the last century might present a powerful argument in their favor. The argument is simple and straightforward, which is shocking, given the fact that I’ve never before seen it made. (This may be my own fault, for not having been sufficiently invested in these issues in the past.)

A Right to Wages

Catholic social teaching states that justice requires the payment of a living wage to support oneself and one’s family. This idea has been repeated in a number of papal encyclicals, starting as early as 1891 with Rerum Novarum. The U.S. Bishops’ 1940 Statement on Church and Social Order argues that the right to a just wage is “the first claim of labor, which takes priority over any claim of the owners to profits.” Mater et Magistra in 1961 rejects the claim that a just wage should be left to the market or those in commercial power for determination. Pope John Paul II’s 1981 On Human Work judges socioeconomic systems with the existence (or nonexistence) of a just wage: “Hence in every case a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly.” The Catholic Catechism says that failure to pay a just wage is a violation of the Seventh Commandment. It’s stealing. It’s (to use a term of immediate significance) looting.

When we consider the American problem of slavery and its effects, we have to consider a double theft: the theft of black persons from their communities, converted by the principles of the American founding to property, and then the theft of a just wage for their labors. Their descendants, in turn, have been subject to that double theft, which is repeated across generations in their inability to reap the benefits of income generated by their parents and their parents’ parents.

The Catholic argument for reparations simply states that the United States must respond to this theft multiplied across generations. Reparations are nothing more than ‪long overdue payment for lifetimes of services rendered, distributed to descendants of America’s unpaid workers, with interest.

Disinheritance and Disenfranchisement

The Conservative Catholic political theorist Russell Kirk might continue this argument. Drawing on the work of Fenimore Cooper, Kirk argues that “the hope for democracy lay in the survival of gentlemen” and that “the existence of the gentleman has been founded upon the inherited possession of land.” What we must address now is a robbed inheritance, and the failed ideals for both democracy and the American Church associated with this theft, this looting.

For Kirk’s political philosophy, civil society must safeguard private property, for both the worker and the worker’s lineage. Kirk goes further to say that leaders in society will rise up through a process facilitated in part by this inheritance. By robbing black Americans of a wage, and in turn robbing their children of an inheritance, we have systematically prevented them from taking part in this process. White Americans stole not only a people, but a future for a people, and kept it for themselves and their own descendants.

Rerum Novarum in 1981 can illustrate the problem in another way, by criticizing socialist efforts which—like the American founders—would steal both private property and inheritance. It speaks of a “right to property.” And then it extends this right to children:

“It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten; and, similarly, it is natural that he should wish that his children, who carry on, so to speak, and continue his personality, should be by him provided with all that is needful to enable them to keep themselves decently from want and misery amid the uncertainties of this mortal life. Now, in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of productive property, which he can transmit to his children by inheritance.”

Under the framework of Catholic social teaching, the right to property includes the right to transmit property through inheritance, one of the natural ends of this ownership. The withholding of unjust payment, because of this, reverberates across generations, in an injustice that lives on with both the deprived descendant’s and the descendants of the depriver.

Let’s not get distracted by how some would frame this. Some would say that black Americans aren’t entitled to reparations, because they‘re not entitled to what they have not personally worked for. What these critics are actually saying is they’re entitled to what their ancestors stole. They wish to maintain the benefits of their ancestors’ looting.

A Watch

I do not want to shame American Catholics for failing to see this simple argument before. I had only made these connections a few months ago. My hope is that we will all move forward together. I believe that American Catholicism has a racism problem. Let’s address it.

As Fulton Sheen has said:

“A cow or a horse lives for the present moment, without remorse or anxiety; but man not only drags his past with him, but he is also burdened with worries about his eternal future. Because the past is with him in the form of remorse or guilt, because the future is with him in his anxiety, it follows that the only way man can escape either burden is by reparation – the making up for the wrong done in the past – and by a firm resolution to avoid such sin in the future…

“Some who have done wrong mistakenly think that they should only forget it, now that it is past and ‘done with.’ Others believe, falsely, that once a wrong deed has been forgiven, nothing further needs to be done. However, both of these attitudes are incomplete, as they lack in love… Suppose that I have stolen your watch. When my conscience finally pricks me, I admit it all to you and say: ‘Will you forgive me?’ No doubt, you will, but I am sure that you will also say: ‘Give me back the watch.'”

Some resources, if you’re interested:

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. 

13 comments on “A Catholic case for reparations

  1. For some time I have looked forward to reading your thoughtful and analytical articles. However, I believe, Chris, that you have gone off the rails. Any American should decry the unprovoked murder of a black man at the hands of the Minneapolis police. But to make the jump from this act to rioting, looting,
    arson, and violence directed toward law enforcement is a non sequitur. (Who, for instance, is burning
    cities over the death or injury of hundreds of officers? No one.) As a fellow lawyer, I am committed to
    the rule of law, for without it our society is dangerously close to descending into anarchy. The idea of
    reparations is equally misguided. The United States paid the ultimate in reparations in the Civil War,
    which I’m sure you realize was an unparalleled conflict of carnage and suffering. My lineal ancestor was
    a Union soldier; by the grace of God he survived his service or I would not be here today. I am sorry to
    see you swept up in the hysteria that is following a tragic incident.


    • Chris Damian

      This piece doesn’t talk about a defense of looting, the defunding of the police, or a disregard for law enforcement. I understand that you take issue with what I’ve written here, but these arguments appear to me to be non sequiturs


      • One must make a distinction between lawless looting of material goods of poor and middle class of diverse racial cultural backgrounds who steal for survival or who desire to appropriate and participate in the dominate materialism of the dominate US culture where Money and Power and greed by appropriating material goods by any means they deem necessary and the lawless enslavement of African people and the historical and contemporary genius of an oppressed racial-cultural Black- American cultural group. Reparation for this is a matter pf Justice. I prefer reparations in the form of education, skill training and just quality housing.

        Note weel:Stealing of money, ideas and property has become a common practice among the poor, the middle class and the wealthy . Americans in the USA are currently in a struggle against those cultural patterns,: racism, sexism and classism that infest our nation. Black Lives Matter and All lives Matter. Therefore all must be treated with justice and equity. We must revive and embody our biblically based universal unconditional love by which we help each person to recognize their God-given gifts and talents and encourage and support the use them to use them for the common good while paying a just wage. see Catholic Social Teachings: on the Human Dignity of the Human Person; The Call to family and Participation; Right to Life and Social Responsibility; Option for the Poor and Vulnerable; The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers; Social Solidarity-‘We are one Human Family what ever our national, racial, ethnic, economic and ideological differences.”; Care for God’s Creation i.e. Ecological Responsible behavior.

        Most policemen of diverse racial, gender and class background risk their lives to serve and protect us. all. We must pray for and support them! Those who arrest, beat and kill men and women because of their race must be arrested and tried accordingly. Both God’s law and Civil Law demands that those who stray must be punished and rehabilitated so they can choose a more constructive way of life in this world.

        Wake up and see the youth and young adults of all nationalities and races who are using their gifts and talents to help others as demonstrated by the multi-racial Multicultural “Black Lives Matter” Marches which have began as a National Movement but are now is an international movement protesting, racism wherever it is found. Contemporary Youth and Young Adults are growing up into psychologically sound women and men who use their intelligence and gifts for the good of others, our nature and the world l

        Sister Jamie T. Phelps, OP MA, MSW PhD
        Adrian Dominican Sister


  2. Esther Miranda

    This video spoke loudly to me.
    It gave me a greater understanding of the mindset of protestors, rioters, and looters.. Three very distinct groups, each exhibiting their justified ‘righteous’ anger.
    I do not confine any destruction of life or property
    For those enraged by the destruction of property, businesses and livelihoods, while simultaneously enraged by the assault on good cops, while simultaneously enraged by the killing of a black man and the hurt of the black community endured over many lifetimes, it is important to separate these feelings from each other.
    They are each a symptom of the virus that spawned them all.
    I believe it is more beneficial to spend time, energy, and effort in righteous rage on destroying the virus rather than the symptoms.
    It begins with awareness.
    It requires acknowledgement.
    It is addressed deliberate, planned, sustained activism.


  3. If possible would like to edit a couple of typos in the comment I just left. Change confine to condone

    Add a missing weird at the end ‘ addressed through deliberate, planned…’ Thanks!

    Sent from my iPhone



    • Esther Miranda

      Yikes….word, not weird 🙄
      Learning to use WordPress.
      Please help me clean up my mess Chris..

      I appreciate and applaud you for providing opportunities for inconvenient conversations. There is an awakening and reflection by many at this time only because of them..
      We each need to draw our own lines in the sand.
      Because what we don’t confront, we condone.


  4. Virginia

    My grandparents all came from Europe to the US in the very early 1900’s. They arrived with absolutely nothing but the clothes on their backs. They did not speak English and had no education. They could only have been called disadvantaged in every sense of the word. My mother’s father died suddenly when she was 12, and she and her siblings were parceled out to boarding schools and relatives while my grandmother went away to the city to work in a mental hospital to provide what she could. My father’s parents never became successful by any standard. Dad grew up in a shack without running water or electricity in the 1940’s, when most people around him fared far better. He awoke in winter with snow on his blankets that had sifted through cracks in the walls. He was hungry most of the time, and he was beaten by other boys on the way home from school nearly every day because he was from across the tracks and he smelled. He was not a strong scholar and received a marginal public school education in a depressed rural area. He worked hard to attend technical school and learn a trade, and has worked multiple jobs all his life to provide for his family. He taught his six children to do the same. None of us has ever taken handouts or been on welfare. I do not believe that my family owes anyone reparation for anything.


  5. Virginia

    Actually, it does. Your post states that ‘white Americans stole not only a people, but a future for a people, and kept it for themselves and their descendants.” Your arguments are all based on a principle of theft and the repayment of stolen property. My comment illustrates that even if future generations were somehow liable for the sins of their ancestors, and argument that is debatable on its face for many reasons, the fact is that many white Americans have no responsibility for or connection to the sins for which reparations are demanded. Nor should we be forced to pay them. I might argue that the very suggestion is racist, according to the dictionary’s definition of the word.


    • Chris Damian

      It’s not clear to me what the issue is with the statement you’ve quoted. It’s a historically accurate statement.


      • Virginia

        Simply that you are generalizing that all white Americans stole, and that all black Americans are therefore entitled to reparation from them. My white family wasn’t even in this country until the early 1900s. My family was more disadvantaged than some black families have been during the period in American history when we have been Americans. But your argument is predicated on our guilt, which is based simply on the color of our skin. If that’s not unjust and racist, then what is?


      • Chris Damian

        That’s not what the piece says, and that’s not what I’m arguing now.


  6. Pingback: My Writings on Racism: An Initial Overview – Chris Damian

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