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.
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:
- Shannon Dee Williams on how the church must make reparation for its role in slavery and segregation
- Olga Segura on how Catholics can help lead the fight against racism
- David Brooks on How to Do Reparations Right
- New Advent on Reparation
- The Good Fight, Season 4, Episode 3
- 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice
- Anti-Racism Resources for White People
- 10 documentaries to watch about race instead of asking a person of colour to explain things for you
- Foundations of Conservatism Seminar
- More of my writings on race here
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.