massingale6-25-09Fr. Bryan Massingale, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and an associate professor of moral theology at Marquette University, said he sees a “growing number of Catholics” who are seeing racism as an issue that needs to be engaged by the church. (Catholic Herald photo by Matt Dixon)MILWAUKEE — The title of the book  – “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church” – might make Catholics cringe, might even make them uncomfortable. The author, Fr. Bryan N. Massingale, knows that, but he also hopes readers and potential readers will move beyond that.

“Yes, there are some difficult things that are said, and some painful truths being articulated, but I hope people can understand that they’re being said out of a deep love for the church, a love for our tradition, and a love for who we can and ought to be,” he said. “I would hope that readers would hear the painful truth, but (know) that it is spoken in love.”

‘Sin of racism’ must be faced

Fr. Massingale, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and an associate professor of moral theology at Marquette University, termed how the church has “officially engaged the issue of racism” as an “embarrassing, tragic and, indeed, a sinful tale….”

In explaining one of the reasons he wrote the book, the priest cited the words of Pope John Paul II regarding “counter witness” as the pontiff prepared the church for the Jubilee Year 2000.

“Pope John Paul II gave a good example during the jubilee year when he asked for forgiveness and repentance by the church for its complicity in various social wrongs,” he said. “To my mind, the church’s complicity in the sin of racism in the United States has yet to be adequately named and faced.”

Collectively, the U.S. bishops have addressed racism in 1958, 1968 and 1979. Referring to the Langston Hughes poem, “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?” Fr. Massingale said he is concerned the U.S. bishops haven’t acted upon what they last wrote.

BookCoverShotRacial Justice and the Catholic Church” by Fr. Bryan N. Massingale is published by Orbis Books. It is available through most bookstores or at“If after 32 years you have made such poor progress after what you committed yourself to in 1979, I think some people can be forgiven for wondering if we’re ever going to keep that kind of promise,” he said, noting that a “growing number” of African-American Catholics and Hispanics are leaving the church. “We can’t keep delaying and deferring this dream without paying a significant price, that the longer we delay and defer this dream, people start raising the question: ‘How serious are you (the U.S. bishops) about this commitment to begin with?’”

Lots of words, little action

Fr. Massingale said that the church has “a marvelous body of Catholic social teaching,” but that Catholic action to accompany those words “has been muted at best or absent.”

“Given how central race is in almost every social justice concern, if we don’t deal with race adequately, then the rest of our Catholic reflection and involvement in social justice flounders,” he said.

The priest said the church has to do a better job of addressing what he termed “the legacy of racial justice.”

“For example, we can’t deal adequately with poverty in this country without taking into account race. We can’t deal with immigration in this country without taking race into account. And to try to deal with these without acknowledging the racism that’s involved in the poverty, immigration and education means that … our efforts are going to be ineffective at best,” he said.

Fr. Massingale has used the sacrament of penance as a basis for developing a Catholic reflection on racism.

“My thing is that people always want to say, ‘Well, look at all the good we’ve done.’ Well, you don’t go to reconciliation and tell the priest, ‘Look at all the good I’ve done,’” he said. “The whole point of reconciliation is premised upon having an honest and fearless moral inventory of your life, and presenting what needs to be healed before God in a sacramental way.”

The priest noted that there isn’t a “sacramental way of dealing with the faults of an entire institution,” but that the church can use the sacrament of reconciliation as a starting point.

“What the truth and reconciliation processes have taught us is that, (like) those in South Africa and other places, is that you can’t have reconciliation, a new beginning, without having a truthful account of the past, and trying to acknowledge what happened and how did we get here,” he said.

One of the things that might force Catholics to confront racism is the church’s demographic make-up, whose composition Fr. Massingale noted in the book is 46 percent people of color.

“I don’t think that realization has filtered down into the pews yet,” the priest said, noting there is also “a seismic demographic shift in the composition of the American population.”

“So the Catholic Church in the United States, for its very future, has got to confront the issue of racial justice and the legacy of its own past in a more forthright manner if it’s going to have a viable future in the 21st century,” Fr. Massingale said.

Answers questions about identity

When it comes to talking about racism, as individuals, parishes or dioceses, the priest said there is much to consider in whether or not Catholics want to discuss it, knowing how to discuss it and what to discuss.

“It’s a lot to overcome – without a doubt and the reason why is because race engages us viscerally in a way that few other issues do. I try to understand why that is. That’s why I hit on the idea that race in America answers the questions of identity: who we are, where we fit in, to whom we belong,” he said.

Fr. Massingale said that in asking those questions, one is dealing with people’s personal identity.

“Race answers questions of who I am in relation to other people in America. And that’s an understanding of race we don’t always look at, but yet is really fundamental. So when we start questioning that, people get very uncomfortable,” he said.

The priest noted that when people do talk about race, they often take a “Let’s be nice to each other” approach.

“That’s the kind of standard way. We don’t call each other names. We’re polite to each other, but that doesn’t get to what’s at the core of the issue, that if we’re going to deal adequately with race, we have to deal with the fact that race has historically answered questions of identity and where we fit in America,” he said.

Fr. Massingale said that the questioning about building a more racially just society is a discussion “about the transformation of personal and group identity.”

“That’s why I think the sacraments can be so important. In baptism, we take on a new identity when we refuse to be defined by the way our society or culture defines us. I quote St. Paul: All of who have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek slave or free,” he said. “Or we no longer define ourselves as black or white, as those terms have been defined for us in American society,” he said.

The priest said that this can be a difficult realization as, in his experience, most white Americans don’t define themselves as white unless they’re forced to.

“So you are raising up something that is very uncomfortable. That’s the reason why we have oblique or tapering at the edges of the problem or try to settle for ‘Let’s be nice to each other’ rather than trying to deal with the fact that we’re really dealing with matters of personal and group identity,” Fr. Massingale said.

Reasons for hope

While the priest is concerned, even critical, about how the church has not addressed racism, he is hopeful that it will.

“People often come to me and ask, ‘How can you hang in there with this church, given its sad history in this regard?’ I try to answer that when I talk about the sacraments, and how baptism and Eucharist can shape an anti-racist, pro-justice consciousness in our people. The Catholic sacramental system contains a symbol system of universal inclusion,” he said.

Fr. Massingale said that an anti-racist mentality is not foreign to Catholicism, but rather is “deeply embedded in the Catholic DNA.”

“We, unfortunately, as U.S. Catholics, have not tapped into the deepest part of our Catholic tradition. That is part of the reason for my hope – the fundamentals of Catholicism and what we stand for are absolutely solid,” he said.

The other thing that the priest said gives him hope is “the persistent witness of black Catholics who have found a sense of nurturance in the Catholic Church, despite its sad counter witness.”

“I wanted to write the book because why would we choose to be a part of this church, given its sad history, and yet I think there have been those who have always been witnesses of the struggle to make the church be more than it, unfortunately, has chosen to be sometimes,” he said.

Fr. Massingale continued, “There are a growing number of Catholics who are seeing this as an issue that needs to be engaged and that, indeed, was why I wrote the book; I wanted to get the conversation started and it’s been gratifying to me that it’s happening.”

As an example of that conversation and the hope he holds for the church, addressing racism was an evening of reflection held last Lent at St. Margaret Mary Parish, Milwaukee. Titled “Racism and Poverty: Evening of Reflection in Light of God’s Mercy,” the structure, according to Fr. Massingale, was to gather as a people who are “part of a church which has a sinful and tragic past and present living in a broken society, yet we gather as a people of faith realizing that brokenness and human division are not the final words in God’s perspective.”

More than 350 people attended – what he termed “a hopeful sign that there are a growing number of Catholics who see the need to engage this issue.”

The priest noted that the prophets constantly called communities to accountability, often saying difficult things, “but always with a promise that there can be a new beginning.”

“And the way to ritualize this was to have the community come forward and to have their hands washed and to wash each other’s hands, and I explained this wasn’t an act of magic; we’re still going to leave, and still live in a broken world, but we leave as changed individuals and as a changed community committed to continue the struggle for a more just society.”

Future church

What would a racially reconciled or racially just church look like and do for Fr. Massingale? The priest provided a litany of answers about the church he would like to see 20-30 years from now:

  • “I would hope that the leadership of the Catholic Church would better reflect its demographics.”
  • “I would hope that our worship would reflect a greater comfort and ease with cultural diversity, that we wouldn’t hear complaints of, ‘Why do we need to sing in Spanish?’ and ‘We don’t have any of “them” here.’ We’d realize that we are all brothers and sisters and that we’re a catholic church and that we’d be proud to pray in Catholic ways that are universal.”
  • “… a church where a concern for the immigrant would not be seen solely as a political hot potato, but that we would see a concern for immigration as obviously flowing from our faith – faith in that Jesus called us to welcome the stranger.”
  • “…a church that would not raise an eyebrow when the leader of their faith community would be of a different race or ethnic group than they are.”
  • “We would see being anti-racist as just as Catholic as being anti-abortion. I often say that, and people look at me very strange, and I say, ‘I’m not saying anything that Pope John Paul II hasn’t said during his last pastoral visit to St. Louis in 1999. In the context of being unconditionally pro-life, he called for Catholics to eradicate every form of racism. I like his phrase being ‘unconditionally pro-life.’”
  • “And I hope the Catholic Church of the future would see anti-racism as part of its unconditional commitment to life.”