Americans have watched many of the events of this summer in horror: video after video of black men being shot by police, then the ambush killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The discord stems from ongoing urban street violence, terror attacks around the world and the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Some protestors shout “black lives matter,” and others counter with “all lives matter,” seemingly in repudiation, not agreement. Even while many decry the violence and appeal for calm, a recent New York Times-CBS News poll found that nearly 70 percent of Americans think that relationships between the races are bad, and close to 60 percent think they are getting worse.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose president and members have joined the appeals for peace with statements following several incidents, on July 21 announced a national Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities on Sept. 9, the feast of St. Peter Claver. That same day, the bishops’ conference announced the creation of a task force “to support bishops in marking that Day of Prayer, and more broadly, in promoting peace and healing during this time of great strain on civil society,” according to the news release announcing the efforts.
Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who will chair the task force, said the church’s long tradition of Catholic social teaching puts it in a unique position to appeal for people to bridge what appears to be a growing racial divide.
“We have in our portfolio the Church’s social teaching and the good work of many dioceses on this issue,” Archbishop Gregory told Our Sunday Visitor. “Violent incidents and brutal rhetoric have upped the ante. … We are in a very, very fraught moment in our nation’s history. We are at the beginning of an important dialogue that we hope will be something for the Church not just to respond in the face of tragedy but for the Church to engage in trying to avoid serious conflict.”
Exactly how to do that is something the task force must address, Archbishop Gregory said, after it is finalized. Archbishop Gregory has served as USCCB president (2001-2004), chairman of the USCCB Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (2008-2011) and USCCB moderator of Jewish affairs (2010-2013).
Other members include Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Social Development; Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee for African American Affairs; Bishop John H. Ricard, bishop emeritus of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, former chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee on the Church in Africa, member of the USCCB Subcommittee for African American Affairs, and member of the board of the National Black Catholic Congress; and Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, California, chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD).
Archbishop Gregory said bishop consultants will include USCCB vice president Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and other bishops whose jurisdictions have experienced extreme gun violence or who otherwise bring special insight or experience. Lay consultants also are expected.
Archbishop Gregory said he doesn’t know exactly why this summer has become so volatile.
“If I knew why, I could solve this by myself,” he said, but added that the aggressive tone of civil discourse amplifies tension rather than resolves it.
“We have not advanced the conversations that are necessary to hear one another,” he said. “We have either lost or forgotten how to do that.”
Degrees of peril
Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, has addressed issues of racial division and police mistreatment of people of color in two pastoral letters (“The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015,” issued Jan. 1, 2015, and “The Catholic Church and The Black Lives Matter Movement: The Racial Divide in the United States Revisited,” issued Feb. 26, 2016) and in a recent essay. He took up the same theme in a talk July 21 to the Social Action Summer Institute at St. Xavier University in Chicago.
In his talk, Bishop Braxton said that people associated with the Black Lives Matter movement to whom he has reached out don’t see the Catholic Church as particularly relevant or helpful to their struggle.
“The movement does not give much thought at all to the Catholic Church and assumes the Church doesn’t give much thought to them, either,” he said. “To them, we’re in two different worlds. … To the extent they think about the Church, they think the Church is more a part of the problem than part of the solution.”
To counter those who see the Black Lives Matter movement as a collection of “terrorists” who call for the killing of police, Bishop Braxton quoted one leader of the movement, DeRay Mckesson, who was arrested in a Baton Rouge protest, as expressing sympathy to the families of the police officers killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge and saying that members want to live in a world “where people don’t die by gunfire.”
But, he said, it must be clear that Black Lives Matter is a loose movement with no formal leadership of membership rolls.
To those who say “all lives matter,” as if to repudiate those who say “black lives matter,” Bishop Braxton said, “If you simply say, ‘All lives matter,’ there is a danger of falsely implying that every group of Americans is facing the same degree of peril that then makes it possible to ignore or deny pressing issues like the frequent violent and fatal treatment of African-Americans in the face of minor or suspected misconduct. They seem to be tried, convicted and sentenced to death on the streets.”
Whether or not advocates of the Black Lives Matter movement see the Church as an ally in their struggle against unequal treatment, Archbishop Gregory pointed to the historical involvement of Catholic and other religious leaders in the civil rights movement and the long history of Catholic social teaching.
“In the history of the social justice question in the arena of the African-American struggle for civil rights, the Church — not just the Catholic Church — has been instrumental,” Archbishop Gregory said. “Are we in a different moment? Are there people who might not see what the Church has done and can do? That does not dismiss the potential role that the Church can fill, that the Church must involve itself in works of peace and work of social engagement. We cannot listen to those who say, ‘Times have changed.’ Look at what we have done as we face such a volatile moment.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.