Abuse of Human Dignity

Traditionally, the January edition of The Priest concentrates on human dignity. For two generations, abortion has been an appalling — and legal — abuse of human dignity in this country, and efforts to reverse this situation cannot lag.

What is the circumstance of these efforts today? Read Russell Shaw’s article on Page 34.

Abuse of human dignity is no stranger to African–Americans. Outrageous abuse weaves its way through every phase of black history in this country, and white Catholics have not been consistently bold in recognizing this abuse, nor in demanding its correction, to say the least. African–American Catholics have brought Christianity, and hope, into the picture by the gradual development of a culture strong in faith and witness.

Conditions tolerant of abuse of human dignity, and firm Catholic belief and behavior, each in its own way, provide incentives, and guides, for evangelization, a goal for the Church put forward by Blessed Pope John Paul II, refined by Pope Benedict XVI and urged with equal insistence by Pope Francis.

This January’s number of The Priest appears with evangelization as its central theme, but the subject comes with particular attention to African–Americans.

In 2009, Warner Bros. releasted “The Blind Side,” the true story of a well-to-do Memphis, Tenn., family that takes a poor African–American teenager into its home. (The teenager is Michael Oher who now plays with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.) In the film, the heroine, mother of the white family, Leigh Ann Tuohy, played by Sandra Bullock, visits the young black’s home in a public housing project. Later she tells her friends, “I have been in Memphis all my life, and I never knew people had to live that way,” referring to what she had seen.

Very many white Catholics, and very many priests, could say that they have been in the United States all their lives, and they have no idea of how many African–Americans must live.

Here are some data from Bread for the World. They come from respected research. (Check their website: www.bread.org/what-we-do/resources/fact-sheets/african-american-poverty.pdf)

• One in four African–Americans lives below the federal poverty line, while one in eight Caucasian–Americans exists in poverty.

• More than one in three black children live in poverty, while one in five white youth are in poverty.

• A third of all black children live in households where putting food daily on the tables is an issue.

• African–Americans have lower median incomes than other ethnic groups.

• Forty-six percent of African–Americans live in homes they own, while 67 percent of the rest of the population lives in homes owned by occupants. (Homeownership is a particularly important measure, and incentive, in social survival. Families in homes that they own significantly are more stable and more prosperous, truancy and dropouts are less frequent among youths, marriages are stronger, and so on.)

• Unemployment is disproportionally higher among African–Americans, and not just since the 2009 economic recession, although blacks suffered more from the recession than did other ethnic or racial groups.

• Obviously low incomes, or unemployment, means very many black families cannot accumulate assets for use when rainy days come, making them even more vulnerable to the ifs, ands, and buts of life.

• African–Americans have higher rates of high school dropouts and lower rates of college graduation in a day and time when education is so needed for well-paying jobs.

Many other studies, with similar findings, are available in many places.

Profound was that line in “The Blind Side,” “I never knew people had to live that way.”

It reveals the distance that inevitably lies between rich and poor, but especially between affluent whites and poor blacks in this country. Of course, barriers have fallen, certainly considering what was the case as recently as 40 years ago. Surely, blacks move freely in many strata of society. Still, the distance is wide.

This is why well-intentioned, even principled, people, including white American Catholics, and their white priests, simply do not realize the situation.

These unfortunate data are more than mere social indicators. For Catholics inclined to follow the papal admonitions regarding evangelization, they deliver a moral imperative. Evangelization is not only the apostolic work required to bring souls into the one flock with one shepherd. It also means the riddance of evil in the communities in which we live. The above reported figures can be construed as evil, for they insult and diminish human dignity.

Several decades ago, the drive to eliminate social evil in all forms was compelling among American Catholics of all ethnicities. It was a universal Church priority, thanks in large part to the endeavors of Pope Paul VI as he responded to the times. Arguably, the sense of urgency has calmed to a degree in this regard. It well may be part of the reason that not every Catholic has enlisted, other than verbally, in the pro-life movement.

In any case, affronts to human dignity are immoral, and until they are eradicated from living experience, communities of the well-to-do, as well as of the disadvantaged, will be less than harmonious and less in keeping with the divine law.

Many whites, and many blacks, while hardly delighting in any present cause of unhappiness, think that nothing can be done. Turns in public opinion over the recent past have made louder voices that insist that if the unfortunate just pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, the good ol’ American way, everything would be fine. It is not that easy, certainly not for so many African–Americans. Racism is not just about slavery and lynchings. It is subtle — and it is deep and profound in its effect.

More positively, readers of The Priest are encouraged to see in traditional African–American values attitudes very basic to human nature and to a natural inclination among human beings toward the good and enduring.

Priests cannot be afraid to promote these values: faith in God, love for families, and forbearance. Human history has proven their worth. This assertion comes in the devout belief that the Gospel only is the social blueprint for lives pursued in security and reflecting the very nature, and the will, of God.

In St. Louis in 1999, Blessed John Paul II boldly said that racism is evil. It was by then a long time since the last slave had been sold at the riverfront market in St. Louis, a long time since Missouri forbade the coming together of whites and blacks in schools and public accommodations. The Pope, nevertheless, spoke of racism in the present day, and were he not in heaven, he likely would make the same speech today.

Racism endures. It is evil. It defiles human life. Its effects are created by humans. Humans can reverse the bad effects. First, knowledge is required. Priests especially must recoil from saying, “I never knew. . .” They must educate themselves.

This edition features articles that view African–American Catholicism in the future sense. The first is written by Bishop John Ricard, S.S.J., retired bishop of Pensacola–Tallahassee; then one by Father Kenneth Taylor, of the Indianapolis archdiocese, current president of the National Black Clergy Caucus; one by Father Wayne Carroll Paysse, of the Black and Indian Mission Office; and a reflection of history by the author of this column.

We recommend all our articles heartily, and we pray for a Church and for a world in which God is loved, and in love all are one as God is One.

MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.