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Underlying racism and other-isms of the Church as institution

Despite the worldwide demonstrations in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, Sarah-Leah Pimentel argues that racism cannot be overcome until there is a profound structural transformation at the level of governments and other powerful institutions — including the Catholic Church.

I’ve been struggling to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests in the United States. Partly, it comes down to my natural cynicism. This terrible crime was committed against a black man. It wasn’t the first time. Sadly, it won’t be the last.

Every few years there is an incident or a series of events that reminds us once again that the battle against racism isn’t over. Today, the focus is on black people in America. Last month, it was black people in China. Tomorrow it might be black migrants arriving on boats in Italy. Next year, it might be discrimination of refugees arriving from Syria or some other war-torn country.

How many times will I need to write “not in my name?”

How many times will I, as a white person, have to hang my head in shame and acknowledge that the people with whom I share a cultural and historic heritage have still not learnt that we are all equal before God? That no human being is ever any less deserving of respect and dignity than I am? How many times will I have to black out my profile picture as a sign of solidarity? How many times will I need to write “not in my name?”

And after the million-person marches, the posters, the slogans, and the debates, is there any real change in attitudes? Perhaps individual people come to a growing awareness that black lives, brown lives, Muslim lives are not expedient, that all lives are of equal value. That is a starting point.

But until we can see policy changes at the highest levels of the world’s governments, police departments, and border posts, we are going to keep seeing these travesties of justice throughout the world.

Subliminal racism in the Catholic Church

I felt that all I could do this time, was to take on the challenge set by Fr. Bryan Massingale, who provided a suggestion of how white people can respond to racism. It came in one line. “Sit in the discomfort this hard truth brings.” Sit with the discomfort of how these events affect me. Allow myself to recognize the limits of my ability to empathise, weep, be angry by the effects of racism in my own context.

I did, as a white, South African, Catholic woman. As my thoughts were leaping around in various directions, it suddenly hit me: How can we as a Catholic Church legitimately speak truth to power to the governments of the world, calling for an end to racism when our own institutional structures are white and male?

Sit in the discomfort this hard truth brings.

Fr. Bryan Massingale

Can we truly speak of transformation, when in 2,000 years of her history, all the popes have been white? Only now, in the latter age, is there a Pope who is not European. Even though Pope Francis is from South America, he is still of Italian heritage. How long will it take before there is an African or an Asian pope? The College of Cardinals is becoming more diverse in its representation, but I truly doubt that the centre of power has shifted sufficiently and that the Church would elect a person of colour as the next pope.

What message does that send to the Church’s 1.2 billion Catholics, most of whom are not white or European?

Similarly what message does the Church as an institution send to its faithful, when it acknowledges the hunger of its (almost exclusively black and indigenous) members in far-flung places like the Amazon or the Congo Basin who are only able to receive the sacraments sporadically, but does not offer them a meaningful and immediately actionable solution, even after an entire Synod dedicated to their concerns was held?

Even worse, the indigenous religious figure “Pachamama,” that served as a symbol of the Synod, was thrown into the Tiber river by a group claiming that the image was heretical and an insult to God. The Vatican spokesperson downplayed the incident, describing it as theft.

These are just two examples. But there are many more tell-tale signs of this underlying white racial superiority, from statues of white saints saving black souls in South African churches to urban (often white) Catholics in lockdown demanding the reopening of churches so that they can receive the Eucharist without any sign of compassion for thousands of their brothers and sisters in Christ who are routinely denied the sacraments.

The other-isms

Although the focus of this piece is the unspoken racism that continues to pervade the Catholic Church, this crushing white superiority seeps into other areas of the Church, in which all those who are not white, hetererosexual males are relegated to the margins.

Sexism keeps women waiting for a time when they can participate in the life of the Church with the same authority and respect as their male counterparts.

Pope Francis often speaks about “machismo,” that is, an aggressive masculine pride. This machismo discriminates not only against women, but all those who do not fit easily into its moulds: the LGBTI community, the mentally ill (until relatively recently the Church refused to bury suicide victims), those who live at the margins of society trying to eke out a living through prostitution, begging, or petty crime.

Machismo discriminates not only against women, but all those who do not fit easily into its moulds.

Despite the Church’s teaching on charity and care for the poor as an act of unconditional love, I have seen judgemental attitudes towards these groups that sees them as lost souls facing condemnation and that we, their moral superiors, can lead them into salvation. At worst, we ignore them or blame them for the ills in society and the Church.

A need for inner conversion

I have painted a poor picture of Catholicism. This does not deny the incredible work that is being done in so many parts of the world that actively seeks to right the wrongs of inequality in all its forms.

Unfortunately, the same argument holds true for the Church as it does for society. Until institutions are transformed at the highest level, we will continue to see the travesties of justice for people of colour around the world.

On 3 June 2020, Pope Francis said: “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form.” These words should not serve only as an admonition to racial inequality in secular society. They should also be a challenge for us.

We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form.

pope francis

As Christians, as Catholics, how do we knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate racism and exclusion among ourselves? Do we support power structures that systematically marginalize more than half of the world’s Catholics in one way or another?

We need a deep inner transformation and conversion of heart if we truly want to exemplify the change we are demanding from politicians.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.