Belleville bishop addresses race issues in U.S.

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, August 7, 2016

Catholics have a responsibility to work to bridge the racial divide that is tearing the United States apart, and to work to understand the perspective of black people who feel that the church has not listened to them, Bishop Edward Braxton told about 100 people who participated in the Social Action Summer Institute.

Bishop Braxton, who was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago and now leads the Belleville, Illinois, diocese, spoke July 21 about “The Catholic Church and the Black Lives Matter Movement: The Racial Divide Revisited” to people who mostly work in Catholic social-justice ministry. The institute met July 17-21 at Saint Xavier University on Chicago’s Southwest Side with the theme, “Who Is My Neighbor: Discipleship in the Year of Mercy.”

That theme pertains directly to the divisions now being felt in American society, the bishop said.

“Every single human being on the planet is our neighbor, whether we like them or not, whether we want to live next to them or not, whether we agree with them or not, every single human being on the planet is our neighbor.”

If that is the case, he said, we must respond to the growing racial divide that has become evident in recent months. A New York Times/CBS News poll found 60 percent of people believe that relationships between people of different races are becoming worse, an increase of 38 percent since last year, he said.

Bishop Braxton’s talk highlighted themes of two of his 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. He also drew on an essay with similar themes published July 21 by Catholic News Service.

The talk came after the killing of Alton Sterling by police outside a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, convenience store on July 6; the killing of Philandro Castile in his car in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, on July 7; the killing of five police officers in Dallas that same day by sniper Micah Xavier Johnson, who was later killed by police; and the killing of three police officers in Baton Rouge on July 17 by Gavin Long, who was killed by police.

“In the face of the long list of African-American men who have died in altercations with white police, and the growing list of police officers of both races who have been killed or wounded by African-American men, one way of simplifying a difficult and emotionally stressful situation is to focus on one idea or a mantra like ‘black lives matter,’” he said. “White lives matter. Blue lives matter. Brown lives matter. All lives matter.”

While critics of the Black Lives Matter movement have called its followers “cop killers” and “domestic terrorists,” critics of those who respond to “black lives matter” with “all lives matter” say the broader phrase is “an attempt to turn away from the unique traumatic suffering of the African-American people. … Must it be one mantra or the other? Can it not be both?”

Bishop Braxton said that while it is clear that all lives matter, that doesn’t go far enough.

“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 which then makes it possible to ignore or deny the pressing issues facing the black community, such as the frequent violent, fatal treatment African Americans in the case of minor or suspected misconduct,” he said.

Bishop Braxton said he has reached out to meet with people who identify with the Black Lives Matter movement, and he said that it’s important to understand that it is an informal movement, not an organization with a formal hierarchy and membership rolls. Also, he said, most supporters of it disagree with church teaching on moral matters such as abortion — those nascent black lives matter too, the bishop said — and sexuality and marriage.

If you ask what they think about the Catholic Church, he said, the answer is that they don’t think much about it at all, and if they do, they think it’s more a part of the problem than part of the solution.

“The Catholic Church suffers the consequences of a long, sad history,” Bishop Braxton said, noting that both the Jesuits who built Georgetown University and Bishop John Carroll (the first bishop in the United States) owned slaves, and that the church was not a leader during the abolitionist movement. “This history cannot be undone by a few nice words.”

Bishop Braxton spoke of personal experiences of exclusion, and said that the Catholic Church has a history of failing to engage with the wider African-American community on the level of ideas.

At the same time, he said, he is one of only a handful of African- American bishops and about 300 African-American priests. “In many dioceses, you can find people who have never met a black Catholic,” he said.

But he also spoke of hope. He spoke of Pope Francis, whose address to members of Congress in September recalled four prominent Americans who demonstrated through their actions and their writings that black lives matter.

“As a human being, as a Christian, as a priest, as a bishop, I am theologically optimistic for Christ is our hope. ... But I do not have a naive vision of only racial harmony,” Bishop Braxton said.

He called on his listeners to pray, listen, learn, think and act — even if that means calling attention to racist statements made by friends or colleagues.

“Everyone can do something,” he said, quoting Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata. “There is no excuse for doing nothing.”

The workshops and discussions during the institute had greater focus on racism than she usually hears, according to Adrienne Curry, social action director for the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio.

“In 1979, the USCCB released ‘Brothers and Sisters to Us’ that named racism as a sin,” she said. “You don’t often hear about that.”


  • race
  • bishop edward braxton
  • race relations
  • black lives matter

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