diversity crayonsHere comes everybody else

Our color in the Crayola box of “flesh tones” shouldn’t determine our place in the church.

Corporate reorganizations have become so common that they hardly merit mention, even when the corporation in question is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The USCCB has been under steady pressure to reduce costs and has just completed a process of “streamlining.” As anyone who’s been reorganized or streamlined well knows, that means cutting staff and departments.

Some surprising victims of the organizational ax were the offices devoted to the various ethnic, linguistic, and cultural groups in the church. The once-separate secretariats for Hispanic affairs and African American Catholics, along with the office for migrants and refugees, were reduced to subcommittees in a new Office for Cultural Diversity in the Church, joining new subcommittees for Native Americans and Asians and Pacific Islanders. Three ministries that once required 15 employees are now five that need only 11 workers.

The National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry (NCCHM), comprising more than 60 ministry groups, universities, publishers, and religious communities, responded with a strongly worded letter presented to the U.S. bishops at their November meeting in Baltimore. The NCCHM expressed two concerns: first, that ministry to Hispanic Catholics, the coming majority of the church in the United States, would be diminished; and second, that the new office “structurally divides the church into two groups—one for Catholics who are white, and the other for Catholics who are not.” The latter should raise eyebrows, as it in effect accuses the bishops of a kind of racism, though the NCCHM expresses certainty that it was unintended.

But the council’s statement should give us all pause because it contains no small amount of truth. A snapshot of the groups served by the new committee would show its members to be generally poorer, darker in skin tone, and less likely to speak English as a first language than Catholics not judged “diverse.” The label “Hispanic” alone covers such an amazing variety of national and cultural groups that it almost breaks under the pressure.

Even more, how is it that an office for “cultural diversity” excludes the current yet shrinking majority: “white” or Euro-American Catholics. Which do they lack: culture or diversity? The irony becomes richer when we recall that “white” Catholics were nothing of the sort two generations ago, when the mainstream white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant majority looked down their prim noses at the papist ethnics who didn’t speak English (and even at the Irish who did). Their children became “white” only when they joined the professional classes and elected a Catholic president.

We should, of course, have some compassion for our bishops. Given the history of this country, issues of immigration, race, class, and language make up one enormous minefield. But how we Catholics negotiate being a multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual institution of millions of people could set the tone for how the rest of the country manages the same transition in the years ahead.

First on the list of things to do is to remember that our church is both one and catholic. Our unity charges us to hold the whole human family together. Our catholicity no less demands that we value equally the many varieties our family contains, regardless of their numbers in any one place. There can be no majority rule among the People of God, though the current, newly “white,” English-speaking majority sometimes has behaved as if there were. Even when Hispanic American Catholics outnumber all others, the unique needs of African or Vietnamese American Catholics will require no less attention.

With this in mind, we U.S. Catholics of every race and language should heed the NCCHM’s pledge and call to “work even closer with our bishops” as we struggle to value in word and deed both our unity and our diversity. “White” Catholics like me need to stop thinking of ourselves as the norm against which “diversity” is defined, an attitude that has at times made the church as unjust as the society around it. For their part Catholics currently officially labeled “diverse,” perhaps through organizations such as the NCCHM and the National Black Catholic Congress, must push harder than ever to keep us all honest to our catholicity, in which unity shines equally in its many hues and voices.

Bryan Cones is associate editor of U.S. Catholic. This article appeared in the February 2008 (Volume 73, Number 2; page 8) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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