Are you a social sinner?

An interview with Father Bryan Massingale

Bryan Massingale recalls a particularly memorable trip to the grocery store with his grandmother when he was growing up in Milwaukee. They were stopped in a traffic jam caused by protesters clogging the streets. When Bryan asked what was up, his grandmother told him, “Those people are marching for your rights.” Some of those carrying picket signs were nuns and priests. He never forgot them.

Today Massingale has taken up the mantle of working for social justice. One of the most sought-after speakers in the U.S. church today, he gives talks and writes on everything from peace to politics to AIDS. The issue he is most passionate about, however, is racism. In fact, Massingale is currently helping the U.S. bishops draft a pastoral letter on racism scheduled to be released next fall.

A priest since 1983, he teaches theology at Marquette University. During our interview, he repeatedly mentioned that he encourages his students to presume the best intentions of those with whom they disagree. He consistently did just that.

When you’re out in parishes, what’s your impression of the average Catholic’s grasp of Catholic social teaching?

I did a number of presentations in parishes last fall on Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops’ letter on political responsibility, and I saw a rampant lack of understanding of Catholic social thought. At one parish it degenerated into a shouting match between a Kerry supporter and a Bush supporter, with one screaming that this administration is massacring thousands of Iraqis in the war, and the other saying, “You really don’t care about unborn babies.” It really got ugly.

At some parishes it turned out to be a very partisan experience. People expected me to tell them how Catholic social teaching shows that their candidate is clearly Catholic and the other is clearly not. Of course, I didn’t do that. I took the approach of Faithful Citizenship, which was an approach that frankly satisfied no one in the room, neither the Kerry nor the Bush supporters.

It was interesting that the same people who were praising the pope for having a very strong stance on abortion and stem cell research were absolutely opposed to his positions on war and peace and capital punishment. There’s a curious disconnect between people’s views on life issues and the Catholic Church’s position on social issues. In general, Catholics are not skilled at looking at issues of politics and social morality from the standpoint of faith.

Why not?

We haven’t trained them to do it. Issues of social justice are not heard from the pulpit. Most of our priests simply don’t know how to preach on those issues or are afraid to.

When I ask my students what they have heard about social justice issues, most of them say that apart from the Advent giving tree or a Confirmation service project, nothing. So their understanding of Catholic social teaching is that we should be engaged in works of charity for the unfortunate but not in critiquing social structures.

But what distinguishes the church’s contemporary concern for the poor is that we work not only to relieve the obvious symptoms of poverty but also to attack the causes of poverty. In other words: Yes, I need to give my old clothing to the homeless, but I also need to ask, “Why is there homelessness?” It’s not either/or; it’s both/and. We must offer the response of charity but also remember the demands of justice. What are the structural conditions that lead to people being in need in the first place?

But we haven’t taught our people how to be political without being partisan. We need to discuss these issues in a way that calls both major parties to task rather than saying that Catholic social teaching supports one as being the “Catholic party” and the other one not.

How can we be political without being partisan?

Catholic social teaching is not intended to give us definitive answers. It can give us a lens to use to look at social reality from a standpoint of faith.

At the Faithful Citizenship programs, I closed with a section on political discernment called “How to decide when neither candidate is perfect.” I talked about the importance of prayer, of listening to the debates, and then turning off the TV and asking yourself, “What did I hear concerning care for the environment? Concerning care for the poor and the vulnerable? Concerning the common good? What did I hear about advancing peace and the promotion of justice for all, not just for myself? What did I hear about a global sense of solidarity?” Then take that to prayer and use those questions to reach a judgment.

So what exactly is Catholic social teaching?

It’s a body of teaching given by the leaders of the church, usually the pope or bishops, that seeks to apply the insights of the scriptures and Christian convictions to issues of social, political, and economic importance in contemporary life. It’s generally seen as beginning with Rerum Novarum (Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encylical on capital and labor) and continuing to the present, the latest document being the just-released compendium of Catholic social teaching (see sidebar on page 21).

Catholic social teaching basically tries to answer the question, “Now that I’m a disciple of Christ, what does that discipleship mean for living in society today?”

What are some of those teachings?

Catholic social teaching makes no sense unless you realize that at its core is a conviction of the intrinsic sacred dignity of the human person—that all people, regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or any human characteristic, are sons and daughters of God and have a dignity that is not a human conferral. In other words, our responsibility is not to give dignity to other people but to recognize and protect dignity that is already there.

The second point of Catholic social teaching flows from that and says that every human being, by virtue of being human, has certain fundamental human rights, including the rights to food, clothing, shelter, medical care, basic education, a living wage, and the right to work in a safe environment.

Another major foundation of Catholic social thought is that we are bound to each other in a network of care, called solidarity. So there’s no such thing as a “self-made” man or woman. I can only become who God meant me to be by rubbing shoulders with lots of different people. That also means that we all are truly responsible for everyone.

A final pillar of Catholic social teaching is that the poor and the vulnerable have a special claim upon the Christian conscience. I think this is the most controversial aspect of Catholic social teaching in the United States.

Is the church saying that God favors poor people?

It doesn’t mean that the poor are holier than others or more moral or more upstanding. It does mean that because the poor are often most vulnerable and most targeted for exploitation, God has a special concern and care for them, and the community should also have a special concern and care for them.

It’s like when I was the only one of my siblings who never had my tonsils out. When you got your tonsils out, you were treated like royalty: You got ice cream for dessert and didn’t have to walk the dog. I remember going to my mom and being very upset, saying, “You love them more than you love me.” My mom explained to me that she loved all her children, but that the others were sick and needed her more than I did. My mother wasn’t a theologian, but she perfectly explained the option for the poor.

Earlier you used the term “common good.” What does that mean?

It’s our public life together that makes human flourishing possible. Another way of explaining common good is to use the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” People can’t achieve their human potential in isolation or apart from what’s going on in society around them.

In the U.S. we’ve segmented our social lives, with people living in gated communities and trying to live their lives in social bubbles so they don’t have to deal with “undesirable elements.” But that’s a myth. The idea that you can have a healthy community in isolation from the wider society is simply ludicrous.

Americans learned on September 11 that we are connected to the world, whether we choose to be or not. We cannot gate ourselves; we are far more interdependent than we want to admit.

What is the teaching called the “social mortgage”?

Pope John XXIII was the first to use that expression in his social teaching, but it’s a very ancient insight from the Fathers of the church. It says that ownership of private property is not an absolute right. It must always be used on behalf of the common good of society. My property is not simply mine to do whatever I want with it. Whatever I own is ultimately a gift from God. We’re simply stewards of these goods to be administered as God would intend them to be used.

Does that tie into materialism?

Yes, because we’ve become a nation of consumers rather than citizens. Pope John Paul II’s teaching on consumerism—perhaps the least appreciated aspect of his social teaching—says that in a consumer society, personal worth is determined by what you have, how much you have, and your ability to get more. Having replaces being.

Besides reducing ourselves to our possessions, consumerism also means the poor are literally worthless. In a consumerist society what the poor have isn’t worth having, and they certainly can’t get more. So then, as the pope says, they are seen as “irksome intruders,” trying to consume what others have produced.

I believe that one of the next great frontiers of Catholic social thought will be to examine what it means to be a Christian in a consumerist society. In the U.S. we’re living on an island of affluence surrounded by an ocean of misery.

Why hasn’t any bishop said that politicans who don’t make the needs of the poor a priority can’t receive Communion, as some did with abortion?

Many bishops and most Catholics approach moral issues from the standpoint of identifying individual actors who are personally responsible. That comes from a very traditional understanding of sin in which you need to have personal knowledge plus the freedom to commit this act that you know is against the moral law.

In that framework it’s much easier to go to Confession and say, “Father, I confess that I helped my girlfriend procure an abortion,” versus going into the confessional saying, “Father, I aided and abetted a society that’s morally indifferent to the poor.”

This same kind of tension is also found in our teaching on racism. The U.S. bishops’ teaching is far more willing to condemn racism when it’s a matter of blatant acts of prejudice or discrimination perpetrated by an individual or group of individuals, such as people who would burn a cross on the yard of an interracial couple’s home or an employer who consciously refuses to hire African Americans or Latinos. It’s much more reticent in critiquing a social system that perpetrates racial inequality on automatic pilot.

I don’t think many bishops, nor many Catholics, truly understand what we mean when we talk about structures of sin or social sin.

What exactly is social sin?

Social institutions and processes are not morally neutral; they reflect the values and the biases of those who create and maintain them.

So let’s say, for the sake of argument, there was a society that believed that men were more valuable or superior to women. If that’s a widespread value in a society, then you’re going to create systems of language, religion, economics, and family life that reflect that bias. That’s what we mean by social sin.

We are then born into a world already formed by these structures, and we grow up thinking that these structures and the values that they incarnate are perfectly normal and legitimate. One of the characteristics of social sin, then, is that we’re often blind to its existence.

How does the concept of social sin apply to the issue of racism, for example?

One of the key concepts in contemporary thinking about racial justice is white privilege. Because we live in a society that attaches a pervasive social stigma to dark skin color, those with light skin color have certain advantages, privileges, and benefits that persons of color do not enjoy. Conversely, people of color have certain systemic disadvantages, burdens, and stigmas that they have to overcome.

From a white perspective everything is normal, because white people don’t see the advantages that are inherent simply by being born in society with physical characteristics prized by society.

It shows up in common everyday occurrences, such as the fact that people often express surprise that an African American is “intelligent” and “articulate.” I wish I had $5 for every time a white person has said that to me! It shows how they’ve been malformed by an ethos that they aren’t even aware of. That’s the structural sin of white privilege and white advantage.

What still needs to be done about racism?

Perhaps the area of race relations that is most resistant to change is housing. African Americans still encounter far more pervasive discrimination in the process of housing selection and mortgage lending than any other racial or ethnic group. This is important because residence is significant for determining so many things—access to education, health care, even wealth.

African Americans are still more racially segregated than either Latinos or Asians. Some people think that’s due to their own preference, that they want to “live with their own kind.” Yet, on paper, both blacks and whites say they want to live in an integrated neighborhood. But each has a very different understanding of what “integrated” is.

African Americans would see the most desirable racial mixture as 35 to 50 percent black. For most whites, that’s too much integration. Studies show that 8 percent black is the tolerance level for whites. So racial segregation is a major place where we need to look at making systemic changes if we’re going to move beyond where we are right now.

Another thing—and this may sound very elementary—is that, because of enduring residential segregation, most white people have very little chance to talk to a black person concretely about his or her life experience. Without that, you’re not going to make substantial progress in race relations. And this is where the Catholic Church can make a very powerful contribution, because the Catholic community cuts across all income and racial groups.

We are not taught how to talk about race in an interracial context. Whites talk about race among themselves, blacks talk about race among themselves, Latinos talk about race among themselves. But when we get together, there is this strange code of civility that results in silence or avoidance. And as long as that’s there, there’s very little chance for any kind of understanding to take place.

Tell us about the new pastoral letter on racism that you’re assisting the bishops with.

First let me say that the first pastoral letter on racism, Brothers and Sisters to Us, was a very significant achievement for the Catholic community. For the first time in the history of the United States, the bishops of the United States declared that racism is a sin. That was a pretty bold and significant move.

It also was one of the first documents that began to look at what the bishops called “anonymous sinfulness”—that the sinfulness of racism wasn’t carried simply by deliberate acts of malicious individuals; it could be carried by a social system.

But that document was not without its flaws. Just consider the title the bishops used: Brothers and Sisters to Us. Who’s the “us”? This was a document for white people, addressed to white people. Our teaching is not done from the perspective of those who are the victims of this injustice.

And the world today is not the world of 1979, when the document was written. There has been a seismic shift in the demographic composition of the U.S. The last census revealed that less than two thirds of Americans belong to the “white-only” group.

So what do you see as the greatest internal challenge for the church when it comes to racism?

According to the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 46 percent of the Catholic Church in America is people of color. You wouldn’t know that by looking at the leadership of the church—not just the bishops but also the leaders in our major Catholic organizations and universities.

The Catholic Church can’t be credible in talking about racism if it doesn’t call itself to account. The demographic shift that’s going on within the Catholic Church is posing urgent questions it has to address if it’s going to remain viable. The church is getting browner. It has to adjust to that reality.

Another issue the bishops need to address is new forms of resistance to racial inclusion as the dominant group feels threatened by its loss of numbers.

What are some of those new forms of resistance?

The glass-ceiling phenomenon would be one. Studies have shown that while African Americans experience few barriers in being admitted to entry-level positions, when it comes to promotion to middle or senior management, that’s when women and racial minorities encounter the next barrier. I call it the resurgence of tokenism, where people of color are present but in limited numbers and in very limited kinds of positions.

Another form of resistance is the use of the Internet as a tool for racist propaganda. If you Google the “N-word,” you are directed to millions of sites, some with the most vile forms of racial intolerance that are deliberately targeted at kids. We also have the rise of white supremacist music targeted at young people.

Another form of resistance is what I call “rational racism” or “reasonable discrimination.” That’s when people say, “Granted, not all blacks are lazy, dumb, and violent, but most are, and therefore, I am justified in treating you as if you are until you prove that you’re not.”

That would seem to be progress, since they’re not saying all black people are lazy, dumb, and violent. But it puts the person of color in the hole, so they’re always having to prove themselves. That justifies, for example, cab drivers passing by an African American. So the cab driver’s not being prejudiced, he’s simply exercising a “rational” form of caution.

How can the church help with issues of racial justice?

It needs to be proactive, conscious, and intentional in promoting the fact that one of the glories of being Catholic is that we have people who share our faith but who don’t look like us.

At my parish in Milwaukee, All Saints, because we’re predominantly an African American parish and we have a gospel choir, we always get suburban parishes who send their religious education classes to our church. Afterward I’ll go to our visitors, who are always white, and I’ll say, “Why are you here?” Most of them look uncomfortable and say they don’t know.

So I have them look around, I point out the variety of people present, and I say, “This is why you are here. You are here because you are practicing for the kingdom of God. Because when you get to the kingdom, not everyone is going to look like you.”

No one has ever talked to them about race relations like that, in the context of faith. That is one of my missions in life, to engage the issue of race, not simply as a justice issue, although it is that, but to engage it in the light of faith.

This article appeared in the February 2005 (Volume 70; Number 2: pages 18-22) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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