Roman Catholic Bishop Braxton of Belleville, IL wrote a pastoral letter on the racial divide in the United States for the World Day of Peace this year. In this letter, he expressed the hope that Catholics across the country would use it as a resource for prayerful reflection on the state of racial relations in our communities, church, and nation.
In early January, some of us got together on Twitter for a discussion of the letter, using the hashtag #RaceLetter. This post presents the discussion questions we used to structure the discussion, and includes a set of resources for further reading and discussion. The conversation itself was storified, so you can read and reflect on the thoughtful responses of a small but varied group of Catholics and non-Catholics to this letter.
If your parish, small group, or group of friends is looking for material with which to reflect on past and present racism in the Catholic church in the US, I hope you will find these materials useful. If you have additional resources or stories to share, please do share them in the comments.
Study questions on Bishop Braxton’s letter
The questions refer to sections of the letter, so you will probably want it open at hand. Questions are numbered N.a, where N is one of the 6 sections of the letter, plus a 7th set for wrapup questions. They move through the first three sections relatively quickly, with more emphasis on sections 4, 5, and 6. These are starter questions; participants should feel free to contribute additional questions or comments.
Let’s begin with a silent prayer that the Holy Spirit will open our hearts & guide our discussion in a true spirit of charity; and ask the special intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron of the Americas.
Here is Bishop Braxton’s invitation in this letter:
I have invited you to enter into dialogue and prayer about complex and difficult issues without passing premature judgment on those with whom you might disagree.
The primary objective has been to assist you in thinking, talking, and praying about how Americans of different racial backgrounds relate to one another at this critical juncture.
1A. What was your reaction to the first section?
1B. What is your current & past parish experience on race? Who’s in the congregation?
2A. Of the 10 observations in section 2, were any new ideas to you? Do you disagree with any?
2B. The letter then identifies 4 reactions to current events: fleeting news; concerned; protesters are wrong; profoundly distressed. Which describe your reactions? Which reactions have you encountered from others?
2C. How did you react to Bp Braxton’s stories of walking/driving while black?
Section 3 describes the cases of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Antonio Martin, & Tamir Rice.
3A. Were you previously aware of all these cases? How did you learn of them?
3B. Very broadly, how do the descriptions in the letter match your understanding of the killings&protests?
4A. Did you know of the church’s slave-owning&segregated past? How did you learn? How do you feel about it?
4B. Did you know of the efforts during CivilRights era? Had you heard of/read the 1979 & 1984 USCCB documents?
4C. The letter includes several excerpts from 1979 document “Brothers & Sisters to Us.” What strikes you in these passages?
One excerpt says:
The structures of our society are subtly racist…Perhaps no single individual is to blame…
The sin is social in nature in that each of us,in varying degrees,is responsible.All of us in some measure are accomplices.
4D. Had you previously heard this concept of “structural sin”? What do you think of it? How does it fit with your understanding of sin?
4E. Did you know that racism is a sin? How did you learn? Do you hear about it at mass or religious ed? How?
4F. The letter includes several excerpts from 1984 document “What We Have Seen & Heard.” What strikes you in these passages?
4G. Did you know freedom was an important religious concept for AfricanAmericans? Is it important in your spirituality?
4H. Do you think the Church should make more statements about racism today, or are these documents enough?
5A. Section 5 raises concerns about the term “minority.” Is this language you hear or use? Do you think the concerns are valid?
5B. The letter suggests that such language helps “to maintain the racial divide” & should be dropped. Do you agree?
6A. How should we examine our consciences regarding racism & the racial divide? Do you have ideas or resources?
6B. What does white privilege mean to you? Do you think it helps/hurts with respect to the racial divide?
6C. Do you have any additional study resources, or film suggestions, to share?
7A. Any final thoughts or comments on the letter as a whole?
7B. What do you feel called to do in response to this reflection: prayer, study, talk, or action? Personally or in your parish?
– Statement of Catholic Theologians on Racial Justice
– The Catholic Committee of Appalachia’s statement on Systemic Racism & Police Violence Against People of Color
– Revisiting Racism: Black Theology and a Legacy of Oppression, by Catholic womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland
– Catholic Social Teaching and Racism, an article from the Jesuit Social Research Institute
– Catholics and racism: from examination of conscience to examination of culture, a 2012 column from National Catholic Reporter
– A column from The Religion Teacher on teaching about prejudice and racism in the classroom
– Remembering the “Catholic Role in the Civil Rights Movement at one particular basketball game
– Resources for Ferguson: Racism Today is the Ultimate Evil in Our World, from the Ignatian Solidarity Network
– A collection of resources on Catholic social teaching on discrimination and racism (compiled by the Catholic Democrats, but linking directly to USCCB and Vatican documents)
On the Black Catholic experience:
– Parishes with a Strong Black Catholic Presence, from the USCCB
– Timely Ministry Resources for Black Catholics from the USCCB, in light of the 50th anniversaries of several important civil rights milestones
– Racial Justice in the Catholic Church, a book by Bryan N. Massingale
– Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience, edited by M. Shawn Copeland
From the wider church:
– Lenten Disciplines for Racial Justice
– #ReclaimHolyWeek and Holy Week of Resistance:”a national call to action consisting of locally organized, autonomous, yet Holy Week related actions and events that contribute to the manifest liberation struggles of all Oppressed Persons, beginning with Black and Brown Peoples.”