Last week I read Letitia Ochoa Adams’ challenging Chapter House piece on white supremacy. It is important, I think, for people like me – white, British and unaffected by the political and social difficulties that beset black Americans – to reflect on what we might not understand about the experience of fellow Christians from different backgrounds.
Letitia and I would presumably disagree on some political matters if we ever met. But I like to hope that, because we were meeting as fellow believers, members of the same universal Church, we might have a deeper unity that transcended such disagreements.
The idea of the Church as a place of racial reconciliation is one that Catholics could do well to reflect on.
The idea of the Church as a place of racial reconciliation is one that Catholics could do well to reflect on. In particular, we need to understand the Church as a place where the hard underlying question of politics – which are fundamentally about power and control – can be, or at least should be, set aside.
When we come together for Christian liturgy, we are coming together not as members of particular political parties, or as a member of an ethnic group or social class, but as the children of God, all sinners in need of forgiveness. St Paul puts it this way in Galatians chapter 3 “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile”.
Of course, it’s easy to have an idealised view of the Church as the meeting place of the brotherhood of mankind. From apartheid South Africa to the segregationist southern states of the USA, all too often churches have imported the divisions and bigotries of the secular world, without challenging them. Catholicism, always a self-consciously international project, perhaps can claim a slightly better record on this than some denominations, but even so we have to reckon with our failures. For example, in Europe’s fascist era, institutional Catholic resistance to parties that proclaimed racial supremacy was patchy, despite the heroics of individual clergy like Maximilian Kolbe, a martyr under Nazism. The response of Spanish and Portuguese churchmen to the enslavement and immiseration of native peoples during the period of Iberian colonisation of South America also left much to be desired, to say the least.
It’s hard to see any other place, except the Catholic Church, where many different racial groups can come together on terms of equality and friendship.
Nor should Catholics assert a mere dogmatic colour-blindness in all situations. It is true that race per se is not a useful category in Catholic theology and that it should not be a dividing line inside the Church. However, we are called to work for justice and peace, and in societies that are or have been divided along racial lines, that means taking into account the particular disadvantages or repression that particular groups have faced.
The French writer Anatole France once noted satirically that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”. His point was that we should not complacently assume the existence of a level playing field between the privileged and non-privileged just because there are no formal legal obstacles to equal achievement.
All that said, in the modern world it’s hard to see any other place, except the Catholic Church, where many different racial groups can come together on terms of equality and friendship, where we can create the genuine trust and affection that is necessary for a peaceful and stable multi-racial society. The effectiveness of political solutions to race relations will always be limited, because the instruments available to politicians are relatively crude and must always ultimately involve the blunt tools of coercion and law.
In the Church, by contrast, our focus is on grace and mercy and the universal need for repentance. Co-existence can be worked out on terms other than those of power relations. Whatever our ethnicity, our common starting point is to confess to God that – as the response to the EcceAgnus Dei has it – “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof”.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House contributor. He also writes for UnHerd.