Is It a Sin to Be White?

“To fight racism, Catholics must hunger for justice like we do for the Eucharist.” This was the headline of a joint editorial piece published on America, the Jesuit magazine, upon the aftermath of a week’s worth of mob protest, extensive looting, and the disintegration of public law and order. In just a few words, the struggle for justice—whether in the form of peaceful protest displayed by the late Martin Luther King, Jr., or the uncontrolled mob chaos and property destruction taking place in every major city across America—became morally just, despite the former abiding with the law while the latter thwarts any notion of it, and theologically equivalent to receiving the Eucharist, the true Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Later in the piece, the editors—most of them, presumably, Jesuit priests—implored “white Catholics especially, to conversion, repentance and reconciliation.” Apparently, every white Catholic must go to confession and seek forgiveness for the systemic societal and cultural violence he has supposedly inflicted onto the black community. Apparently, white Catholics are culpable in such social sin due merely to the color of their skin.

For the Jesuits, it isn’t enough to be sorry for one’s personal sins; one must also feel the shame and guilt from being born into a specific race, though it extends beyond the realm of free will. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

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Father Eric Rutten, pastor of Saint Peter Claver in Saint Paul, shared his enlightened thoughts with America on the topic of white supremacy. “The misguided idea that white people can somehow push people around, or that we own this country, or that we own Minneapolis leads to terrible disrespect, leads to poverty, leads to, in this case, violence, and in many cases, violence,” Father Rutten said. America was quick to identify Father as “white.” Yet it seemed to ignore the actual reasons why violence continues to exist in black communities—the breakdown of the family, the opioid crisis, youth unemployment—and rather blamed another racial group entirely.

Father Patrick Saint-Jean, a member of the Jesuit’s Midwest Province, upon reflection on the death of George Floyd, wrote in America that “perhaps all white people need to find a way to better train their ears and eyes to adequately see and hear black people.” The egregious sin of a single man—Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer, who didn’t hear or acknowledging George Floyd’s pleas of “I can’t breathe”—is now the collective sins for all belonging to his particular race. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

In an interview with the Jesuit review, Danielle M. Brown, associate director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ad hoc committee against racism, focused on what must be realized by the laity in this pivotal moment in American Catholic history. “White Catholics have to realize, point blank, we have got to pray about this,” said Ms. Brown. “Even if this ‘does not affect you,’ at this particular moment, it is affecting you because it’s affecting just about everybody.” It’s not Asian, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, or American Indian Catholics that must pray, but only white Catholics, regardless of whether or not they have played an active role in promoting racism. What must be prayed for by all Catholics is the end of the universally violent protests targeting businesses and livelihoods—many of which may be owned by Catholic families—which are being destroyed, pillaged, and literally burned to the ground in the hundreds throughout this nation.

On how to respond as Catholics, America’s editors offered five recommendations: repentance, solidarity, presence, formation, and prayer. On the topic of solidarity, the editors observed that “many Catholics seem too timid to listen [to] and collaborate with new movements, such as Black Lives Matter, that are leading today’s charge for justice” and suggested that “bishops, pastors and lay leaders ought to make overtures to anti-racist activist groups present in their communities.” Why should our religious leaders support advocacy groups that perpetuate the idea of systematic racism and identity politics, like Black Lives Matter, and which often instigate civil disorder and cause millions of dollars in property damage?

The logic of the Jesuits (who were among the largest corporate slave-owners in early America and staunch opponents of abolitionism throughout the early 19th century) becomes even more tenuous. To encourage Catholics in supporting these riots, the editors point out that, in the 1960s, a “generation of clergy and religious left us with iconic images of Catholics marching hand in hand with prominent civil rights leaders.” “Today,” however, “when images and videos of protests are shared more quickly and widely than ever, collars and habits have been sparse.” It may be worth pointing out that many of those activist priests and nuns would abandon their vocations shortly thereafter.

The images and videos of these protests that the editors speak of show neighborhoods—often predominantly black ones—burnt to ashes. They show members of the mob attacking innocent bystanders and journalists. They show the desecration of public monuments and historic buildings, including churches, and the list continues. It will take years for these stricken communities to rebuild themselves, economically and culturally. And yet the editors of America state unequivocally that “Catholics, especially those whose presence and dress visibly symbolizes the church, ought to attend protests in order to demonstrate the church’s commitment.”

Racism exists. It is our duty as Catholics, and as human beings, to help resolve this issue. But to confront racism with inherently race-oriented measures and policies, as proposed by the staff at America magazine, won’t help the situation. To its detriment, many more Catholics will express outrage for such unwarranted racial targeting and avoid the national discourse that the Jesuits claim is so urgently needed for the healing of this country.

Image: An Episcopal “priest” sits in front of security forces near St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC. (AFP via Getty Images.)


  • Francis Lee

    Francis Lee is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He has served on two deployments in the South China Sea as part of Forward Deployed Naval Forces-Japan. His writing has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Catholic World Report, and OnePeterFive. The views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the Department of Defense (DoD).

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