March 10, 2017

‘Listen, learn, think, pray and act’ to overcome racial divide, bishop says

Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Ill., makes a point at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Indianapolis while speaking on the racial divide in the Church on Feb. 18. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Ill., makes a point at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Indianapolis while speaking on the racial divide in the Church on Feb. 18. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Ill., is one of eight active black Catholic bishops in the United States. With black men making up less than 3 percent of the 269 active U.S. bishops, one might call them a “minority.”

Such a word is precisely the type of language that perpetuates the racial divide in the U.S. and in the Church, Bishop Braxton said in a talk titled “The Catholic Church and the Racial Divide in the United States” at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Indianapolis on Feb. 18.

“Are there really minority Catholics?” he asked the crowd of about 400 people. “Though these expressions are regularly used by the media, by the government, certainly in Catholic documents, they are radically incorrect, and they exacerbate sometimes difficult relationships between people of different ethnic and racial groups.”

Bishop Braxton’s talk looked at the history and current presence of the racial divide in America and the Church.

Picture if you will

He started with an exercise in imagination, asking those present to picture being taken on a tour by an African-American of an Afrocentric Catholic church where statues and paintings all depict dark-skinned people.

“What if you asked your African-American acquaintance: ‘Would the Catholic Church be more Catholic or more universal and welcoming of all people if the holy men and women of the Bible were pictured as people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds? After all, though we know they were Jewish, no one knows what they looked like. …’

“But your friend responds, ‘Oh, that question has been asked before many times. People who are white should realize that ethnocentric art clearly represents them as well, because Afrocentric art is universal.’ ”

After asking those gathered to put the proverbial shoe on the other foot, Bishop Braxton then outlined the history of the racial divide in the U.S, starting with the introduction of slavery.

He pointed out that out of 70 million Catholics in the U.S., only 3 million—or 4.2 percent—are black.

‘Unprecedented unrest’

The current status of racial relations can best be described as “distressing,” said Bishop Braxton.

“In recent years, Catholics all over this country, like the rest of the country, have pondered the distressing events in cities around the United States,” he said. “These events include the deaths of young men of color during confrontation with local white police officers,” as well as “the public expression of grief by family members [and the] reaction to grand jury decisions that seem unreasonable.

“These events have led to unprecedented unrest in our country, including the taunting of police, violence, senseless destruction of property and heinous revenge murders—police officers shot down in revenge of the death of young men of color.”

Bishop Braxton described two encounters he had with police while not wearing his clerical garb. In one incident, he was walking in a predominantly white neighborhood. In the other, he was transporting a table and chairs donated by a wealthy white family.

“In both cases, I never could figure out what I was doing that was so wrong, so suspicious, other than ‘walking while black,’ ” he said.

‘Flawed history of the Catholic Church’

When it comes to race within the Church, said Bishop Braxton, “Many younger Catholics in the U.S. are very surprised when they learn about the flawed history of the Catholic Church in regard to the racial divide in the United States.

“They are amazed to learn that Catholic leaders and institutions actually owned human beings from West Africa. They are amazed that Catholic bishops did not condemn the human bondage, contrary to the Gospel of the Jesus Christ.”

He noted that Bishop John Carroll, the first bishop in the United States who served as bishop of Baltimore from 1789-1815 and was the founder of Georgetown University, “owned human beings. Not only that, but Georgetown University announced that they have recently uncovered evidence that the Jesuits who built the university sold nearly 300 slaves to wealthy Catholics to pay for the buildings.”

Even after the Civil War, said Bishop Braxton, “people of color were excluded from seminaries and convents, and generally could not become priests or sisters except in those orders that were designated for colored people.”

He quoted the words of Bishop Joseph Francis, a former black auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., when people would ask him why there were so few African-American Catholics.

“Joe would tell them, ‘If you had seen and heard what I’ve seen and heard, if you had experienced what I’ve experienced, if you knew the history of the Catholic Church in this country in regard to people of color, you would not be amazed that there are so few African-American Catholics—you would be amazed that there are so many.’ ”

Bishop Braxton also noted that the Church has contributed to the lives of African-Americans.

“Catholic schools in urban settings have made an extraordinary contribution to the intellectual and moral formation of African American youth, many of whom were not Catholic, many of whom have become leaders in our land,” he said. “The Catholic Church has also been active in eradicating the effects of poverty, which is a fact for so many African-American families.”

He also noted various pastoral letters that have been issued on the topic since 1958, but lamented the fact that they were not broadly used.

“The American Catholic bishops are thinking of publishing another letter on the sin and heresy of racism in the United States in 2018,” he said. “But some Catholic lay people and some priests and bishops say, ‘Does the Catholic Church really need to say more, write more, publish more—or does the Church need to do more?’ I feel the Church should do more.”

‘Every citizen … is fully American’

For Bishop Braxton, the problem of the racial divide in the United States is perpetuated by semantics.

“Language has meaning,” he said. “The words we use carry weight. When we divide the country between minorities and majorities, the weight of that is very negative.”

He pointed out that there are other cultural minorities in the United States—people who come from Sweden or Luxembourg, he stated as an example—that are not referred to as a minority.

“You know ‘minority’ is a code word primarily for African-American, perhaps Hispanic Americans, and less and less for Asian Americans, often indicating people who are poor, uneducated, unemployed and from broken family structures,” he said.

“It begs to question, who among us in American society are the majority groups?” he asked. “There’s not a single ethnic group or racial group or cultural group that constitutes true Americans. Every citizen in the United States is fully an American. Citizens who are descendants from the Mayflower are no more truly American than descendants from the passengers on a slave ship.”

When people use the term “minority group” in the U.S., said Bishop Braxton, “it reinforces something that is called white privilege. If we refer to people as something they are not, then we diminish them. … That is true for those of other faiths. We use the term ‘non-Catholic’ for other denominations. Protestants and Jews do not think of themselves as ‘non-Catholic.’ ”

What is needed, he said, is a paradigm shift. To demonstrate, he used the cities of Cleveland and San Antonio as examples, where blacks and Hispanics comprise the majority of the residents, respectively.

“It takes a paradigm shift to realize that [when referring to those cities], people will say, ‘The majority are minorities.’ They can’t bring themselves to say that [Caucasians] are a minority!”

‘Listen, learn, think, pray and act’

Bishop Braxton wrote a pastoral letter for his diocese for the 2015 World Day of Peace titled, “The Racial Divide in the United States.”

That letter, he said, “is designed with activities for small groups. It has activities for listening, learning, thinking, praying and acting, so you can contribute in your own local neighborhood to the solution.”

He closed with a recommendation to all Catholics and all Americans:

“In order to bridge the racial divide in the United States, it is very important that we open our minds and hearts, and listen to the people who disagree with us, and learn what they think, and hear their points of view. We must do all of these things: listen, learn, think, pray and act.”

Ryan Malone, a member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, said he found the bishop’s talk “refreshing.”

“I do a lot of reading on my own,” he said. “A lot of the things he talked about aren’t things that are necessarily accepted in the larger culture, even by educated people, because you’re talking about things that really aren’t necessarily easy.

“Until we can really deal with what is, it’s going to be very difficult to develop ideas of what should be.”

His fellow parishioner, Patrice Payne, said she attended the talk “because I think the topic needs to be discussed. When I heard the bishop was coming to discuss this area he’s so well-versed in, I definitely wanted to be a part of it. It was excellent. I want to learn and do more.”

Thanks to Father Steven Schwab, pastor of the parish, she might get the chance. In an interview after the bishop’s talk, Father Schwab said he anticipated initiating small groups to discuss Bishop Braxton’s pastoral letter “and see if we can become more sensitive to these issues here at St. Thomas,” where he estimates the number of black members to be around 12 percent.

“We’re just not aware of how pervasive racism still is in the basic structures of our society,” he said.

“Very few of us, myself included, know much about the history of the Black Church in the Catholic Church. As Bishop Braxton pointed out, that is not a part of our history that we’re very proud of, so we don’t talk or teach much about it. …

“I think it’s good to just honestly own up to our shortcomings as a Church here in the United States, and learn from our mistakes, and see if we can do something not to undo what’s been done, but to somehow address what still remains of that wrong for the benefit of those who are here with us today.”

(To read Bishop Braxton’s pastoral letter, “The Racial Divide in the United States,” log on to

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