An examination of conscience for racism

There are two kinds of ignorance: the things I don’t know that nobody expects me to know, and the things I don’t know, but that I ought to know and others expect me to know. For instance, I don’t know how the Space X rocket is able to land upright on that floating platform. It looks like a special effect from a science fiction movie and I think it is neat, but I really don’t know anything about the mechanics of it and nobody is going to call me out for my ignorance in this area.

On the other hand, if I don’t know a catechetical point about the importance of baptism, that is a problem, because not only am I member of the baptized, I am a ministerial Catholic priest who ought to know such details and someone should call me out for not knowing them.

In this moment of upheaval, the very real problem of racism has reached a boiling point that cannot be ignored, and nobody should dismiss it or try to explain it away. But as I watch the news, read the commentaries, and encounter the protestors, I feel paralyzed in how I should respond, as I am incapacitated by my own ignorance. This ignorance is included in things I should know, that I ought to know, but that I don’t. This moment in history – this reckoning – is calling me out to admit that I am in fact ignorant about some of the ways in which racism still exists in our society.

Now for the most part, I can pat myself on the back for not being consciously or deliberately racist, and for doing my best to follow Christ’s teaching to ‘love my neighbor.’ But at the same time, I remain ignorant of the ways that I am unconsciously still part of the problem, i.e., that I do not actively seek to understand and oppose racism that exists. As a Christian, I am outspoken against abortion, the death penalty, assisted suicide, euthanasia, the plight of the immigrant, etc., but I have never been vocal about the moral evil of racism.

So, I have to ask myself why? The uncomfortable answer is that I have been inattentive, complacent, complicit, insensitive, and unaware. I have studied history and I am aware of the recent headlines, yet, in an active way, I have chosen to ignore the underlying issues. This willful ignorance exposes an insensitivity and laziness, which, in itself, is a kind of privilege I am afforded; I can ignore issues of racism because, at the end of the day, it does not really impact my life or cost me anything. In other words, I find myself to be culpably oblivious.

I don’t think I am going to easily solve my own ignorance or enlighten the dialogue on this issue, but I do think that I can offer a starting place, if not for everyone, certainly for myself. When ignorance fades, culpability increases. Living in this moment, being indicted by this moment, I feel like I need to examine my own conscience on this issue, but I honestly lack the resources to do so. So, I brought this issue to prayer and came up with the following ten questions. I don’t think they are comprehensive, and I don’t desire that they be divisive or political. They are questions that convict me, and I pray that they might make some small contribution to this moment much in need of atonement.

I ask myself these questions:

1. Have I prayed, earnestly and regularly, for an end to racism and an increase in the understanding of the equal dignity of all those created in the image of God?

2. Have I sought ways to better educate myself about the structures of sin that perpetuate racism and may have an unknown effect on the way I live my life?

3. Have I tried to gain a deeper understanding of the privileges and blessings I enjoy in my life and how these same privileges and blessings may not be enjoyed by others because of their race?

4. Have I been conscious of the existence of racism in world, naming it and recognizing it as a structure of sin?

5. Have I prayed for and actively sought after a greater understanding of systemic racism and been willing to enact real changes in my life to combat it?

6. Have I been willfully ignorant of the racism that I know exists, choosing to be insensitive by ignoring it?

7. Have I looked for opportunities to enter into dialogue about racism with those whom I would not ordinarily converse?

8. Have I desired to overcome my indifference to racial violence and pushed myself past ignoring it?

9. Have I asked God to forgive me for the times that I have contributed to racism, consciously or unconsciously, through jokes, conversations, criticisms, use of influence, or complaints?

10. Have I asked God to forgive my friends, family members, and ancestors who have deliberately participated in and perpetuated the sin of racism, and for a conversion of their hearts?

If you are like me, your answer to all ten of these questions is “no.” As I said before, now is not the time for anyone to try and explain away, ignore, or dismiss this sin. It’s bigger than any one of us and nobody is going to “solve” it. What I can do is take these ten questions and continually examine my own conscience and then seek ways to change each “no” into a “yes.” I can also bring these questions to others and invite them to do the same.

I want to cease being inattentive or complacent, and therefore, complicit in this sin. This is a problem that begins with ignorance, but it must be recognized as a moral defect and eradicated, so that I can move from being “culpably ignorant” to “consciously informed,” and then, I hope, “willfully active” in instructing others who may be ignorant, which is in itself is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.