An examination of conscience for racism

Father Randy Dollins

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: The Next Pope and Vatican II

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Polemics about the Second Vatican Council continue to bedevil the global Catholic conversation.

Some Catholics, often found in the moribund local Churches of western Europe, claim that the Council’s “spirit” has never been implemented (although the Catholic Lite implementation they propose seems more akin to liberal Protestantism than Catholicism). Other voices claim that the Council was a terrible mistake and that its teaching should be quietly forgotten, consigned to the dustbin of history. In The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (just published by Ignatius Press), I suggest that some clarifying papal interventions are needed to address these confusions.

To begin: the next pope should remind Catholics what Pope John XXIII intended for the Council, thereby challenging both the Catholic Lite Brigade and the Forget Vatican II Platoon.

The pope’s opening address to Vatican II on October 11, 1962, made his intention clear: The Church, he said, must re-focus on Jesus Christ, from whom she “takes her name, her grace, and her total meaning.” The Church must put the Gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, the answer to the question that is every human life, at the center of her self-understanding. The Church must make that proclamation by proposing, “whole and entire and without distortion” the truths Christ gave the Church. And the Church must transmit those truths in ways that invite skeptical contemporary men and women into friendship with the Lord Jesus.

John XXIII did not imagine Vatican II to be a Council of deconstruction. Nor did he imagine it to be a Council that froze the Church in amber. Rather, Pope John’s opening address to Vatican II called the entire Church to take up the task of Christian mission: the mission to offer humanity the truth about God and us, both of which are revealed in Jesus Christ.  The next pope should forcefully remind the Church of this.

The next pope might also engage – and settle – a parallel debate that began during Vatican II and continues today: Did the Catholic Church reinvent itself between October 11, 1962, and December 8, 1965, the day the Council solemnly closed? Or must the documents of Vatican II be read in continuity with revelation and tradition? Curiously, the “progressive” Catholic Lite Brigade and the ultra-traditionalist Forget Vatican II Platoon promote the same answer: Vatican II was indeed a Council of discontinuity. But that is the wrong answer. It is a mistaken reading of John XXIII’s intention for Vatican II. It is a mistaken reading of Paul VI’s guidance of the Council. And It is a mistaken reading of the Council’s texts.

Three canonized popes – John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II – plus the great theologian-pope Benedict XVI have insisted that Vatican II can and must be read in continuity with settled Catholic doctrine. To claim that Vatican II was a Council of rupture and reinvention is to say, in effect, that these great men were either duplicitous, anti-conciliar reactionaries (the tacit indictment of the progressives) or material heretics (the tacit indictment from the far right-field bleachers). Neither indictment has any merit, although the latter has recently gotten undeserved attention, thanks to ill-considered commentaries reverberating through the echo chambers of social media and the ultra-traditionalist blogosphere.

Thus the next pope ought to insist that the Catholic Church does not do rupture, reinvention, or “paradigm shifts.” Why? Because Jesus Christ – “the same yesterday and today and forever” [Hebrews 13.8] – is always the center of the Church. That conviction is the beginning of any authentic evangelization, any authentically Catholic development of doctrine, and any proper implementation of Vatican II.

The next pope should also lift up the Council’s genuine achievements: its vigorous  affirmation of the reality and binding authority of divine revelation; its biblical enrichment of the Church’s self-understanding as a communion of disciples in mission; its insistence that everyone in the Church is called to holiness, especially through the liturgy; its defense of basic human rights, including the first of civil rights, religious freedom; its commitment to truth-centered ecumenical and interreligious dialogues. Yes, there have been distortions of these teachings; but to blame the distortions on the teachings themselves is a serious analytical error.

A Catholicism indistinguishable from liberal Protestantism has no future. Neither does a Catholicism that attempts to recreate a largely imaginary past. The Catholicism with a future is the Catholicism of the Second Vatican Council, rightly understood and properly implemented. That happens to be the living Catholicism of today, and the next pope should recognize that, too.