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: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.