Catholic theologians weigh in on protests, call for 'police reform and racial justice' in America

A statement from Catholic theologians is calling for "police reform and racial justice" in America.

The statement -- penned by Tobias Winright of St. Louis University, Alex Mikulich of Loyola University New Orleans, Vincent Miller of University of Dayton, and Bryan N. Massingale of Marquette University, with help from colleagues -- comes at a time of great civil unrest, with demonstrations taking place across the nation in protest of racially charged police killings.

"The killings of Black men, women and children," the statement reads, naming Rekia BoydEric Garner, Michael BrownJohn Crawford, Aiyana Stanley-Jones and Tamir Rice, "by White policemen, and the failures of the grand jury process to indict the police officers involved, have brought to our attention not only problems in law enforcement today, but also the deeper racial injustice in our nation, our communities, and even our churches."

In light of such injustice, Catholics and Christians should "raise [their] voices about the imperative of a just peace in fragmented and violent world," the statement reads.

Referencing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope Francis, the statement explores what Catholics and Christians "raising" their voice might mean.

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"King challenged 'white moderate' Christians for being 'more devoted to "order" than to justice,' " it reads, "and for preferring 'a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.' This challenge to the White Christian community is as relevant today as it was over 50 years ago. Such a negative peace calls to mind the warning by the prophet Ezekiel, 'They led my people astray, saying, "Peace!" when there was no peace' (13:10)."

The statement then quotes Pope Francis from his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium:

"Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society -- whether local, national or global -- is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear."

The authors of the statement express their "wish to go on the record in calling for a serious examination of both policing and racial injustice in the US."

"The time demands that we leave some mark that US Catholic theologians did not ignore what is happening in our midst," they write, "as the vast majority sadly did during the 1960s Civil Rights movement."

The statement then includes a list of pledges:

  •  To "examine within ourselves our complicity in the sin of racism and how it sustains false images of White superiority in relationship to Black inferiority."
  •  To "fast and to refrain from meat on Fridays during this Advent season and through the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, as well as during Lent, as a sign of our penitence and need of conversion from the pervasive sin of racism."
  • To "commit ourselves to placing our bodies and/or privilege on the line in visible, public solidarity with movements of protest to address the deep-seated racism of our nation."
  • To "support our police, whose work is indeed dangerous at times," but also "call for a radical reconsideration of policing policy in our nation." Specifically, to "call for an end to the militarization of police departments in the US," and support "the proven, effective results of community policing."
  • To "call for a honing of the guidelines for police use of lethal force so that they are uniform in all states within the US and so that the use of lethal force, echoing Catholic teaching on 'legitimate defense,' is justified only when an aggressor poses a grave and imminent threat to the officer's and/or other persons' lives."
  • To "support those calling for better recruiting, training, and education for our police so that they may truly and justly do what they have sworn, namely, to 'serve and protect' their communities."
  • To "support new efforts to promote accountability and transparency, such as body cameras for police officers."
  • To "call for the establishment of publicly accountable review boards staffed with civilian attorneys from within the jurisdiction and/or for the appointment of independent special prosecutors' offices to investigate claims of police misconduct."
  • To "support calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine race in America."
  • To call for "investigations of the Ferguson Police Department, the New York Police Department, and other police forces involved in the killings of unarmed Black citizens."
  • To "call upon our bishops to proactively proclaim and witness to our faith's stand against racism," and to "revisit" previous pastoral statements and documents on the subject "in parishes, dioceses and seminaries" in an effort to bring the church's teaching on the subject "to the forefront of Catholic teaching and action in light of the present crisis."

"As Catholic theologians and scholars," the statement reads, "we commit ourselves to further teaching and scholarship on racial justice. Our faith teaches us that all persons are created in the image of God and have been redeemed in Christ Jesus. In short, our faith proclaims that all lives matter, and therefore, Black lives must matter, too. As part of this commitment, we pledge to continue listening to, praying for, and even joining in our streets with those struggling for justice through nonviolent protests and peaceful acts of civil disobedience."

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrotondaro@ncronline.org.]


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