I am not really sure how to respond to last night’s massacre of nine people at the historic Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina except with grief.

I can not imagine what an adequate white Catholic response to four hundred years of unending terror against black women, children, and men could possibly look like.

But I do know how it should begin.

Any white Catholic response to the Charleston massacre must begin by lamenting the fact that while Charleston Emanuel AME was advocating for abolition, the white Catholic bishops of South Carolina held black slaves as their personal property.

Any white Catholic response to the slaughter of these black Christians must begin by confessing that while black churches all over the United States struggled for freedom, white Catholic dioceses throughout the South were owning black slaves as a corporate body.  Wealthy white Catholics sometimes deeded slaves to their dioceses in their wills.

Any white Catholic response to the violence against the black parishioners in Charleston must begin by mourning the fact that while black churches like Emanuel AME were striving to build community in defiance of the life-denying powers of white supremacy and anti-blackness, the vast majority of Southern Catholic communities of religious sisters pressed black slaves into their collective service. Even the contemplative Carmelites held slaves. They could renounce the world but not its habits of white slave mastership.

Any white Catholic response to the Charleston massacre must begin by acknowledging the fact that while Charleston Emanuel AME was corporately struggling to end black slavery, Catholic bishops in the North and South believed abolitionism a dire threat to both the Catholic church and the entire nation.

Any white Catholic response to last night’s racial terrorism must begin by repenting for the fact that while black churches throughout South Carolina worked for racial justice, Southern Catholic bishops and white laity actively were supporting the Confederacy. Charleston’s bishop Patrick Nelsen Lynch even served as the Confederacy’s diplomat to the Holy See.

Any white Catholic response to the violation of this black sacred space must begin by acknowledging the fact that while Emanuel AME was giving shelter to refugees of racial slavery, Catholic churches blessed the regiment flags of Confederate battalions and said mass for a Confederate army seeking to protect, extend, and then restore black slavery.

The collective, institutional body of the Catholic church likes to combat those evils to which it believes itself at least a partial answer.  But it typically speaks much less boldly against evils like white supremacy or colonialism for which it bears major responsibility. The church can blame climate change or inhumanity against immigrants on outside forces–capitalism, corporate greed, apathetic government officials.  But it cannot do this in the case of white supremacy: the church can take prophetic action against white supremacy only by confessing its historical alliance with it.

Let us atone for the corporate sins of our past so that we may better diagnose the racial sins of our present. Let us honor black churches like Charleston Emanuel AME as true bearers of the gospel so that we may recognize the white Catholic church’s disloyalty to it.  To this end, please listen to one of the victims of last night’s shooting, State Senator Clementa Pinckney, chronicle the history of this great church:

11 thoughts

  1. Thank you so much for this. What I wouldn’t give for a USCCB document detailing the sins of the past for the sake of the future. Sackcloth and ashes, tearing of robes, anything. I think people in power in the RC church are still largely hesitant because of pastoral concerns…they still see it as a local, individual issue, despite the evidence to the contrary.

      1. Let me know; I’ll bring a lawn chair and some cold beer to watch the wailing and self-flagellation, then the people getting back in their Suburus and heading off to Provincetown or the Martha’s Vinyard ferry.

  2. Thank you Katie.

    There is need to confess and repent our institutional sins; even today we are still too bound into the imperial systems of exploitation and injustice.

    God Bless

  3. I’m not a catholic. I am a Christian. I know the Catholic Church has a long history of oppression. I live in the SW where native americans were forced to either become Catholics or die, when they couldn’t even understand the language or had any idea of what was wanted from them. They were made slaves by the Spaniards and the Church condoned it. “Foxes Book of Martyrs” was held in as high regard to the Pilgrims as the scriptures, as it documented the torture and deaths of many saints who viewed the Pope as the anti-Christ. I can certainly understand why.

    I can’t think of anything worse than being hated for what you are. My heart goes out to all African Americans and I also, experience some of what you are feeling because even though I am white, you are my brothers and sisters in Christ, and Christians are being killed in foreign lands simply for what they are.

    I do believe that God works all things to good for those of us in Christ Jesus and I hope the division the act was designed to create, plays out in the reverse and unites the Christians of this country in the common cause of Christ. We are also, to love and pray for our enemies. The young man who committed this crime needs serious prayer. May God soften that young heart, so hardened by evil and hate that he seems immune to love so, that God’s love might enter and change his heart.

    The book of Job says that God allows evil so that we will turn back to Him. May this tragedy create a zeal for God’s love and mercy that will untied those who love and seek Jesus and thwart the intended purpose of this act, to engender greater hatred. “What the world needs now is love.”

  4. Being white I acknowledge my civilization’s faults and sins and see the need to ask forgiveness. My ancestors fought to free the blacks. Each one of us is responsible for what we do to others and what we do to try to right the injustices we see. That being said, it’s not a case of being guilty or not, based on the color of your skin; for while white colonizers have the majority of the burden of guilt, others groups were complicit from the Oba of the Benin empire , and the Arab slave traders in Africa to the King of Mali. Human evil is everywhere. Yes what is needed is to come clean on the facts but the real facts and not the many misinterpretations. We need more people like Bartolome Las Casas.

  5. Who sold the slaves and who practiced slavery for hundreds of years before the Atlantic slave trade began? I guess that it’s too politically incorrect right now to have an accurate discussion about this.

    1. every historian of the transatlantic slave trade knows that african people were also involved. pretty much everyone also knows that almost every culture has practiced slavery at one point or another.

      I’m not really sure what your point is. Is it that if a person or institution is not the only one to commit a certain sin, then it’s not a sin?

  6. The word does say to confess your faults to one another so ye may be healed in Christ Jesus. Thank you for educating us on the role of the Catholic church as I have known the role of the black church. I find it important that denominations come together as we serve the God and read the same bible.

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