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: