Open Wide Our Hearts: Thoughts

Below are some of my thoughts on the pastoral letter against racism “Open Wide Our Hearts” found here:
While reading the letter is not necessary to understand my comments, I recommend at least skimming it for context. In overview:

  • I support the substance of the letter in so far as it calls us to recognize the common dignity of all humanity before God.
  • I oppose the letter where it draws more from the tainted wells of identity politics and non-normalized statistics than it does from the Holy Scriptures.

The first oddity is the definition of Racism as “Racism arises when-either consciously or unconsciously-a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior, and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and unworthy of equal regard.” and then quickly declares “Racist acts are sinful because they violate justice.” I agree with this statement, but would agree even more if the words “his or her own” were replaced with “one particular”. Sadly, this will cause problems later on in the letter.

The letter continues in good order, before launching into a litany of examples which could very well be motivated by prejudicial racism, but could also very easily be motivated by entirely reasonable preferential inquiry, or even entirely objective socioeconomic factors. I consider these examples both misguided and misleading, and will address each one in turn.

“Hispanics and African Americans face discrimination in hiring, housing, educational opportunities, and incarceration.” The groups identified are also statistically poorer than Asians and Wonderbreads, and when this factor is accounted for, the apparent racist prejudice nearly entirely disappears. One may make an argument that a lack of complete equity is indicative of racist prejudice, but as the USCCB clearly knows, Christ Himself taught us that “the poor you will always have with you”. The later reference to “structural and institutional forms of racial injustice evident in the economic imbalances” is even more alarming, as it seems to lean heavily toward the equity rhetoric which killed so many millions in the great Marxist experiments of the 20th century.

“Racial profiling frequently targets Hispanics for selective immigration enforcement practices.” There are two major borders with the United States, one with the wealthy and economically stable Canada, and one with the relatively impoverished and unstable Mexico. If Canada were poor and dangerous, no doubt there would be selective immigration enforcement targeted at those who end sentences with “eh”, despite their overwhelmingly white skin. As it is, immigration enforcement preferentially scrutinizing those who share common identifiers with the nation of origin from which most illegal aliens originate seems entirely reasonable to me. In any case it does not unequivocally indicate either racism or injustice.

“Racial profiling frequently targets African Americans for suspected criminal activity.” This is a tricky issue, because it seems likely that blacks are indeed more often falsely convicted of crimes than those of other races. But I would like to object to what seems to be the underlying assumption, that actual criminal behavior is exactly evenly distributed across all races. Which, if you believe that, then of course the higher arrest rates among Black populations are indicative of systematic injustice. But it seems like there are cultural reasons that we could point to which could also explain the disparity, at least in part. The one that springs first to mind is the rate of single motherhood, but the point is that if the real crime rate is significantly higher in the African American community, then we can not realistically accuse law enforcement of racism for looking there first.

“There is also the growing fear and harassment of persons from majority Muslim countries.” As with immigration, this attitude certainly could reflect racism, but we might just as easily discover less offensive causes. In light of the shocking violence officially practiced in “majority Muslim countries”, and the doctrines of warfare and conquest which are core members of the Muslim faith, fear and hostility seem rather justified. If Muslims do not wish to be feared and hated, perhaps they should submit to a more friendly body of instruction.

And finally, while it seems quite true that “Extreme nationalist ideologies are feeding the American public discourse with xenophobic rhetoric that instigates fear against foreigners, immigrants, and refugees.” the extremists are by no means the only cause of fear of outsiders. Perhaps the USCCB would like to recall the feelings of their predecessors toward the Calvinists during the height of the reformation. Would they question the walls which Catholic bishops built in the 12th century around their own estates to avoid being lynched by peasant mobs? There are legitimate reasons, if not for xeno-phobia, at least for xeno-suspicion.

I would prefer not to judge men’s hearts and minds by presuming to indicate broad cultural examples of racism. Where racism does exist, I do not dispute that it is a sinful attitude which will tend to motivate sinful actions. But the examples given above seem to me very likely motivated, at least in part, by non-racist, and even non-sinful, drives.

There is then some dancing with “subconscious” bias, which I distrust based on Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s expert evaluation of such ideas. It is a warning well taken that our hearts are deceitful, and that our conscience bears examination. Then comes this gem, “we must admit the plain truth that for many of our fellow citizens, who have done nothing wrong, interactions with the police are often fraught with fear and even danger” Which is true, I believe, for all citizens who have done nothing wrong. An upstanding citizen would like nothing so much as to be left alone by the police, regardless of their race.

No doubt the USCCB would respond “But racism still profoundly affects our culture, and it has no place in the Christian heart. This evil causes great harm to its victims, and it corrupts the souls of those who harbor racist or prejudicial thoughts. The persistence of the evil of racism is why we are writing this letter now. People are still being harmed, so action is still needed.” and I agree. Racism is a sin, though it is only a subset of the scriptural “other” of “the alien, the orphan, and the widow”, which could use, in my opinion, a bit more attention. Regardless, let us proceed…

To this outrageous conflation of patriotism and piety, “Moving our nation to a full realization of the promise of liberty, equality, and justice for all is even more challenging. However, in Christ we can find the strength and the grace necessary to make that journey.” I need not point out that while Christ certainly loves justice, he by no means calls for universal equality and liberty, and so I shall not. Instead I reference the instructed grounds on which to boast, in the knowledge that God delights in “Righteousness, Justice, and Loving-kindness.” and that if failure to live up to these ideals results in a dearth of equality and liberty, we should look to eliminating vice rather than racism.

Again we hear that “If racism is confronted by addressing its causes and the injustice it produces, then healing can occur.” and with this statement I agree. But then it is chased by, one might even say it drags behind it the conclusion that “In that transformed reality, the headlines we see all too often today will become lessons from the past.” which would only be true if such headlines were utterly and entirely motivated by prejudicial racism, a premise which I deeply doubt.

“How do we overcome this evil of rejecting a brother or sister’s humanity, the same evil that provoked Cain’s sin?” I would be interested in hearing how the USCCB came to this reading, as Cain seems under no illusions as to the humanity he shares with Abel. Indeed, he seems to hate Abel’s skin less than Abel’s success. Anyway, if a further example from racism can be found than fratricide, I would be quite surprised.

There then opens a new section, well watered by the scriptures, and likewise refreshing. I would say that the assessment “Whether recognized or not, the history of the injustices done to so many, because of their race, flows from this “lust to dominate” the other.” is well-founded and fair. In this encouraging context allow me to re-state that I am in full accord with the substance of the letter as it pertains to the command to “Love our neighbor as our self.” which, on the whole, I gladly affirm it does.

While I do not dispute the statement that “Many groups, such as the Irish, Italians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Poles, Jews, Chinese, and Japanese, can attest to having been the target of racial and ethnic prejudice in this country.” I think it equally telling that racism is vastly more prevalent, broadly accepted, and unquestioned in Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Poland, Israel, and China. I know from extensive first-hand experience that this is the case for Japan. So far from preaching to the choir, it seems possible that the USCCB is, in the instance of racism, railing at the choir. Certainly we may be able to improve, but perhaps the choice of examples indicates that the log lies, in this case, in the eyes of the immigrants.

We enter, now, on the section titled “The Native American Experience” and rather than examine individual statements, I hope you will not resent my presenting an alternative viewpoint entirely to the one that the USCCB seems to accept.

Before Europeans arrived, Native Americans had already developed a deeply racist and bigoted culture, refusing to live in peace and largely preferring factious warfare and hatred over justice and mercy. They were not unique in this aspect, sharing the fallen nature of all of mankind, and only lacked the sanctifying grace offered to all people through the Gospel of Christ Jesus, and the practice of the sanctifying works of mercy. With the Europeans arrived these divine tools, along with their very human stewards. Those of the Native Americans who responded to the Gospel were gladly accepted into both the church and those roles in society well suited to their recent catechisis. Those who sadly clung to their racism, fear, and animosity were excluded from both the church and society and were thereby unable to participate with the followers of Christ in the liberty which He brings. It is true that the secular puritan government treated them poorly, but no more poorly than any other insurrectionist group would be which failed to conform to societal norms and recognize individual land ownership. It is no surprise that those who continue to choose cultural exile over cooperation remain at a severe disadvantage in nearly every aspect of life.

The USCCB rightly says that “When one culture meets another, lack of awareness and understanding often leads to grossly distorted value judgments and prejudice.” but, given the objective superiority which one must, from a Christian perspective at least, attribute to the largely pious European culture, I doubt that genuine awareness and understanding would result in an outcome which the authors of this pastoral letter would consider acceptable. Racism may have been “evident in how white European immigrants and pioneers acted in their encounters with Native Americans” but it seems even more evident in those Native Americans who chose to identify with their own race and culture instead of with the humanity they shared with the immigrants and pioneers, especially as those same immigrants and pioneers were apparently so eager to extend to them the benefits of society.

If all societies are equal, then I see no reason for the USCCB to go so far out of their way to condemn our own for its racism. And if some societies are better than others, then it hardly screams of racism that our ancestors recognized the fact as well. Of course, as with all simplifications, reality is never that simple. Like with race and gender we should not foolishly speak of cultures being universally “better” or “worse” but specifically better or worse to some end or for some purpose. Men are worse at bearing children than Women. Whites are worse at resisting sunburn than Blacks. Likewise, I would hazard that Native American culture is worse at making the land fruitful than European culture, which should be significant to the Catholic Bishops, considering the Divine Directive to “fill the earth” which they ostensibly support.

Buried under all this confusion, there is a fascinating discussion to be had about the nature of property ownership, but I suspect we are some generations away from being able to hold that discussion, and even more from being able to profitably reach any conclusions.

On the section titled “The African American Experience” I do not dispute the injustices outlined. Chattel slavery was (and, in some nations, still is) grotesque. However, I do wish to make two tempering points.
First, that every horror listed was experienced by whites as well, and at the hands of whites. It could be well said about every racial group that “Most resided in extreme poverty and endured daily indignities in their interactions with” members of their own race and with other races.
Second, that injustices essentially identical to chattel slavery (though less formalized, and thereby quite likely even less just) were practiced against Wonderbreads by the Muslim nations of North Africa, and if the Wonderbreads were better able to resist this form of international predation, it is hardly a mark of deeply rooted moral failure.

We hear again in “The Hispanic Experience” of the apparently definitive argument that a “large income gap between Hispanic and European Americans points to the persistence of certain discriminatory practices in employment and pay” when the pay gap could just as easily lie (as with women) in the higher emphasis (encouraged by the Church) which Hispanics place on family life. Refer, too, to the sixth paragraph for my comments on immigration enforcement. There also seems to be some confusion in the letter between “immigrants” and “illegal immigrants.” The terms are interchanged with a casualness which almost looks like an attempt at equivocation. This is like arguing that we should not be wary of “illegal drugs” because “drugs” save many lives every day.

In general, where the letter draws from the scriptures, it rings true. Sadly, the scriptures are strangely absent in the “Love Goodness” section. If we had heard “When we begin to separate people in our thoughts for unjust reasons… we fail to love.” it could have been justified. But the USCCB saw fit to inject the phrase “when we start to see some people as “them” and others as “us,”” which, I am embarrassed to be forced to point out, appear to be the entire point of having a Catholic Church in the first place! If the Bishops consider it unloving to divide people into “them” and “us” then why do they speak as Catholic Bishops, and not as Catholics? Or as Christians? Or as simply human beings who share in the dignity of all humanity? As convenient as it may be to the immediate argument to hypothesize that “othering” is unloving, it is a completely absurd argument when given the least context. Even if all the wards of the members of the USCCB are racist, we are bound, at the very least, to exclude from this “us” the blessed “them” comprised of the saints who share God’s presence.

“Fortunately, after page 17 it is smooth sailing, and I have no further complaints.” is what I was hoping to say until I reached the end of page 23. The various and vehement calls to holiness and repentance from racism are well taken to heart. Nonetheless, the USCCB stumbled again into the error of left-wing ideology when they inserted into the otherwise upright phrase, “Love should then move us to take what we learn from our encounters and examine where society continues to fail our brothers and sisters… and seek to address those problems.” the words “or where it perpetuates inequity.” If inequity is such a problem, the Bishops of the United States might do well to resign their positions of inequitable authority! I can only hope that the word was meant in the sense of “ungodly touting of moral superiority” and not in the intersectionality sense of “any way in which any group is statistically inferior to any other”, but honestly, taken in context, I would not say that hope is at all likely to bear fruit.

The rest of the letter is concerned with implementation along the lines already laid out, and it would thus become repetitive for me to continue my commentary. Thus allow me to restate that I oppose racism with my whole heart, and am highly skeptical of the capacity of the USCCB to define “racism” in such a way that it does not create more troublesome problems than it solves, given the problematic nature of the arguments they have offered in this letter. There are just two more topics I would like to address concerning the general thrust of the difficulties I have with the letter as a whole. Thus I conclude this response with a few disorganized thoughts on the issues of cultural equality, and collective responsibility.

Responsibility can only be taken where authority exists; The two are inseparable. While not directly stated, I get the feeling that the USCCB considers Wonderbreads to have a responsibility for causing the failure of other races (through racism). I have attempted to defuse this premise in my objections above, but let us disregard my objections temporarily. If one race has responsibility for another, they also have authority over the other. And if they have authority, then they are not only partially responsible for the failings, but also partially credited with the success! If it would seem absurd to you for the successful black population to credit whites as the cause of their wealth, then it should feel equally strange for unsuccessful blacks to blame whites for their failure. And in both cases, the idea that Whites have, as a race, authority over Blacks is so absurd that even the USCCB could not state it openly. Let us assume the implication was unintentional.

What can not be taken as unintentional is the USCCB’s expedition into vaguely affirming the value of cultural equality in their case against Europeans oppressing Native Americans. But the more strongly we defend “traditional cultural practices” the weaker will our argument be against racism as a traditional cultural practice in the United States. Let us not allow a quagmire of feel-good multiculturalism to hinder our efforts in stamping out sin! As with the misguided examples, the argument against racism would have been stronger if less had been said along these lines.

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