May 08, 2005

Racism and the Catholic Church

[Contributor's note: The following series is a 4-part series on racism and the Church.]

Part 1: Lumen Gentium and the Essential Social Justice Mission of the Church

Christ is the light of humanity . . . Since the Church, in Christ, is in the nature of sacrament–a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among men–she here proposes, for the benefit of the faithful and of the whole world, to set forth as clearly as possible, and in the tradition laid down by earlier Councils, her own nature and universal mission. The condition of the modern world lends greater urgency to this duty of the Church; for, while men of the present day are drawn ever more closely together by social, technical and cultural bonds, it still remains for them to achieve full unity in Christ. (Lumen Gentium)

With these words the Catholic Bishops at The Second Vatican Council (1962-1966) initiated their discussion on the nature of the Church and its essential mission. The document begins with a focus on Christ, "the light of humanity," signifying the Bishop’s desire to locate the nature and mission of the Church in light of the redemptive work of Christ and the mystery of the Holy Trinity. This desire is brought out clearly in the description of the Church as a "sacrament."

Simply stated a sacrament is a sign that effects, or brings about, that which it signifies. We encounter signs everywhere in our daily lives, in walking to the store, at airports, in reading and when we go shopping. One thing we note about the signs we encounter in our daily lives is that they indicate things to us but they do not necessarily bring about what they signify. For instance, when we drive in cities, we encounter stop signs. These stops signs do not actually in a any way contribute the stopping action of our vehicles, they simply signal that a stopping action is required. A sacrament would take this idea further. Instead of the stop sign simply indicating to us that our vehicle is required to make a full stop, a stop sign considered in this sacramental sense, would actually provide our vehicles with the necessary ability to stop. Moving from this speculative example to actual examples of Catholic sacraments, let us consider baptism. Baptism is a sacrament which signifies, through its nature and the pouring action, a cleansing, washing, and the creation of new life. But, as a sacrament, baptism does not only signify washing, cleansing, and rebirth, it actually causes it to happen. Thus, this is what is meant by sacrament, a sign that effects or brings about what it signifies.

The Catholic bishops at Vatican II described the Church as a sacrament. This means then they understand the Church as a sign of something but further still it brings about that something that it signifies. What is this something? We find it in the passage quoted above. The Church is "a sign and instrument . . . of communion with God and of unity among all men." The Church is a sign of communion with God and it provides the grace for that communion to happen and the Church is a sign of unity among all men and it also provides the grace for that unity to occur. This tells us that the desire and achievement of full unity among all human beings is not ancillary to the nature and mission of the Church, rather, it constitutes its very nature. This unity among all peoples is further clarified in the passage quoted. The Bishops note that our world is quickly becoming a global village, we are "we are drawn ever more closely together by social, technical and cultural bonds." By means of the telephone or the internet, I am in meaningful contact with a friend in Mongolia, I can now speak with ease and frequency to a relative in Africa, I find little if any meaningful separation with friends from Mexico. With our modern means of transportation I am able, in hours, to complete a journey to distant places which in years past would have taken months or years. Cultures are now interacting, economic systems are now interdependent and no one can attempt international isolation without risk of internal collapse. Our world has been brought together by technology and we are now forced to deal with each other, leading to the experience of a certain kind of unity spurred by technological advances. Yet the bishops note that the unity propelled by technological proximity is incomplete and lacking. A true and full unity that can only be achieved in Christ.

What we see here then is that the mission to bring peoples together and strengthen the familial bonds between different cultures, races, nations, and ethnic groups is an essential aspect of the Church’s mission. The following quote from the Vatican in its contribution to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia And Related Intolerance, re-establishes and highlights what Lumen Gentium noted:

Globalization . . . is accelerating at an even-greater pace; countries, economies, cultures and ways of life are drawing closer together and becoming more universal and intermingled. The phenomenon of interdependence is evident in every area: political, economic, financial, social and cultural. Scientific discoveries and the development of communications technology have "shrunk" the planet considerably. The globalization now emerging manifests itself in various ways; for example , the impact of a political or financial incident occurring unexpectedly in one country is felt by other countries as well, and the great problems or questions of our time are global in scale (immigration, the environment, food resources, etc.).

Paradoxically, at the same time disagreements are growing sharper, ethnic violence is increasing, the quest for group, ethnic, or national identity is becoming more relentless as the stranger and those who are different are rejected, to such a degree that at times barbarous acts are committed against them. Thus the last ten years have been marked by ethnic or nationalistic wars which give rise to growing unease about the future. The paradox is well known and explained in part by fear of a loss of identity in a world becoming planetary too rapidly, at the very time when inequalities are also increasing. But the paradox actually has many causes. It is clear that the fall of the Berlin Wall aroused resentments and nationalism which had been kept under a tight lid for years, that borders inherited from colonial times had too often failed to respect history and the identity of peoples, or that, in societies where the social fabric is disintegrating, solidarity is cruelly lacking.

The Catholic Bishops still echo in the new millennium a concern they harbored in the 1960s, that we are being thrust together by technology yet paradoxically this we militate against true unity by means of racism and racial discrimination. For racism and racial discrimination to be overcome, for a full and true unity to be achieved among all humans, humanity must reach into the fountain of grace provided by the Church and the corollary is that Church must lead the way in racial and ethnic reconciliation.

Part 2: Brothers and Sisters to Us, The U.S. Catholic Bishops Speak Against Racism