In 1963, when 250,000 demonstrators gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, they did so under the prayerful invocation of Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington. He called for the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of Christians to the injustice of racial discrimination, condemned violence and praised the activists who had possessed the courage to go forth, like Moses, in search of a beautiful country.
Five decades later, these hopes seem in many respects unfulfilled. About one in five Americans identify as Catholic, and as of 2018, roughly six in 10 white Catholics felt that police killings of Black men were isolated incidents rather than evidence of a profound and lethal bias. Prominent Catholic commentators, including Bill O’Reilly and Father Dwight Longenecker, fear and reject the Black Lives Matter movement.
American Catholic unease with Black Lives Matter has been particularly noticeable during the protests over the killing of George Floyd. Statues commemorating Junipero Serra, a Spanish monk responsible for founding several of California’s Catholic missions in the early days of European colonization, have been torn down by protesters outraged by Father Serra’s eager participation in the conquest of North America, including the torture, enslavement and murder of some of the Native Americans he intended to convert.
Other religious statues, too, have been damaged by protesters. Coupled with the vandalism of a handful of Catholic churches along with a slew of ordinary buildings, the attacks on statuary have sparked fury among conservative Catholics, confirming what they perhaps already believed: that racial justice movements — or at least this particular one — are antithetical to the Christian faith, rooted in Marxism and atheism.
A Catholic anti-abortion activist, Abby Johnson, tweeted in June: “The Catholic Church is burning. And everyday, liberal Catholics continue to throw matches on Her with sacrilegious nonsense like this,” in reference to an icon showing Mr. Floyd as a Jesus figure, dying in his mother’s arms.
Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic writer, argued in July that Black Lives Matter and Christianity are “fundamentally incompatible world views.”
In a July 5 statement, Bishop Thomas A. Daly of Spokane, Wash., wrote: “BLM is in conflict with Church teaching regarding marriage, family and the sanctity of life. Moreover, it is disturbing that BLM has not vocally condemned the recent violence that has torn apart so many cities.”
Steady in the midst of this supposed conflict between faith and anti-racism efforts is Gloria Purvis. She is a Black Catholic — a designation lonely enough even without intrafaith political strife, as only 3 percent of American Catholics are Black. Ms. Purvis hosts a popular Catholic radio show, “Morning Glory!”, and a limited television series, “Authentically Free at Last.”
After the murder of Mr. Floyd, Ms. Purvis denounced his killing and the many killings of Black men and women by the police that had come before.
“I said I thought racism was demonic,” she told me over a recent dinner at a Washington bistro. In the weeks following Mr. Floyd’s death, “Morning Glory!” featured episodes devoted to saints who resisted racism in their lifetimes, the impact of racial discrimination on society at large and the reality of systemic racism itself.
Her comments set off a wave of recrimination via tweets and emails from indignant listeners.
“Racism makes a liar of God,” she told me. “It says not everyone is made in his image. What a horrible lie from the pit of hell.”
Her radio program was dropped in June by Guadalupe Radio Network, a Catholic station based in Midland, Texas. After outcry on social media, the network released a statement claiming that Ms. Purvis’s show had temporarily been suspended not for her remarks on racism but because the network had detected “a spirit of contention growing among the hosts.” Guadalupe Radio Network did not respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Purvis didn’t buy the explanation: There had always been occasional, friendly disagreements between the show’s hosts, but it had never been an issue before. Ms. Purvis told me the network has neither reinstated her program nor offered any explanation of when or if it plans to air it again. She still believes the show was suspended because of her explicit condemnation of police killings of Black people and her impassioned exhortations against racism.
She sighed. It isn’t that she dismisses sacred sites or representations of the saints; in fact, she told me, she credits a visit to the grotto where Our Lady of Lourdes is believed to have appeared with the birth of her daughter, after a 15-year struggle with infertility. And she was present when Pope Francis canonized Father Serra during the pontiff’s first visit to the United States. But she wishes it were possible to stipulate without incurring rancor that objects of piety have their place in the order of things.
“In the Catholic world, we’re pro-life, right?” she said. “But we were so quick to forget about a man killed in the street in favor of things that can be rebuilt or replaced. This injustice that happened to George Floyd seemed to evaporate as soon as money or property came into it.”
After she spoke out about Mr. Floyd’s death, Ms. Purvis was inundated with videos sent by her fellow faithful, condemning Mr. Floyd with an exaggerated version of his criminal record.
“I thought: Any Catholic who can watch that and not be bothered by it is missing something in their faith,” Ms. Purvis said. Mr. Floyd, she said, “had a right to life. But he also had a right to a natural death.”
That this foundational principle could be overlooked in the name of icons seemed to exhaust and dispirit her.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize racism is a sin,” she said. “Having these discussions makes people uncomfortable.”
It should not be so difficult for so many Christians to affirm that yes, Black lives matter, without conditions or complaints. “We are being called to love our neighbor,” Ms. Purvis observed, “and my God, my God, we are failing.”
Ms. Purvis maintains hope for the future. She wants to see a sincere reckoning with anti-Black racism within the church. “We need to name it,” she said, “and say: Yes, we have sinned; yes, religious orders owned slaves; we did not speak out in the abolition movement; we pushed some people even in the celebration of Mass to the side or to the back, so they could only receive our Lord when others were done.” That much and more is necessary.
This month, Americans will march on Washington in commemoration of the original march on the capital for civil rights and in hopes of reviving and redoubling efforts to achieve racial equality.
A diverse group of Catholics including clergy and laypeople — myself among them — have prepared a letter exhorting our bishops to join us at this march, to fulfill the hope laid out for Christians in the first epistle of John: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
Elizabeth Bruenig (@ebruenig) is an Opinion writer.
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