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What Can Catholic Social Teaching Tell Us About Ferguson?

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AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Rachel Lu - published on 12/09/14

America's valuing of human life remains highly selective, for starters.

Over the last week there have been protests all across America following the non-indictments of two police officers, Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, each of whom was involved in the killing of an unarmed black man. Wilson’s shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown sparked massive controversy last summer, which was re-ignited two weeks ago when a grand jury chose not to indict him for any crime. That anger rose to a fever pitch when Pantaleo was likewise released without indictment, following his forcible (and ultimately fatal) subduing of Eric Garner, who resisted policemen who tried to arrest him for selling single cigarettes on the street.

Protesters staged mock funerals and “die-ins.” Hundreds filled public spaces and attempted to clog highways, carrying signs read “No Justice, No Peace” and “Black Lives Matter.” (http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/i-cant-breathe-garner-decision-protests-hit-fifth-day-n263476)

A Protestant friend asked me whether Catholic social teaching could contribute any useful insights to the ongoing, troubled discussion about poverty and race in America. This is a difficult question to answer in brief, because of course there are many things that could be said from a Catholic perspective about our country’s social failings and their effect on minorities and the poor. Nevertheless, one in particular kept returning to me.

I think it is good to remind Americans that “black lives matter.”  I’m not suggesting that our country is awash in racial bigotry. Our problems are deeper and more complex than that, beginning with the fact we don’t value human life very much in general.

That may seem like a strange statement in a society that clearly places a high priority on health and public safety. Considered against the backdrop of Catholic social teaching, however, we quickly come to realize that our valuing of life is highly selective. We earnestly raise money to save premature infants through the March of Dimes, while just up the street Planned Parenthood is busily killing healthy unborn children whose parents happen not to want them. Politicians excite wild indignation with stories of particular persons denied drastic treatments, but at the same time, suicide is increasingly celebrated as a courageous expression of autonomy.

There is a kind of tokenism to our valuing of life. It has no organic cohesion and no consistency. We don’t see life as a right, flowing from the intrinsic dignity of human personhood as such. It’s just a foundation on which individual expression (which is the really desirable thing) may be built. If the owner doesn’t want it, it may be thrown away. Human lives are judged by their “quality,” just like items in the produce aisle. Low-quality lives may safely be discarded or allowed to rot.

Return to the events in Ferguson and New York, in which protests (both peaceful and violent) have been incited by the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police. Is the indignation justified? Some are inclined to see it as the product of hysteria and political hype, arguing that minorities are shot, killed and stopped by the police somewhat less frequently than one would expect, given their levels of criminality. This is interesting, and we can hope that recent events will precipitate a thorough examination (along with better reporting) of the relevant statistics, which may give us a clearer picture of the what’s really going on with law enforcement in impoverished neighborhoods. Still, the crime statistics can’t definitively answer the question of whether or not minorities are right to be angry with their compatriots. We must ask ourselves: are Americans really callous to the value of human life, and of black lives in particular? Have we fallen into a pattern of ignoring their suffering and disregarding their real needs? Drawing on observations from Catholic social teaching, I think one can credibly argue that we have.

We can get real insight into this problem by looking to the work of Leo XIII. Leo clearly understood that the rich have obligations to the poor. People of means must respond to the needs of the poor and oppressed. Indeed, they are under strict orders to do so, lest they find themselves among the “goats” at Christ’s left hand who come under eternal judgment. Nevertheless, that care must always be personal, and rooted in a real concern for the poor as particular human beings made in God’s image. We may not treat the poor like packaged commodities to be perfected (or placated) through a mechanized system. Assistance should be given lovingly, from one human being to another.

Contrast that attitude to the status quo in America today, where we increasingly trust state-run institutions and programs to relieve us of the uncomfortable burden of responding to complex human problems. We look to welfare offices, correctional facilities or bloodless systemic solutions (such as affirmative action) to correct problems that go far beyond the material. These “fixes” have not fixed anything; quite the contrary, there are good reasons to believe that they have been devastating in particular to those they were ostensibly intended to help. The level of social decay among impoverished African Americans is far more serious today than it was in the mid-twentieth century, when overt racism was far more prevalent but ostensibly benevolent social programs were less so. As Catholics, we should not be surprised. Top-down systemic solutions are intrinsically dehumanizing to those they claim to serve, particularly when they become a substitute for real human concern.

African Americans are by no means the only people to have suffered from this sort of callous dehumanization, but they have been affected very disproportionately, for reasons that are recognizably rooted in unjust racial bias (both historical and, in a different way, present). At the time in which Great Society reforms were first introduced, black Americans were, unsurprisingly, disproportionately poor. This was mostly a legacy of centuries of enslavement and bigotry. But it meant that they were disproportionately the “beneficiaries” of ill-conceived programs whose pernicious effects are now spreading outwards through the mostly white middle class. The authors of these social programs may not have been racist, but one might with some justification decry this process as “systemic racism” insofar as it resulted from a cumulative effect of racism and a dehumanizing systemic response.

It may be that the problem of racism recurs on another level, insofar as today’s elite secularists continue to crave the sense of righteousness that they gain from demanding further systemic solutions to a problem that has become, for them, a kind of therapeutic necessity. Joseph Bottum has recently suggested that racism may be for secularists a kind of substitute for original sin. Proposing state-centered solutions gives them a simulacrum of the kind of moral peace that we Catholics seek in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Once again, the actual lives and needs of individual black Americans become instrumentalized in the pursuit of a psychologically satisfying “social justice.”

How can we respond to this state of affairs? We must return to Leo’s recommended principles, by addressing the needs of persons on a human level. As Anthony Esolen writes in his recent book, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, “We must clear away the weeds of wrong thinking. We must cease thinking of “the rich” and “the poor” as abstractions, or as nameless masses, or as parts of a national machine. A society can only be a society of persons, with the rights and duties that flow from their God-given nature as persons meant to be bound in love.”

When we can bring ourselves to care for people, and not just for numbers, then our “welfare” can truly serve the welfare of those in need. Until then, we will be unable to grasp the basic truth that black lives, like all lives, matter. And our nation will continue to seethe with anger and discontent.

Rachel Luteaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and writes for Crisis Magazine and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.

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