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What Can Catholic Social Teaching Tell Us About Ferguson?

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.

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