The National Catholic Review
Sometimes, the irony is so close, it is difficult to see. My friend, Andrew Sullivan, heads his blog with a quote from George Orwell, "To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle." And, as often as not, the irony is in the words themselves. "Catholic" is a word with a meaning. It means universal. "Racism" is a variety, an especially pernicious variety, of tribalism. Both tribalism and (lower-case) catholicism correspond to desires found within the human heart. We want to belong, and it is difficult to belong to everybody, so we carve a niche for ourselves among our own, within our tribe. Yet, we yearn for the infinite, for the universal, for a world without artificial and de-humanizing boundaries. Reconciling these two tendencies of the human heart is never easy, but it is not difficult to see which one wins when times are tough: a tribe can protect one, psychologically and otherwise while universalism may inspire, but the inspiration can seem remote. Whatever else she is, Hillary Clinton comes across as one of "us" if by "us" you mean someone who has had to struggle, someone who is white, someone who is uncomfortable talking about her personal life in public. She is a fighter, too. Most especially, she is a woman, and women have rallied to her every time she appears about to get knocked out. Barack Obama, as his name suggests, is not one if "us" if by "us" you mean white, ethnic, Catholic, blue collar. It is difficult to imagine him sitting around the kitchen table balancing a check book. Even the religious cadences of his speeches, which welcome those of us who are religiously motivated when we vote, have no Catholic ring or inflection in them. There are plenty of reasons to not support Obama, but it is absurd not to consider the possibility of anti-black bigotry within the Catholic community as a part of the equation. American culture has been drowning in "identity politics" for a very long time, and one of the most refreshing things about Obama is his aversion to making any such appeal. But, in American culture, with its myriad consumer choices and whirlwind of economic upheaval and opportunity, people need to hold on to something tangible and concrete, and they hold onto their identity. "An affiliation is not an experience. It is, in fact, a surrogate for experience. Identity is the articulation of this surrogacy," wrote Leon Wieseltier in his brilliant essay "Against Identity." "Where faith in God is wanting, there is still religious identity...Where the words of the fathers are forgotten, there is still ethnic identity. The thinner the identity the louder." Wieseltier’s essay remains required reading for anyone concerned about American culture. There was a time – think "Bells of St. Mary’s" – when Catholic identity was not thin, when the vibrant culture of the Catholic ghetto defined the lives, carried the aspirations, and negotiated the politics of millions of Catholic immigrants. But, with the move to the suburbs and the attenuation of a distinct Catholic culture, people hold on as best they can, and not always to the essence. The essence of (upper-case) Catholicism is (lower-case) catholicism. Our priests and bishops, charged with preaching and teaching, must remind us of this fact in the days and weeks ahead. There is racism lurking in the tribalism of some Catholic enclaves, and it offends both God and man. Michael Sean Winters

Comments

Anonymous | 4/25/2008 - 11:42am
My previous reponse was basically emotional memories. It would be interesting to see some historical facts about this issue: a) between 2000-2006 1600 inner city schools were closed - 50% were catholic and primarily african-american. we talk about church and parish missions - are dioceses supporting inner city missions; b) less than 5% of American catholics are african-american. Why? How many pastors are black? c) 1925-1935 african-american northern migration - reality is that the upper midwest and northeastern churches were primarily ethnic or national parishes. so, no inclusion for blacks. Not many bishops were like Rummel in New Orleans - they nrutured ethnic/national churches. No room for blacks; d) there is a southern caricature that rednecks are bigots. High profile southern politicians were still running on segregation in the 1970's; yet, northern bigotry is not as institutionalized or direct. In fact, they would deny any type of racism. But economically and your comments about tribalism have left blacks out of the catholic community especially in the midwest and northeast. It just isn't as overt but look at the busing controversy in Boston in the 1980's; housing in Chicago, etc. Unfortunately, catholics have not welcomed blacks - this is a subtle form of racism.