Two prominent Catholic legal scholars say despite its checkered past on race, the Catholic Church can be a transformative force on race relations in the United States.

“We have so many resources within our faith tradition, within its intellectual tradition and within our theology, that, if carefully considered and well-taught, should be powerful weapons against racism,” argued Vincent Rougeau, dean of Boston College Law School, during “Race, Justice, and Catholicism,” an online Lumen Christi Institute event held June 22.

Rougeau and Herschella Conyers, clinical professor of law and director of the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, paired their hopes for the Church’s role moving forward with a sobering reminder of the Church’s entanglements with the historical racism of the United States.

Both scholars recalled personal experiences of racism within the Church – Rougeau’s sister was denied baptism by the parish priest, Conyers heard “black kids are uneducable” from her own pastor – and warned that the Church’s inability to strike a firm stance against developing racist attitudes in U.S. history has had dire consequences.

The Catholic Church in the United States, Rougeau argued, was perhaps too successful at assimilating European immigrants into the American mainstream in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“What I think that did,” he said, “was create a culture in which a lot of American Catholics were more about becoming American and increasingly, over time, less about what it meant to be Catholic, what it might mean to be somewhat countercultural in the American context.”

As a result, key Catholic teachings that did not mesh with prevailing racist views were ignored, and history shows “increasingly hostile engagement amongst ethnic Catholics towards blacks,” as evidenced in “a lot of books about how the Irish became white, how the Italians became white,” explained Rougeau.

Event moderator Eduardo Peñalver referred to the ongoing effect of these historical realities as the “normativity of whiteness” that has distorted both U.S. culture and the Catholic Church in the United States.

Conyers illustrated that concept by narrating what happens each time she sends a pair of law students – one white male, one black female – ahead of her to a court proceeding.

“It has never failed that when they go without me, when I walk into the courtroom, the African American woman is sitting in the audience … she is never in the well of the courtroom where lawyers are permitted to sit … and my white male student is sitting at the counsel table,” she said.

“When I ask her why she is sitting back here, she says to me, because the judge or sheriff told me to go have a seat,” Conyers continued. The white student’s response to why he’s sitting with counsel: “Nobody stopped me.”

Rougeau tied this courtroom example back to the Catholic Church’s liturgy, noting that American Catholics often resist the idea that things like African dance or Brazilian music can be “part of a ‘normal’ experience of church.”

The white European ideal, he continued, “imbues our society in the way that we understand how the Mass is supposed to be, how we’re supposed to present in church, how we’re supposed to engage with one another in the context of our liturgy.”

“That’s something that we really have to think carefully about if we want to break down some of the structural racism that exists in our society and has either invaded the Church or already been a part of it,” Rougeau added.

Despite this troubled history, both scholars expressed optimism that Catholics can help initiate change at a crucial time in the nation’s history.

Catholic social teaching can provide the “intellectual heft” for the Church to engage this moment and be anti-racist, Rougeau said, adding that the nation seems “hungry for some moral engagement around issues that matter” and that the Church “is in a great position, given its pervasiveness around the country, to really be transformative in this regard.”

Characterizing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter on racism, Open Wide Our Hearts, as “a start,” the law professor urged bishops to move past cautious statements to provide the sort of prophetic, “powerful moral leadership” that figures like Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle – the archbishop of Washington D.C. who desegregated schools in the 1940s in the face of stiff resistance – once provided.

Conyers said that she too senses an opportunity for the Catholic Church during a time when there are “a lot of white people in streets with Black Lives Matter signs.”

For Catholic parishes and institutions, she argued, “it is too late in the universe” to worry that race discussions make people uneasy, but is instead “time to get over your discomfort and look at what, in your parish, in your neighborhood, can change.”

Conceding that the nation’s structural racism is “not going to unravel by the end of the summer,” Conyers urged Catholics to rally their communities to discern and commit to three structural changes that need to be made in their specific context.

Rougeau outlined a three-pronged approach – parish, institutional, and personal – for the Church to contribute in a meaningful way to racial justice.

At the parish level, he encouraged Catholics to find ways to integrate conversations about race into their faith life, holding up his own parish’s engagement in the Just Faith program on racial equity and justice as a simple step towards bringing racial justice into a parish’s lived faith experience.

For Catholic institutions – schools, universities, hospitals – the present moment necessitates deepening understandings of racial disparities in those institutions, Rougeau said, pointing to his new racial justice initiative at Boston College as a concrete example of what an institution can do to be proactive.

On the individual level, he urged Catholics to read up on racial justice issues and try to understand perspectives that they haven’t considered before. Then, if those new perspectives are compelling, figure out how to “engage the body politic and start asking for change.”

If Catholics do step up to join in this fight for justice, Rougeau concluded, the Church can be “an agent and force for change in a society that really needs hope.”