[Editor’s Note: Spiritan Father Paulinus Odozor is Professor of Africana Studies and Theology at the University of Notre Dame. Before coming to Notre Dame in 1999, Odozor held numerous academic, administrative, and pastoral positions in Nigeria and Canada. He is currently president of the Governing Council of Spiritan International School of Theology in Enugu, Nigeria. He spoke to Charles Camosy about the protests against the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the Black Lives Matter movement.]
Camosy: Many Catholics find themselves perplexed about how to respond to our current moment. Overwhelming majorities are horrified by the murder of George Floyd, want justice done in the legal cases against those who killed him, and want fundamental change when it comes to racist police officers and racist police departments. But many are at the same time deeply skeptical of movements to abolish the police and worry that issues that go well beyond racial justice that also seem to be part of the conversation. Can you help them make sense of all of this?
There is a saying that extreme situations call for extreme measures. The extreme situation here is that the plight of blacks and other racial minorities in this country has become so bad that it has become almost unbearable. George Floyd is only one of the more recent episodes of this extreme situation. The average black person in this country, no matter how highly placed, has many stories to tell of institutionalized and individual racism which is overtly or implicitly directed at him or her. The George Floyd case has become a tipping point. People are therefore saying they have had enough.
Many ideas have been put forward on how to address this situation. Many of these ideas have been there all along. I will not have the space to speak about them. Let us rather talk about policing. First, anyone who seriously thinks we should abolish police departments or refuse to fund the police in an adequate way must be joking. If we do any of these our world and our societies would be unlivable. We will return to a state of barbarism in which only the criminal and those who can pay them will rule our spaces and our live. The police are an essential instrument in the preservation of a modern democratic ethos and state. The job of the police officer is a delicate one: preserving the lives of the ordinary citizens and making sure that criminals are brought to account for their activities.
The first thing we must do is to ensure that only those who have what it takes psychologically and mentally would be given police badges and uniforms. The police force attracts two kinds of people- the genuinely public service minded persons and the criminally oriented persons. When the latter are also racial bigots, the result is the kinds of policing we have seen in instances like Michael Floyd’s.
Obviously black lives matter and everyone should proudly proclaim that loudly and without any qualification whatsoever. In your view, does that mean supporting the formal Black Lives Matter movement?
The slogan “Black Lives Matter Movement” is a cry of anguish. As a cry of pain, I identify with it. However, I do not see myself as a “card-carrying” member of this or any other such movement. My reasons are twofold: First, belonging to such movements can involve you sometimes in some ideologically suspect positions these movements may be part of. Secondly, it makes it difficult for me as a Catholic priest to reach people outside that circle with genuinely thought-out suggestions for moving the situation forward.
Having said that, I must tell you that I have thought long and hard and I have been wondering what we can do to shine the light of the Gospel on our current situation. What is the essence of the cry of anguish I spoke about above? How can the Church become part of the solution? There are no easy answers. This is the time for us all to think hard and honestly, to find lasting answers to our current problem.
What are other roles the Church should play in all of this? How can we best speak about and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ right now?
The first thing is to do everything we can to get to the roots and ramifications of this matter. Band-aid solutions cannot solve the matter. Looting stores and shops and businesses will not solve the matter. We need something like a Truth and Justice commission on race. In the United States, the Catholic Church has tremendous resources- universities, colleges, health-care institutions, etc. Perhaps, Catholic universities in this country can create a commission together across the big and small colleges here to study this matter in a very detailed and dispassionate way, as institutions of faith, bound by a common tradition.
They must ask questions like: What is racism? How is it manifested in the various institutions of our society and at various levels of those institutions? How can all persons of goodwill be educated on this issue and made to be participants in the change we seek? Perhaps such a commission should also involve the USCCB. The situation where a side sub-subcommittee of the Bishops conference is asked to work on this issue and come up with a statement which no one reads or cares about, is a joke. All major Catholic institutions in this country must devote resources and talent to study, reflect on this matter with a view to proposing genuinely catholic solutions to the issue
There is another aspect to the issue. The George Floyd killing and the resultant world-wide protests which followed have shown another aspect that the Church must take note of, namely, that the question of race, ethnicity and identity, has become a world-wide question, in a way it was never before. In his seminal 1967 encyclical, Populorum Progressio, St. Paul VI proclaimed that “the social question has become today, a world-wide question.” What we are seeing today is a neglected or forgotten aspect of that social question. Today, the question of race, ethnicity, and identity, has become a world-wide question. Consider the question of minorities in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Consider the various forms of segregations, caste systems, and other systems of injustice, segregation, and discrimination all around the world. Like the race problem in America, the Church has often paid little or no attention to these situations. We have failed to address them systematically or to deal with them systemically. The recent race riots in America and around the world present us with an opportunity to listen to the cry of anguish of these oppressed minorities and to find ways to shine the light of the Gospel on them. What must the church do? The Church must devote attention to this issue by convoking a synod which is very well and extensively prepared for in all its all its aspects throughout the world. Following this synod, the pope must issue a strongly worded exhortation to the world and the church on this issue, just like he did on the environment.
For many centuries, the world has been living the legacy of slavery, colonialism and super-power domination and expansionism. The rich countries of the Northern Hemisphere benefited tremendously from this historical framework. Individuals and certain ethnic groups in the global South also benefited from such situations. What we are now witnessing is that many groups on whose backs and against whose dignities these systems were built up are becoming very restive and are asking to be treated rightly as human beings. The church must be part of this movement for liberation. After all, our founder came to set prisoners free.
Catholic social teaching already contains elements of what the Church teaches on this issue. But that is not enough. We must bring a high level of conscious intentionality to this question. Otherwise, it will continue to fester and peoples under various forms of oppression will continue to erupt in destructive anger.
Priests are rightly being urged to preach on these matters. Religious and other Catholic education which starts up in the fall will no doubt have a focus on racial justice. What principles or ideas do you think should guide Catholic preaching and education here?
Priests, theologians, teachers, parents, etc., in the Catholic tradition have plenty of work to do. First, they should listen to people who are hurting. They should take them seriously, even if they are not of the same faith fold as us. Peaching is not enough though. What the 1971 synod says about the need for those who teach others about justice to be just themselves holds true here. Our churches, dioceses, religious institutions, and religious congregations are not always shining examples of racial or ethnic justice. This moment is an invitation for us all to search our souls and our institutional lives to see what we can do to be more just and more attentive to the imperatives of love and justice which are embodied in the Gospel and which the Church talks about in Catholic social doctrines.