In recent months, more and more people in the United States and around the world have proclaimed that Black Lives Matter. These three words represent a truth too often buried and a movement for justice too long denied. But notably, bishops in the U.S. have overall been unable to utter these words, and part of their reluctance can be traced to their obsession with stopping LGBTQ rights.
Two commentators have recently questioned whether the bishops are serious about racial justice. Olga Segura wrote a must-read essay in the National Catholic Reporter commenting upon the weak statements of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the anti-Black Lives Matter statements of New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Likewise, John Gehring, the Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life, writes in Commonweal about the backlash to Black Lives Matter (BLM) that has included many Catholic bishops.
In Gehring’s piece, he notes that gender and sexuality issues are at play when “a growing number of conservative Catholics are speaking out against BLM, arguing that its positions on LGBTQ issues, gender, and abortion mean Catholics should not support the organization.” What does this look like in practice? Gehring offers the example of Spokane’s Bishop Thomas Daly who wrote in a recent statement:
“BLM is in conflict with Church teaching regarding marriage, family and the sanctity of life. Moreover, it is disturbing that BLM has not vocally condemned the recent violence that has torn apart so many cities. Its silence has not gone unheard. One need not stand with BLM to stand for Black lives.”
Gehring also cites Tyler’s Bishop Joseph Strickland who tweeted that there was a “REAL BLM agenda” that was “deeply disturbing.” Elsewhere, Strickland tweeted a link to the Black Lives Matter organization’s beliefs page, commenting, “Please educate yourself on this! Toward the end of this statement 2 points are made that are contrary to FAITH…#1 opposing the nuclear family (where is dad?) and #2 opposing God’s plan for sex as a union of male & female. This agenda is DANGEROUS!”
Such messages have been echoed by the right wing media and by prominent conservative Catholics, including gay Catholic writer Andrew Sullivan who described BLM and Christianity as “fundamentally incompatible.” Dioceses like Denver and Cincinnati have published articles in their diocesan newspapers that Catholics cannot support Black Lives Matter, in large part because of BLM’s agenda on sexuality and gender.
So what exactly does Black Lives Matter believe? Well, for one thing, BLM signifies a wider, decentralized, global movement. This movement for racial justice is not a reiteration of the more centralized civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This point is often lost in critiques. But there is an organization called Black Lives Matter Global Network, and its beliefs are often what the bishops and conservative Catholics have targeted. So what does this organization believe. Here are a few LGBTQ-related points in their statement of beliefs:
“We are guided by the fact that all Black lives matter, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status, or location.
“We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.
“We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence. . .
“We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.
“We foster a queer‐affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking, or rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual (unless s/he or they disclose otherwise).”
The rest of the beliefs are well worth reading and reflecting upon, too. This agenda is intersectional and unapologetic in both its insistence that Black people be centered and celebrated, while recognizing that the pursuit of liberation is a common effort. To quote Fannie Lou Hamer, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
But in addition, there is almost nothing to which Catholics should object in this agenda. The Black Lives Matter organization’s beliefs on sexuality and gender are entirely consistent with Catholic teachings on prejudice, human dignity, and non-discrimination. Treating people equally regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression–or any kind of diversity–is the Christian’s call. Centering transgender people makes a preferential option for one of society’s most vulnerable groups. Dismantling all privilege and seeing beyond the limits of heteronormativity and the gender binary are uncomfortable, but they, too, are necessary for true discipleship.
And despite some bishops’ claims to the contrary, the Western nuclear family model is not an eternal truth. Indeed, wider conceptions of family are found throughout history, especially in the Bible, and including the family in which Jesus was born into and participated in.
It must be said that not all bishops have been unable to state Black Lives Matter. Even worse, many, if not most, have either been critical or silent about it. Segura and Gehring issue their challenges to the bishops to move beyond an obsession with sexuality, gender, and abortion that stymies them from doing the real, difficult work of racial justice. Gehring writes:
“But can Church leaders be full participants in a national reckoning with racism if they admonish a movement that is widely credited with playing the most important role in elevating the reality of police brutality in the public consciousness?”
“This alignment [with Black Lives Matter] would not mean that the church would become a pro-abortion institution or change its teaching on marriage, as many critics believe would happen if there were any kind of relationship between the Catholic Church and the Black Lives Matter movement. If a church leader can sit down with and praise a president [Donald Trump] seen by many people of color as racist in the name of the ‘sacred enterprise of accompaniment,’ then our bishops should be open to engaging with members of the Black Lives Matter movement, which many marginalized groups within our church see as Christ-like.
“If they are calling on ‘state and national leaders to examine the generational and systemic structural conditions’ that have harmed black Americans, as they say in their May 4 statement, then I implore our church leaders to begin with a self-examination.”
For too many years, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has been a hostage to right-wing voices in the hierarchy that subvert its public witness for justice in favor of a politically conservative agenda that favors forces antithetical to the Gospel, most notably opposition to LGBTQ equality. It is time for that to change. It is time for the bishops’ anti-LGBTQ obsession to end. It is time the bishops say unconditionally that Black Lives Matter.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 10, 2020