WASHINGTON (CNS) — The Black Lives Matter movement is coming up to its 10th anniversary next year, so it’s hardly in its beginning stages.
It remains a work in progress and many Catholics see it as something that the church should be willing to look at, talk about and even collaborate where it can, to take a hard look at racism and attempt to find a path forward.
The movement first appeared as a social media hashtag after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death the previous year of the Black teenager Trayvon Martin.
A year later, the movement’s name spread after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, when protests and demonstrations included the repeated mantra: “Black lives matter.”
And in 2020, numerous Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country took place after George Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis police custody.
The movement’s title is an attempt to drive home a message that Blacks still face unequal treatment in the United States, particularly with some police officers.
In 2016, Bishop Edward K. Braxton, now the retired bishop of Belleville, Illinois, wrote a pastoral letter “The Catholic Church and the Black Lives Matter Movement: The Racial Divide in the United States Revisited,” where he acknowledges the conflict between the church and the Black Lives Matter movement in terms of church teaching on abortion, sexuality, gender identity and more.
He stressed in an interview with Catholic News Service that the Second Vatican Council urges dialogue with people and organizations of divergent views.
When it comes to Catholic engagement with Black Lives Matter, there’s a consensus among some leaders that distinguishing between the broader movement and problematic organizations that bear the name is a key place to start.
In 2020, during the height of protests against Floyd’s death, then-Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, told The Catholic Spirit, archdiocesan newspaper of St. Paul and Minneapolis, that the phrase “Black lives matter” fits within Catholic social teaching about the value of each person and “places before us this reality that Black lives have not always been afforded intrinsic and equal value.”
The prelate, who is now an archbishop since being appointed earlier this year to head the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.
He added that “it is entirely possible to give a positive response to the concept of Black Lives Matter … without being beholden to an organization with objectives that are in conflict with the Catholic faith.”
Many Catholics who have taken part in Black Lives Matter-affiliated events have said their focus was simple: protesting the perceived unjustified use of lethal force by police against Black people and calling for reform. They said topics that concern other Catholics about Black Lives Matter — Marxism, transgender ideology and even support for keeping abortion legal — don’t really come up.
Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, gained attention for kneeling while holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign in June 2020. After a photo of that went viral, he received a call from Pope Francis thanking him. The pope also called Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez to thank the U.S. bishops for their pastoral tone during demonstrations across the country.
More recently, Archbishop Gomez’s comments calling out social justice movements in general in the United States drew heated reaction. Without naming any specific group, but he cautioned Catholics to recognize that these movements can serve “as pseudo-religions.”
The archbishop, in videotaped comments for a conference in Madrid last November, said these movements can even be replacements and rivals to traditional Christian beliefs” because “they claim to offer what religion provides.”
Several Catholic groups signed petitions urging the archbishop to apologize for his remarks. Other Catholics defended the archbishop, saying he was “clearly objecting” to a broader worldview on groups “often explicitly hostile to traditional Christianity.”
Archbishop Gomez’s comments did not sit well with Olga Marina Segura, opinion editor at the National Catholic Reporter and author of “Birth of a Movement: Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Church,” published last year by Orbis Books.
Segura told CNS in February that the archbishop’s “strong rhetoric to denounce this movement” was “extremely disillusioned” and disappointing for her as a Black Catholic “who is trying to push this church to engage with this movement more fully.”
Archbishop Gomez did not single out Black Lives Matter in his address to the Madrid conference, but he did discuss the tragedy of “the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a white policeman.” As a Mexican American, he said, it was “a stark reminder that racial and economic inequality are still deeply embedded in our society.”
For Segura, the Black Lives Matter movement is “very much a secular version of our Catholic social teaching” particularly with its focus on “affirming the most marginalized people,” standing with workers and supporting families.
“For me, that is exactly what we are called to do; this is what our faith calls us to do,” she said.
“I think that if the church entered into dialogue with any social justice movement that is currently happening,” Segura said a lot of young Catholics would look at the church differently, recognizing that it’s paying attention to where young people are organizing and finding fulfillment.
Robin Lenhardt, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and one of the founding faculty members of the university’s Racial Justice Institute, similarly said there are many areas where Catholic social teaching is in harmony with stated principles of the Black Lives Matter movement. She also said the movement could benefit from dialogue with leaders of many faith traditions.
“We’re not in a place where we’re able to be so picky,” Lenhardt told CNS in a March interview. “We don’t have to agree on everything, but you agree on the core things. Let’s start there”
Father Stephen Thorne, chairman of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Commission for Racial Healing, similarly said he didn’t believe the areas of conflict between the church and Black Lives Matter should prevent dialogue or collaboration.
“I want to work with anybody who wants to work for justice,” Father Thorne told CNS in March. “That’s where the conversation happens. That’s where the encounter happens. That’s where we begin to realize where we can agree and what can we do together.”
The priest said this is especially important in addressing issues with younger people in the church “who are very much moved by what has been happening specifically in the past few years with racial unrest in our country. We’d be foolish to disconnect ourselves from those conversations.”
“Dialogue is just that, it’s dialogue,” he added. “We may not agree with everything, but we can find points of connection for the greater cause.”
That was also the view of Sister Marcia Hall, an Oblate Sister of Providence, the first congregation of black women religious in the United States.
“I think the church has to make up its mind whether it’s going to take the big tent approach: Everybody is welcome, everybody is included, or we’re only going to talk to people that are like us,” she said.
Sister Hall, who is Black and is the vocational director for the Oblates, said it bothers her that in 2022 we are “having to still say, ‘Black lives matter.’” She also said if church leadership wants to understand the issues the movement is talking about, then it needs to be in dialogue with those involved.
Even if they were to walk away saying: “I don’t know that I can support everything that Black Lives Matter stands for, but I have a better understanding of why they are saying … then I feel affirmed,” she said.
The 65-year-old sister, who was a college professor before joining the order, had hope during the protests of 2020 when people said: “Whoa, wait a minute. This is not right,” about Floyd’s death.
Today, she said that hope has dimmed with challenges to voting rights rising around the country.
“The idea that I might have to fight for my right to vote literally just never dawned on me,” she said, “But I think that that’s more and more a possibility.”