Promoting the Common Good Starts with Justice in the Church

Promoting the Common Good starts with Justice in the Church
by Erin Brigham

The presidential election revealed deep divisions within the Catholic Church, reflective of larger divisions within society surrounding race, gender and class. As we prepare for the inauguration of president-elect Trump, whose victory was supported by over half of the Catholic vote, the Church is challenged to discern how we will promote the common good and defend those marginalized by injustice. I believe this should start with an institutional examination of conscience involving some hard questions about gender and race.

It is perhaps too obvious to begin with the observation that the Catholic Church, by excluding women from the highest levels of ecclesial leadership, hardens the glass ceiling in other areas of life. And while this does not explain why the majority of white Catholics voted for Trump despite his crass displays of misogyny, it presents an occasion to reflect on whether or not the Church is doing enough to challenge institutionalized sexism, which it firmly regards as sinful. The Church’s teaching on gender complimentarity—that the gifts of men and women naturally differ—allows it to reject sexism without reimagining its own patriarchal structure. Assuming the feminine genius is better suited for nurturing than leading enables some people to be uncomfortable seeing a woman in authority without considering themselves to be sexist.

At the same time, few Catholics today would explicitly support exclusionary patterns based on race. Yet, theologians such as Bryan Massingale have highlighted how the Church has done a better job denouncing racist structures than prompting a critical reflection on white privilege. The exit polls according to the Pew Research Forum reveal a striking gap between white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics with 60% vs. 26% respectively voting for Trump. There are a number of factors that shape voting patterns but it invites the question of whether or not white Catholics oppose bigotry as wholeheartedly as our brothers and sisters of color.

I see two problems that impede the Church’s solidarity and commitment to defend human dignity and empower the marginalized. With respect to gender, there is a failure to recognize how structures reinforce attitudes—seeing men exclusively in positions of power reinforces the belief in male superiority. With respect to race, there is a failure to recognize how attitudes reinforce structures—unexamined white privilege hinders the mobilization of the church against systemic racism in this country.

I am not alone in pointing out that Catholics, who do not vote as a bloc but whose voting patterns consistently reflect the outcome of US presidential elections, are poised to rebuild solidarity after this divisive presidential election. I am convinced that it must begin within the Church itself. Only by examining our own complacency with sexism and racism can the Church live out its commitment to build a society that honors human dignity and the common good.

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