Book Review: “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church”

Sister Emily TeKolste, SP
February 11, 2022

Since the 2010 publication of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, Fr. Bryan Massingale has made a name for himself as the premiere voice on racial justice in the Catholic Church. Twelve years after its publication, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church holds up to its original review from Publishers Weekly as “Prophetic.”

Massingale’s prescient perspective even predicts the overwhelming white backlash that led just over a year ago to an insurrection against the U.S. Capitol. His most important contributions, though, are that racial justice needs to be an essential identifying mark of Catholic faith; about the deep work that needs to be done to ensure Catholic spaces are truly catholic; and why this matters for each of us – not just for Black Catholics.

With a thoroughness of an academic ethicist, Massingale defines his terms and goals. The assumption that he is writing an introductory text, though, does not take away from his willingness to drive straight to the heart – and the challenge – of the topic. Racial Justice and the Catholic Church is neither an endorsement of past (inadequate) efforts nor a wholesale repudiation of what the tradition has to offer.

With an authenticity that comes from his ability to be a voice that offers so much to the whole Church (People of God), Massingale highlights “the valuable and essential contributions of the black experience – the experience of creating meaning and possibility in the midst of the crushing ordinariness of American racism – can make to Catholic faith and theology.”

This last point is critical: the perspectives of Black Catholic theologians matter not just to Black Catholics or to theologies around racial justice; they have so much to teach all of us about theology in all areas. Yet the practical challenge is that there are relatively few Black Catholic theologians (mostly because of systemic exclusion). Thus, as Massingale explores in the fifth chapter, too often Black Catholic theologians are invited almost exclusively to speak on issues of racial justice – with an ignoring of their expertise on all areas of theology. We are all worse off for this.

Also critical is Massingale’s emphasis on action. The statements from the USCCB, he points out, too often lacked power because they never entered into catechesis and no resources were invested in creating offices to implement the charges.

“We cannot offer what we do not ourselves genuinely believe,” he says. “Too often, the Catholic faith community is ‘catholic’ in rhetoric and aspiration alone. Becoming genuinely ‘universal’ in our welcome will entail dying to the ‘empty promises’ of racial and social privilege” (178). So what practical things can we challenge ourselves to do? He gives us some ideas: Sing in another language. Pray in another idiom. Welcome darker faces into church leadership. Imagine new configurations and possibilities of being ‘church’ that are not dependent on our racialized values and idolatrous identities.

There is so much else Massingale has to offer for conversation in Racial Justice in the Catholic Church. It is worth reading – and inviting others to join you in a book discussion. And maybe you can start to find ways to engage in a truly universal faith tradition, embracing the Paschal Mystery that life comes after death – in this case, death to white supremacy.

Hear more from Fr. Bryan Massingale at NETWORK’s upcoming event, “White Supremacy and American Christianity” April 9 at 12:30 PM Eastern. Register for the event here.