In today’s episode of Field Hospital, Jeannie Gaffigan and I talk to our old friend Sam Rocha, a professor at the University of British Columbia, about issues of race and racism in the Church and our society.
I’m sure most Catholics in the US agree that racism is immoral and evil, but many people believe it’s a problem that existed mainly in the past. Speaking for myself, I have to admit that I used to think the claim that racism is still pervasive in our society, especially in our Church, was overblown. This changed—albeit gradually—in recent years, when I began to get to know Black Catholics and the challenges that they’ve faced. In 2019 I took part in a Lenten retreat where I heard a presentation by a Black Catholic woman about her experiences of exclusion and other forms of discrimination on marginalization from other Catholics. Afterwards, participants who also belonged to minority groups began to share their own experiences of facing racist attitudes and behavior from their fellow Catholics. Other retreatants discussed times when they witnessed or even participated in the marginalization of others.
This led me to begin my study of Black Catholicism and to pray for racial healing in our Church. I discovered the story of Venerable Augustus Tolton, a Black Catholic priest from Chicago who faced discrimination for his entire priesthood, even from other priests. I began to learn about the emergence of Black Catholicism as a movement in the 20th century and the struggles and resistance they faced. I witnessed overt racism from Catholic traditionalists on social media, including their regular denouncing and belittling of the liturgical and musical traditions of Black Catholics.
Like many Americans, George Floyd’s murder in 2020 was a huge wake-up call. And I realized how pervasive it is, even in “orthodox” Catholic media, when radio host Gloria Purvis was dropped from the Guadalupe Radio Network (she would later be fired by EWTN) following listener complaints about her repeated calls for racial justice and an end to racism.
As he discusses in this podcast, that moment also served as a wakeup call for Sam Rocha. He reached out to Gloria Purvis and interviewed her in July 2020 on her faith and experiences as a Black Catholic. He then went on to study racial issues, including a topic that has become especially charged in US political discourse: Critical Race Theory (or CRT).
Critics of CRT assert that it is divisive anti-American discourse, that it villainizes white people and indoctrinates young minds. And Catholic critics of CRT say that it is incompatible with church teaching. Jeannie and I wanted to talk to Sam about racism in a Catholic context, and to try to better understand critical race theory. We asked him for clarification on what it really is, and whether it’s compatible with the Catholic faith.
Sam is an associate professor in the department of educational studies at the University of British Columbia, host of the podcast Folk Phenomenology, and writer in Catholic media such as America, Commonweal, Our Sunday Visitor, and Church Life Journal.
You can learn more about critical race theory, read Sam’s writings, and access other resources relevant to this topic through these links:
- “Race, Racism, and US Catholics” Where Peter Is Live episode—Sam Rocha and Thabo Bailey Hall join Mike Lewis and Melinda Ribnek to discuss issues of culture, racism, and CRT in a Catholic context.
- “What Barron Gets about CRT” by Sam Rocha
- “What critical race theory is—and is not” by Brian Fraga
- “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.
- Sam Rocha’s Substack
This episode of Field Hospital is supported by Catholic Theological Union.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.