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Friday, February 18, 2011

Preaching on Racism

           Fr. Steven Janoski is a priest in the Springfield diocese, now serving as a campus minister at Benedictine University at Springfield. A few years ago he earned a doctoral degree at the Aquinas Institute at St. Louis University, and wrote his dissertation on preaching about racism.

          I recently got a copy of the dissertation, started to read it, and discovered that Fr. Steve had served for three years as pastor of four small parishes in Calhoun County, Illinois. Many of us friars know Calhoun County, because for years we would travel there on weekends to help pastors with weekend Masses.

          Calhoun County is almost totally Catholic, and is not a wealthy county. There is no industry, and much of the land is not suitable for farming. It is also racially homogeneous. In 2000 there were only two black people living in the county, out of a population of about 5,000.

          I loved the area. Shortly after my parents were married in 1928, a friend took a home movie of them tending a campfire on the banks of the Illinois River at Kampsville. It became a place I would re-create in fantasy, a link to the exciting 1920s, the era of Bonnie and Clyde and Al Capone.

          But, like much of the Springfield diocese, Calhoun County has some racism in its history. Fr. Steve used his three years of service in that county, and subsequent years in nearby Troy, Illinois, as the basis for interviews dealing with racism and his efforts to preach about it. Those interviews were the basis of the dissertation.

          James Loewen is a native of Decatur, Illinois, my hometown. After he earned his degree in sociology, he began a career teaching, first in a black college in the South, and then at the University of Vermont, working to combat racism. Two of his best-known  books are Lies My Teacher Told Me, which examines high school history textbooks and documents the historical inaccuracies and downright falsehoods that characterize most of those books. More recently he wrote Sundown Towns, a study of places that would not allow black people to stay in them overnight. The diocese of Springfield is home to several such towns.

          For years, the Office of Social Concerns of the Springfield Diocese has been struggling to find some way to deal with the race issue in the diocese. As Fr. Steve documents so well in his dissertation, much of the diocese is rural in character and racially homogeneous. Much of the population has no opportunity to interact in person with someone of another race. Can the Church do anything to promote a Catholic racial approach in such places? By “Catholic racial approach,” I mean an approach detailed in several official statements of the U.S. Catholic bishops, beginning already in the 1970s. Specifically, can priests combat racism by preaching about it in their Sunday homilies/sermons?

          I have struggled with this question. I developed the following argument. I cannot “lecture” a congregation about what they should do about any controversial political or social topic because they cannot answer back. I have the microphone. When I propose something controversial, I want people to be able to reply to my proposal. Furthermore, people come to church to worship, not to be lectured about politics.

          Fr. Steve presents a counter-argument to my position. He says that the prophet is not preaching effectively unless he or she gets people riled up. God does not call us to be popular, but to preach the truth, even when it discomforts people. “To Comfort or to Challenge” was the title of a book by a sociologist back in the 1970s that dealt with the question.

          I am not convinced. I believe that challenge can only be done effectively after one has developed a relation of vulnerable, faithful involvement (intimacy) with the other party. Or at least, after one has tried, consistently and over time, to develop such a relationship. (I recognize that sometimes people are closed to such a relationship.) I describe it by a metaphor: the thorn of power grows out of the rosebush of intimacy in order to protect the rose. If it doesn’t grow out of the rosebush, it becomes oppressive.

          So, over the years, I have gently raised the racial issue in my preaching, but always on the periphery of the more central question that I believe must characterize a homily: what does this passage say about God? But is that good enough?

          I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to have made a dent in the racial prejudice that I fear still characterizes much of the city where I live.

          In September 2011 the annual priests’ convocation will spend a day and a half on the topic of racism. Perhaps the priests could begin a conversation on the topic, how to preach about racism. If we do that, we will need help.

          We will need help from the people in the pews, and from the people not in the pews. We will need help from the Catholics who will hear the preaching, and from the people of color who are being affected by the racism that still lurks in our bones.

          The trick will be: how can we get that kind of help?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Great Theorist

In the spring of 1964 I was a young priest, one of twelve members of my class doing a year of “pastoral internship” at St. Francis Solanus Parish in Quincy, Illinois. My whole life for the previous eighteen years had been focused on being ordained as a Franciscan priest. Now that I was ordained, I had not the slightest idea of what came next. I was waiting for someone to tell me.

Someone did. The Franciscan provincial minister told me to go study sociology, and to go to Fr. Gabriel Brinkman who would tell me where to study it. Fr. Gabriel had a doctorate in sociology from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He told me, “Go to Harvard.”

That was actually not too hard. In June of that year I wrote and got a summer school catalog, filled out an application on the back page of that catalog, and a few weeks later I was on campus. I took two courses, but more importantly, I met a Franciscan from Holland who was enrolled at Harvard in a program called “Religion and Society,” a mixture of sociology and theology. He took me under his wing and advised me to enroll at the Harvard Divinity School as a “resident graduate.” That would allow me to take half my courses in the divinity school and the other half in “the Yard” (the school of arts and sciences, where sociology was taught). The friar, Theodore Mary Steeman (known by everyone as “Theo”--pronounced Tay-oh) told me, “Take Parsons. He’s an easy grader.”

Talcott Parsons was one of the best known sociologists in the country. Twenty years earlier he had edged out the founder of the Harvard sociology department, Pitirim Sorokin, and had created a new department designed to unite all the social sciences. He called it “Social Relations.” He got psychologists like Gordon Allport and Erik Erikson to cooperate, social psychologists like Thomas Pettigrew, and cultural anthropologists like Clyde and Florence Kluckhohn. He never got the economists, the physical anthropologists and the really empirical psychologists (like B.F. Skinner) to come along.

Parsons’s great goal was to create theory that would encompass all the social sciences, and for that matter, all the sciences in general. He went around like an intellectual vacuum cleaner, sweeping up any idea he came across and building it into his synthesis.

Parsons had begun his career by translating Max Weber’s essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and had then created a massive 1937 synthesis of theory which he called The Structure of Social Action. In it he tried to show that four important thinkers, Weber (who had begun as a historian of economics but moved into sociology), Emile Durkheim (the founder of the first French journal of sociology), and two economic theorists, Vilfredo Pareto and Alfred Marshall, all converged on a style of theorizing which Parsons called “voluntarism.” As far as I could see, voluntarism was the equivalent of what was traditionally called “free will.” Parsons distinguished between behavior, which is deterministic human activity, and “action,” which is goal-directed behavior, and thus in some way free.

Edward Tiryakian, Sorokin’s graduate assistant, who liked Franciscans and coached me in my Harvard career, says that Parsons allowed himself to be swayed away from his original emphasis on freedom when he had himself psychoanalyzed in the 1940s and began to try to build Sigmund Freud into his synthesis (more vacuum cleaner theorizing). Parsons’s new great term became “systems theory.” He wrote a 1950 book called The Social System, which most people found unreadable. For that matter, most of what Parsons wrote after 1950 was unreadable. C. Wright Mills devotes a whole chapter in his famous book The Sociological Imagination to criticizing Parsons, especially for his unreadability. The surprising thing, to me, was that I found him quite clear in classroom lectures. I think it was my grounding in scholastic philosophy that helped.

By the time I met Parsons, his star was beginning to set. A revolt was brewing against his imperialistic claim to include all knowledge in his synthesis, and his model was criticized as too static and conservative. He had begun to use organisms as his model of social systems, and grounded his model on the concept of homeostasis.

After Parsons retired, his synthesis broke apart, and Harvard went back to a standard department of sociology. The Great Theorist has failed in his great synthesis.

But even though it proved unworkable to unite all the social sciences into one academic department, his project reminded me of the way medieval theorists tried to summarize all their work in works like Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.

It is true that no one could possibly summarize all the ideas written in even one language in today’s world. But getting it all in is not the point. The point is to get a grasp on the whole, in such a way that one can live more vitally and fully. We  need to try to get a grasp on social science, natural science, and theology. We need all three if we want to use our minds these days.