Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the highest-ranked Latino prelate in the US—and head of the diocese with the most Latino Catholics—recently addressed Spain’s Congress of Catholics and Public Life with the message that “new social justice movements and ideologies… were fully unleashed in our society” as a result of “the killing of an unarmed black man by a white policeman and the protests that followed in our cities”.
He then offered the following thesis about these social movements: “I believe the best way for the Church to understand the new social justice movements is to understand them as pseudo-religions, and even replacements and rivals to traditional Christian beliefs.”
He then went on to explain that these movements are “atheistic” and should not be viewed as social or political justice movements, but as the anti-Gospel:
I believe that it is important for the Church to understand and engage these new movements — not on social or political terms, but as dangerous substitutes for true religion. In denying God, these new movements have lost the truth about the human person. This explains their extremism, and their harsh, uncompromising, and unforgiving approach to politics.
There are many things wrong with this thesis, but this article will focus on a particular problem raised by the anti-Blackness of the text. Gomez and others have been outspoken proponents of the Latino future of the US Church. His statements to the Spanish audience, however, raise serious concerns about what, exactly, that Latino future will look like for Black people—including, or maybe even especially, Black Latinos.
I should start by noting that Latino society has a racism problem. That problem is not separate or absent from the Church. From the beginning of its creation, Latin America has been a project rooted in racist systems and structures. Scandalously, the origins of the racist transatlantic slave trade have been said to trace to a papal bull issued in 1455 by Pope Nicholas V that allowed Portugal to enslave West Africans.
That trade was expanded to the Americas when Spain and Portugal laid claim to Native lands. Having decided to use the land purely for exploitation, the colonizers thought nothing of kidnapping and enslaving Black people. It would not be an exaggeration to think of all of South America at the time as a slave plantation.
The Church participated in this exploitation too—and I am not challenging any official Church teaching by saying this. Church doctrine was clear that everyone is called to salvation and is equal in the eyes of God. But this doctrine cannot hide the heteropraxis that was normative among White Catholics in the Americas—especially the ones with institutional and political power.
Today, Brazil has over 110 million Black people, more than half the country—only Nigeria has more. Yet, only 40 bishops there are Black (out of about 400). Recently, Black bishops and priests in Brazil wrote to Pope Francis asking for help to address the systemic racism in the Brazilian church—clearly taking as their inspiration the movements for social justice following the murder of George Floyd.
“Getting straight to the point, we, black priests, in order to answer to the call of Jesus Christ, our Lord, as laborers of His Harvest, feel during our formation our educators' knees pressing our necks,” the letter said.
“We know what the outcry ‘I can't breathe’ means.”
Pope Francis wrote a handwritten note to those Black bishops and priests to let them know that he is working on the problem.
The reality is that this problem exists throughout Latin America, especially where Black people constitute a majority or plurality. The World Bank estimates that 55 percent of Venezuela is Black or of African descent. But you would never know it by looking at their bishops and priests. Indeed, my Black ancestors in that country experienced racial violence and murder and my Black abuela spent many years unable to go to church due to racial hatred and exclusion.
The real challenge for the Latino Church is to understand how and why so much of it was and is co-opted to perpetuate a racist agenda. This challenge has become more acute as Black Latinos and their interests are often left out of the conversation of what it means to be Latino. Black Latinos have had to endure centuries of suspicion that we are either not worthy of the faith, or that our faith is inherently less orthodox—that we are not capable of being orthodox Catholics.
You can imagine what it was like for me as a Black Latino to hear a non-Black Latino bishop invoke this myth again in the US context. Especially when this same bishop has celebrated the growing reality of the Latino Church in these lands. It left me wondering: which Latino Church? The one that accepted the dehumanization of my ancestors? The one that made my Black abuela feel unwelcome and excluded? The one that continues to cast suspicion on our faith? The one that continues to stifle and resist Black vocations?
A posture that views modern movements for social justice as anti-Christian puts the US Church directly at odds with the Black bishops and priests in Brazil that have used those movements as inspiration for their social justice work. It also drives a wedge between the US Church and the Black Protestant communities that have been promoting and awarding it, including the African Methodist Episcopalian Church and the King Center.
This causes a significant wound to ecumenical relationships, and sends a message to Black Catholics about whether they can cooperate with fellow Christians on racial-justice work without a cloud of suspicion. What they see is that participation with other Black Christians has now been made automatically suspect. How do we expect other Black Christians to respond to this rhetoric?
It has also set certain bishops in the Church against official Catholic ministries doing social justice work and individual Catholics participating in these new movements because of their Catholic faith. How will Black Catholics respond when considering where they have a more welcome home to practice their Christian faith? How will any Catholic of goodwill respond, knowing that engagement with modern social-justice movements will be viewed by the president of the USCCB as akin to practicing a pseudo-religion outside of the Christian faith?
Many non-Black Latinos have been asking their non-Latino brothers and sisters in the US Church for solidarity in their struggles, especially with respect to political activism for immigration. It would be an incredible act of hypocrisy and self-betrayal if they, at the same time, replicate anti-Black structures and attitudes from Latin America.
Our Black Latino ancestors fought too hard for liberation to see the Catholic faith once again used to dehumanize and delegitimize us and our non-Latino Black brothers and sisters. As a Black Latino myself, I promise the Church in the United States that I will never be silent in the face of these efforts.
We have come too far to turn around now. Pa’lante.
Gunnar Gundersen is an attorney in Newport Beach, CA. He serves in his parish council and choir, is a published essayist, and regularly lectures on natural law and the American Founding. He is also the first Ordinariate member of the Knights of Peter Claver. Follow him on Twitter at @GBGundersen.