Catholicism’s White Supremacy Problem Has Infected Sojourners

Editor’s note: Since this piece was written, Sojourners has publicly apologized for taking down Martin’s piece & re-published the essay. The past statements on the article, including the one cited below, can be found here.

About two weeks ago, scholar and activist Eric Martin published a piece on Sojourners about the very real problem of white supremacy in the American Catholic Church, entitled “The Catholic Church has a Visible White-Power Faction.” Several days after its publication, the essay was pulled from Sojourners by Jim Wallis, the well known anti-racist author and Editor-in-Chief of the magazine. I’d like to take a minute and analyze the extended reasons given by Wallis for the removal of the essay. (Full disclosure: Martin has written for Daily Theology but took no part in the writing of this essay. For the full text of Martin’s essay, see this Google doc, linked by @NyashaJunior )

Wallis writes, “The article began with a claim that a bishops pastoral letter on racism was silent on ‘three famously extreme symbols of racism’ (nooses, swastikas, and the Confederate flag). The letter in question does in fact name nooses and swastikas as a ‘tragic indicator of rising racial and ethnic animus,’ though the article says the bishops voted not to condemn them all. The Confederate flag is not named in the letter.”

A screen capture of the article before it was taken down.

Wallis is referencing Martin’s opening paragraph, which reads: “The document, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” was billed as “a pastoral letter against racism,” making its writers’ silence on three famously extreme symbols of racism a curious one. The bishops explained themselves by arguing that swastikas and nooses were already “widely recognized signs of hatred,” which would seem to make them all the easier to condemn. (Interestingly, they eschewed this logic when issuing their only condemnation, against violence toward police.) As for the Confederate flag, “some still claim it as a sign of heritage,” they argued.”

The depth of Wallis’ critique here is unwarranted, as I only find two minor mistakes in this paragraph. First, either Martin or an editor forgot to include a hyperlink to Martin’s source for these quotes, a November 2018 article in America Magazine entitled “U.S. bishops adopt new anti-racism letter, first in almost 40 years.” This article, written by Olga Segura and Michael J. O’Loughlin, detailed the conversation among bishops about the letter. During the debate on the letter, Segura and O’Loughlin reported, “Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock proposed adding a condemnation of signs of hatred, a category in which he included nooses, swastikas and the Confederate flag. But the committee rejected the amendment, writing, “Nooses and swastikas are widely recognized signs of hatred. While for many the Confederate flag is also a sign of hatred and segregation, some still claim it as a sign of heritage.”” As such, Martin’s references are solid and his critiques valid. Second, Martin’s use of the word “silence” may be an overreach, since Open Wide mentions nooses and swastikas in passing. However, this mentioning does not replace an explicit condemnation of them as symbols of hate, especially since such a condemnation was voted down. And a simple changing of “silence” to “refusal to condemn” would have been sufficient for any editor.

The source of Martin’s valid critique and Wallis’ confusion

Wallis rests his entire critique on this opening paragraph: “This factual error was then used as a key example to link failures in leadership of the Church to the growth of white nationalist and supremacists groups with ties and connections to Catholicism. This was a theme that would be returned to throughout the article and ultimately I felt that the broader theme of the article would not be corrected by a simple factual correction.”

Ironically, Wallis’ argument falls apart in exactly the way he tries to critique Martin – factual correction. If Wallis had read more closely, or done a simple google search, he would have seen that Martin’s foundational critique, which Wallis finds impossible to believe, relied on expert reporting done two years ago.

Such a search would also have shown Wallis that Martin has been clear in his praises and critiques of Open Wide Our Hearts, and agrees with many in the theological community in his concerns. In fact, the foundational arguments of this essay were expanded from similar arguments he made in February 2019, as part of a symposium on the document at Political Theology. In that piece, Martin writes more specifically on the positives and negatives of the Bishops’ letter, including the exact argument that made Wallis find the entire article beyond redemption:

“Thankfully, Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock submitted an amendment to condemn the imagery of swastikas, nooses, and Confederate flags. Such a motion should be perfunctory at this moment. The bishops, however, rejected the amendment. Nooses and swastikas are already “widely recognized signs of hatred,” they reasoned – with a logic not applied to widely-scorned violence against police. As for the flag that signifies white ownership of black Americans, they claimed, “While for many the Confederate flag is also a sign of hatred and segregation, some still claim it as a sign of heritage.” “

Wallis, not having researched any of this, concludes his critique by apologizing for this debacle and asking the reader not to worry. “As an organization and publication,” he writes, “we remain committed to journalistic excellence and integrity.” Not only that, but “Sojourners remains committed to confronting white supremacy and white nationalism—unremittingly–and the errors in our internal processes in publishing this piece grieve us even more given the clear intent of the author and our staff.”

One example of many critical tweets about the incident.

I have respected Wallis’ work and have read Sojourners for decades, which makes this incident, including how Wallis disregarded the work both of Martin and of his own editorial staff, all the more unbelievable. There is only one possible response that aligns with Wallis’ claims of anti-racism: for Sojourners to re-publish the essay on the website. Despite many tweets about the incident, Sojourners has done nothing.

So, to formally protest the removal and make our voices better heard, please email response@sojo.net with “Aug 2020 – Catholic Church” in the subject line. I have already emailed them this essay, and I ask that you either copy and paste this essay into the body of the email, or insert your own message.

If the removal stands, not only will Sojourners reputation be tarnished, but Wallis’ actions will prove the very existence of what Martin argued: that a powerful faction of the American Catholic Church “harbors a culture sufficiently friendly to white nationalism that people can comfortably embrace both the faith and the most extreme forms of racial hatred.” Powerful enough, perhaps, to even taken down an essay in the overtly left-wing magazine Sojourners. God help us.