Race and the Catholic Church

Anacostia churchA spat between 17 parishioners and the priest at Anacostia's Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish landed on the front page of The Washington Post this morning. The parish, which has about 1,500 members, is engaged in a heated dispute, and the fact that the church is a historically black Catholic congregation and "is in mutiny against the white pastor," propels this issue to the level of "major news story," in the Post's opinion. Reporter Robert E. Pierre's nearly 2,000-word work product, no doubt the result of weeks of back-and-forth between the two sides, is interesting and well written. Eliminate the race factor and this story has back page metro section news value.

So is race an issue so important these days that it can vault a shouting match between a small number of church members and their leaders to the front page with a prominent photo? It's certainly a story that is unique to Catholic parishes. Protestant churches that reach this level of dispute simply split or expel (leaders or members).

Here's the gist of the story:

The story at Our Lady is one of clashing opinions and, for [parishioner Bill] Alston and his disgruntled brethren, an attempt to regain control of what they view as their church. Their ancestors built it, and generations since have maintained it, tithed to it, sent their children to its school.

What they have learned is that butting heads with a 2,000-year-old institution is no easy task. People at every level of church hierarchy have told them the same thing: The Catholic Church is no democracy.

Some denominations choose pastors and make decisions by popular vote, but the Catholic Church is among those in which church officials decide. Popes issue decrees. Higher-ups tell pastors when to move on. Parishioners, after having had their say, comply with the decisions of their priest.

But order has broken down so thoroughly in this case that the auxiliary bishop of Washington, the Rev. Martin Holley, has sent word that the upset group should obey the pastor or find another church.

Amy Welborn over at open book found it challenging to comment on this story, largely because she feels there is more to the story than what was reported. I agree and that's too bad, because Pierre was certainly given the space and the prominence to do some serious explaining.

More from Welborn:

But from the outside, this conflict seems, on one level, shockingly needless, which means that it probably touches on something pretty deep. The story tries to make it a huge deal, but it seems to all come down to a religious brother (who'd been at the parish for 17 years anyway), a pastoral associate, being put in charge of managing use of the parish hall. His style is not appreciated by some, and he's tightened up access to a much-coveted church hall space. The entire parish is not up-in-arms, and there is much talk of racism, since the pastor is white, although the brother in question is black. As is the bishop who's dealing with the situation, although the story doesn't mention that (the bishop's race).

A commenter at open book found the story another example of the mainstream media's "pre-programmed Catholic story" that focuses on "dissent" or "the Post's interest in deliberately stirring up trouble." I don't think a media organization should be condemned for stirring up trouble, as long as it tried to be fair and got its facts right (and it seems that Pierre accomplished both of these). The trouble obviously lies in the relationship between the leadership of this parish and its members, not the Post's desire to tell an interesting story.

Sometimes a little bit of sunshine from the outside can stop the festering and allow growth. Often that means a bit of stirring the pot. Racial and cultural differences are certainly an issue in all churches, and especially in a situation such like this. Even though the controversy directly involves only a handful of people, it's a matter that affects all of us who are involved with a church.

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