Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

What Segregation, White Guilt, and Black Power Can Teach Catholics

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 19, 2021

Most adults know the frustration of receiving duties but not the authority to carry them out correctly. The relationship between power and responsibility helps us understand ideological tensions in society and the Church.

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Jesus founded the Church as a covenant of freedom, authority, and responsibility. He bestows his power on the apostles: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 16:19)

But the authority Jesus gives us is inseparable from an urgent responsibility, the salvation of souls: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….” (Mt. 28:19) Hence, the Catholic faith recognizes the complementarity of Christian authority rooted in truth and individual responsibility rooted in freedom.

For many people, cultural demands determine the primary relationship between power and responsibility. If the culture is essentially Christian, the principles of authority will tend to coincide with Christian principles. But a godless culture will imbue authority with secular values that frequently do not coincide with Christian morality. The political correctness of secularism emphasizes culturally-bound power and imposes culturally-conditioned obligations. So, for example, politically correct secular morality has replaced traditional views on marriage.

Racial segregation followed a similar pattern. Under complicated cultural circumstances, segregation was a fearful reaction to the migration of poor Southern blacks to the cities by the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The institution of segregation handicaps blacks by denying them reasonable opportunities for securing a living and raising a family. Thus segregation was a secular policy of (what was then considered) cultural and political correctness.

The brutal era of segregation was also a time of heroic black responsibility. Many ordinary black fathers held their families together with hard work while enduring outrageous injustices. Hollywood depicted suffering, tragedy, and heroism in various films such as “Mississippi Burning” and “Hidden Figures.” The power of those stories lies not only in the shame of injustice but also in the astonishing endurance and final victory of the oppressed.

Martin Luther King, Jr. led the non-violent civil-rights movement. His vision was traditional, not revolutionary: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Breaking segregation and racial injustice meant the victory of character – freedom, authority, responsibility, guided by conscience – not the mastery of one skin color over another.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools based on race was unconstitutional. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Yet in 1968, Dick Gregory, the comedian turned activist—in a Chicago black power rally—derided responsible and hard-working blacks as “good Negroes.” His taunts claimed that responsible blacks enabled segregation by their law-abiding behavior. But as Shelby Steele observes (in his book, White Guilt), the black-power activists overlooked the genuine progress achieved by the Civil Rights movement, including disciplined non-violence and self-reliance.

Charges of racism stung white legislators, many of whom had been segregationists. White guilt recoils in response to charges of racism, and refuses to expect personal responsibility from the aggrieved. Obsessing over past injustices, legislators attempted to unburden their consciences with legislative bribes. The combination of white guilt and irresponsible black-power activism ruined the synthesis of authority and responsibility that was at the heart of the non-violent civil-rights movement. The results were disastrous.

Runaway federal government social spending, beginning with LBJ’s Great Society, ruined generations of poor people. The breakdown of responsibility reversed the progress that blacks had made by the middle of the 20th century. Rioters torched cities. Welfare programs rewarded illegitimacy. Divorce among minorities skyrocketed, and fathers with children from many women became the norm. Lavish government spending without accountability corrupted and destroyed inner cities. Today, Detroit is the showcase of white guilt and black power devoid of responsibility. Racism came under new management. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it: “The soft bigotry of low expectations.”

We can see a parallel pattern in the Catholic Church. Despite the traditional pontificates of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, liberal churchmen have triumphed (for now) by promoting two malicious errors. Employing the formula used by segregationists, 1) appeasing the demands of the Godless culture, they severed their authority from the truth of Christ, and 2) they undercut the responsibilities of their subordinates who refuse to violate the authority of Jesus. They may tolerate “responsible” traditional Catholics, but only those who behave (to borrow Dick Gregory’s scornful phrase) as "good Catholics," always avoiding confrontation.

LGBTQ advocacy is the most prominent politically correct agenda of liberals at the highest levels of the Church’s hierarchy. High-ranking prelates – exemplified by the German bishops’ conference—have become unabashed advocates of the cause and suffer little or no disciplinary consequences. In matters of prudential judgment such as illegal immigration, so-called climate change, economics, “systemic racism,” and government spending, the American hierarchy is in lockstep with the Democrat Party and rarely (if ever) seriously promotes politically conservative positions. (Hence the old joke: The USCCB is the Democratic Party at prayer.)

With pockets of silenced (and sometimes persecuted) traditional Catholics in the lower ranks, the doctrinal face of the Church has become the equivalent of Detroit, ravaged by the errors of liberal guilt and irresponsible ecclesiastical power. As a consequence, the authorities undermine a pastor’s responsibility to save souls. If he upsets anyone by violating prevailing liberal strictures, many Church authorities will summarily desert the priest.

Traditional and orthodox Catholics, in conscience, will not resort to the irresponsible use of power in response. No cars are smashed, no buildings burned, and no schism threatened. But we must provoke consciences if possible, work the judicial system of the Church if necessary, and, ultimately, endure neglect and contempt and even martyrdom in its many forms. Indeed: “‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you." (Jn. 15:20)

Traditional Catholics live under the tyranny of an era of religious and secular segregation that severs rightful authority from orthodox principles. Amid the widespread rejection of the laws of Jesus, the circumstances call for heroic responsibility. Ordinary Catholics—inspired by the example of black families during segregation—must struggle with the grace of God to hold their families together with faithful hard work and even endure outrageous injustices. We cannot allow our segregationist brethren to extinguish our Christian zeal.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: tjbenjamin - Apr. 20, 2021 7:19 PM ET USA

    I agree with what Father Porkorsky is saying about liberals in the Church and the harm they are causing. But what is their motivation? In the secular circumstance, Father notes that white guilt and irresponsible black power are causing the damage. What are the parallel motivators for liberal Catholics? Why are they doing what they do? Father, did I miss something while reading the article? I suspect somehow it’s tied up with money, especially government money. What do people think?