Last week, Archbishop José H. Gomez assailed “new social justice movements” as “dangerous substitutes for religion.”
Gomez, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke to the Congress of Catholics and Public Life, an international conference held in Madrid, but his comments spread beyond the direct audience. His remarks focused on “the new social movements and ideologies” that he said were “seeded and prepared for many years in our universities and cultural institutions;” movements that were “unleashed” on society after George Floyd was killed in May 2020.
“In denying God, these new movements have lost the truth about the human person,” he said. “This explains their extremism, and their harsh, uncompromising, and unforgiving approach to politics.”
Gomez's comments were especially directed at left-leaning activists. Absent from his criticism were protesters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, including some who held crosses painted with the words “Jesus Saves,” and those who have opposed vaccine mandates, some on the grounds of religious freedom.
While the archbishop acknowledged that “racial and economic inequality are still deeply embedded in our society,” the comments seemed, to many, to be an effort to delegitimize social justice efforts within the church despite past and present commitments to social justice from Catholic leaders.
Sojourners asked Catholic leaders and thinkers across the United States why social justice is important to their faith. Here’s what they had to say:
Alessandra Harris, co-founder of the Black Catholic Messenger
“As a Black Catholic, I draw strength and guidance from my faith when confronting the injustice and inequality Black people experience. The Church teaches that all people, including people of African descent, are made in God’s image and likeness and have inherent dignity that cannot be taken away. It’s through this lens that I work to eradicate systemic racism that continues to oppress too many in the Black community.”
Gloria Purvis, Catholic speaker and host of The Gloria Purvis Podcast
“One of the reasons social justice is integral to my Catholic faith is because I believe in the dignity of the human person, which is foundational to the common good. Since I believe in the dignity of the human person and the unity of the human family, it follows that I must be actively doing good, which includes thwarting social evils. The racial justice movement is one means of thwarting social evils like the sin of racism. This movement is not new in America. It is a continuation of the earliest struggle of the enslaved African for liberty and recognition of their human dignity.”
Mary J. Novak, executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice
“Catholicism is a prophetic, living tradition that calls me to encounter lived realities and act in community. Just as the gospels demonstrate Jesus’ healing power, the Catholic social tradition demands us to eradicate racism and all discrimination. The Catholic tradition acknowledges structural inequity and cultivates a moral imagination envisioning new possibilities for solidarity, liberation, and the common good. This social justice work requires us to build a society that fully recognizes human dignity and interconnectedness.”
Jamie L. Manson, president of Catholics for Choice
“Social justice isn’t merely important to my Catholic faith, it is inextricable from it. To me, being ‘woke’ means being awakened to the injustices in our midst. Jesus called us to a radical transformation of mind and heart that centers the needs and dignity of those suffering economic inequality, racism, and gender bias. Archbishop Gomez’s version of ‘Jesus’ could not be more inconsistent with the Jesus portrayed in the gospels.”
Fr. Bryan Massingale, professor of theology at Fordham University
“I read Archbishop Gomez's speech with dismay and disbelief. He has a serious misunderstanding, and perhaps even a willed ignorance, about the goals and motivations of contemporary social justice movements. For example, he blanketly characterizes ‘social justice’ movements such as Black Lives Matter as ‘pseudo-religions’ based on ‘profoundly atheistic’ ideologies that are hostile to Catholic belief. On the contrary, most Black Catholics I know advocate Black Lives Matter precisely because of our belief in the universal human dignity of all people as images of God. We declare that Black Lives Matter precisely because of our allegiance to what the archbishop calls ‘the Christian story.’ What especially saddens me is that there is no evidence that the archbishop, as president of the nation's bishops, made any effort to use the best scholarship on contemporary social justice movements that is available in the American Church. There are many committed Catholic scholars, especially those of color, who could have provided him a more accurate perspective on contemporary events.”
John Gehring, Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life, author of The Francis Effect
“Archbishop Gomez's speech criticizing new social justice movements was deeply troubling, and a missed opportunity to connect centuries of Catholic social teaching with contemporary movements that inspire so many people to put their faith into action. More than 50 years ago, the Second Vatican Council urged Catholics to read the ‘signs of the times’ and engage with the world. Pope Francis has called for a ‘Church in the streets’ and frequently recognizes the importance of grassroots organizers. Social justice is the public expression of loving our neighbor as ourselves. My faith is an activist faith because the radical call of the gospels compels us to speak out, organize, and challenge a status quo that leaves people beaten by the side of the road. Catholic bishops and other religious leaders should be standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other movements fighting for human dignity.
Victor Carmona, president-elect to the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States
“Many Catholics participate in [Black Lives Matter] and immigrant rights movements because the pursuit of social justice is vital to our faith. In the words of the 1971 Synod of bishops, neighborly love and justice cannot be separated. ‘For love implies,’ they write, ‘an absolute demand for justice, namely a recognition of the dignity and rights of one’s neighbor.’ That spirituality stems from the gospel call to proclaim the good news of God’s love. It is at the heart of Catholic social teaching’s commitment to the common good.”