Conversation with Theresa and Ed — Chapter 4

Conversation with Theresa and Ed — Chapter 4

1954 picture of me with my parents at the time of my First Communion

Background: To reiterate from my other recent blog posts, Theresa and Ed Wynne are my deceased parents. My father died in 1966 at the young age of fifty-six and my mother forty years later in 2006 at eighty-eight years of age.

I came up with the idea of having imagined exchanges with them about my memoir as a unique way to illuminate the foundational aspects of my life’s journey in “understanding racism”. So, I have developed these conversations in ways we may have talked with each other as if they were still alive… and perhaps they are whispering in my ear now! I have also attempted to frame the dialogue in a way that provides some insight on who I think they were as people of the times they lived in, as well as the significant influencers they were as my parents.

I plan on adding similar blog posts for each chapter and perhaps beyond, so these conversations will be continuing. Chapter 4 of my memoir is titled ‘The 1980s: Tony’.

Ed: “Well, given the title of this chapter and naming it after a Catholic priest, Fr. Tony Valente, your life at the time was very engaged with the Church in many ways. That’s pretty consistent with your growing up years and the way we brought you and your brothers and sisters up. I like the picture of the three of us at your First Communion by the way.”

Theresa: “Yes, I agree with your father. He didn’t know Fr. Tony but I did and he surely was a great friend to you and Sandy. But I must say that I was not aware of the depth of your friendship until I read this chapter, as well as your many involvements at both the parish and diocesan levels not only during that time but over the years.”

Me: “Tony was a very unique person and his engaging charisma drew me in quickly on a personal level. It was difficult to ever say no to his suggestions or requests not just for me but many if not most others who crossed his path. He was like an older brother to me and as I said in the book, “he was a priest’s priest!” That being said, he also was a model in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi of how to interact with the “others” in our midst from both a charity and justice points of view.”

Ed: “Since you bring that point up, I would appreciate it if you would elaborate on works of charity vs. issues associated with social justice that you mentioned in this chapter. Since we were never really taught much about the Church’s pursuit of social justice, I am especially interested in the extent of the Church’s role regarding justice and whether that gets into politics which might be a problem with many average church goers.”

Me: “You bring up an interesting point that is often times confused by Catholics and many others. As you mentioned, I get into this on pg. 81 and for further amplification, I offer a Fr. Richard Rohr reflection (10.31.21); he states as follows:

 “I have found one fuzzy area that often needs clarification: We have confused justice and charity. Charity was traditionally considered the highest virtue, popularly thought of as a kind of magnanimous, voluntary giving of ourselves, preferably for selfless motives. As long as we rose to this level occasionally by donating food, gifts, or money at the holidays or in times of crisis, we could think of ourselves as charitable people operating at the highest level of virtue.

What has been lacking is the virtue of justice. Justice and charity are complementary but clearly inseparable in teachings of Doctors of the Church, as well as the social encyclical letters of almost all popes over the last century. The giving and caring spirit of charity both motivates and completes our sense of justice, but the virtue of charity cannot legitimately substitute for justice. Persons capable of doing justice are not justified in preferring to “do charity.” Although this has clearly been taught on paper, I would say it is the great missing link in the practical preaching and lifestyle of the church. We have ignored the foundational obligation of justice in our works of charity! For centuries we have been content to patch up holes temporarily (making ourselves feel benevolent) while in fact maintaining the institutional structures that created the holes (disempowering people on the margins). Now it has caught up with us in unremitting poverty, massive income disparity, cultural alienation, and human and environmental abuse.

Jesus preaches a social order in which true charity is possible, a way of relating by which cooperation and community make sense. Jesus offers a world where all share the Spirit’s power “each according to their gift.” And that “Spirit is given to each person for the sake of the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). That is the key to Christian community and Christian social justice. It is not a vision of totalitarian equality, nor is it capitalist competition (“domination of the fittest”). It is a world in which cooperation, community, compassion, and the charity of Christ are paramount—and to which all other things are subservient. The “common good” is the first principle of Catholic social doctrine—although few Catholics know it.”

Bill continued: “We were never taught much if any about this either in our generation and there is very scarce teaching of social and racial justice from the Church’s pulpits today so unawareness continues. Does this more expansive statement from Fr. Rohr help?”

Ed: “Yes, but what about this getting the Church into controversy by being accused that engaging in social justice issues is political?”

Me: “My strong opinion is that this is a convenient excuse posed by some to be silent or do nothing for the common good as portrayed in many ways within Jesus’ Gospel message! After all, the institutional Church’s strong stand on the topic of abortion (discussed more later) obviously gets it deep into the political weeds on just that issue. You can’t have it both ways. The pursuit of the “common good” is a hard, rocky road but must be encountered in a much broader way in my view.

For example, the very term of “pro-life” used by the Church and those that are against abortion should include all “life” issues including those associated with antiracism, today’s environmental/climate change impacts, human trafficking, gun violence, war, capital punishment and many, many more. A term used to encompass these is the ‘consistent life ethic”, and that’s why I do not use the term ‘pro-life’ to define being ‘anti-abortion’. ‘Pro-life’ in my mind must include all aspects of life consistently and be discussed within an inclusive context vs. using “for cover” statements like “I don’t mix (i.e., talk about) politics and church”. That is virtually impossible to do given the Gospel message and is an example of a convenient excuse by lowering the veil of silence.  

Theresa: “To venture deeper into today’s divisive politics that the country has been enduring now for decades even when I was alive, it sure seems as if the pursuit of the common good has degenerated from its Constitutional roots noted in the preamble. It stated clearly “that the Constitution was created by the people of the United States with the purpose of securing the common good for the people of the United States of America.” “This pursuit of the common good recognizes that the country is composed of individuals and so the good of the country as a whole is related to the good of the individual citizen.”

Me: “Well by quoting that I can see why you were so involved on Election Days at the local voting location as well as the both of you being so active in the American Legion due to your military service trying to preserve the common good!

Ed: “Absolutely; we felt that it was our civic duty. But I’d like to get back into the Church part of this and your book especially in this chapter. As your father, I am proud that you were so involved and knew so many priests and even the bishop. I know you get into this in the book but I was wondering if you would elaborate. For example, it seemed that at the end of the 80s and continuing on for a couple more decades you were much less involved with the Church. Could you explain what happened a bit more?”

Me: “That’s a great observation, Dad, and you are right that there was more to it then, that has even circled back on my work today in fascinating ways. I’ll try and be brief. Essentially my work at the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) back then as described in the chapter got me involved in the renewal and reorganization of Diocesan social ministries as a whole. This then led me for one of the first times, I believe, to really confront the realities of speaking ‘truth to power’.

CYO was literally a ‘gnat’ compared to the ‘Goliath’ of the local, Catholic social ministry world. We were put in a position as an organization of having to make our voice strongly heard otherwise there was a distinct risk of becoming an after-thought in the process. So as mentioned, we were speaking ‘truth to power’ and as President of its Board, I was the key spokesperson for CYO in providing the facts about our organization’s needs.

We were therefore identified as an organization, despite our relative size, as a group to be listened to. The approach the Diocese eventually took was to include “little, old” CYO at the larger leadership table and I was appointed the first Chairperson of its Board of Social Ministry. I’ll leave it to you as I did with readers of the book to draw your own conclusions, but this entire circumstance was extremely revelatory to me and truly opened my eyes to the power of the Church and how it operates.”

Theresa: “Moving from that period then to now, how has it circled back on you?”

Me: “Before I get into today, another event happened in the 80s regarding the closing of Blessed Sacrament School that was personally disheartening as outlined on pgs. 88-89. The details around this and the end result of closing the school added to my disillusionment about the institutional Church. And as Dad noted, other personal and professional circumstances conspired to greatly lessen my formal engagement with Church boards, councils, and committees for the next two decades. Suffice it to say this lessening of my Church involvement was somewhat intentional but mostly circumstantial given other commitments and life changes.

I’ll probably get into it more in future chapter discussions about other developments years later so I’ll be brief in answering your question. One of the early steps I took after the book was published last November was to reach out to our parish to see if I could in some way make the book known to parishioners and to discuss my antiracism journey. Suffice it to say that other than a brief presentation to the parish Social Justice Committee, the pastor has not allowed the Committee or me an opportunity to speak to a larger parish audience. The bishop was even made aware of this request and suggested that I work with the pastor which I have tried to no avail.”

Theresa: “I’m confused. It seems to me that antiracism is at the core of the Gospel message with the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, the Eight Beatitudes, and the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ as just some examples.

Me: I agree with you and then when connected with several National Bishops’ letters on racism over the past sixty years including most recently in 2018, there have been formal calls for the institutional Church, Dioceses, and Parishes throughout the country to be more active including from the pulpit. This simply is not happening to the degree it should using the Rochester Diocese as just one example.

That is one of the reasons I wrote the book, making presentations, and writing blogs such as this one on my website. So, you could call it speaking ‘truth to power’ again in a more current context but it shouldn’t be as necessary as it is given the bishops’ letters, Pope Francis’ urgings, and their respective calls for action. This is especially important in the face of the never-ending racism in this country.”

Ed: “Is there a basic explanation for this lack of action and relative silence?

Bill: “In my view, the Church has been blinded by its primary and virtually exclusive focus on the issue of abortion. Unfortunately, this has carried many Catholics as well as other Christians and Evangelicals into the Republican camp where many members of that party likewise are placing their greatest attention on this one social policy issue — anti-abortion.

Ed: “Republicans!!??”

Bill: “This may be hard for you to understand given our modern political situation today especially with the recent Supreme Court making abortion a crime. Hopefully the following information will help elaborate.

Brian D. McLaren is a former evangelical pastor and champion for a more loving, inclusive and contemplative Christianity. A faculty member at Fr. Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation, he teaches ways to reconnect with the message Jesus lived and died for—unconditional love. He is the author of ‘Faith After Doubt’, ‘The Great Spiritual Migration’, and host of CAC’s podcast ‘Learning How to See’.

In an excerpt from his 9.12.20 letter ‘Dear White Christian Pro-Life Friends’ (see: he writes:

“My dad (a Republican) saw in his last years exactly what I was seeing: the Republican Party adopts policies that hurt people of color, that hurt the planet, and that hurt the poor, and they can count on pro-life Christians to support these policies because of abortion. Meanwhile, Republicans oppose the very policies that have proven most effective in reducing abortion, and to make matters worse, their Christian pro-life voters rarely if ever stand up for the poor, the planet, and people of color, because the abortion issue trumps everything else.

When I saw this, when I really faced it and let it sink in, I reached this conclusion: a group of political, economic, and religious powerhouses have combined efforts to use the unborn to win over sincere Christians (and others) to support their multi-faceted agenda, first incidentally, and then intentionally. With unlimited lobbying and marketing power at their disposal, they attracted people to the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, but gradually required them to support everything hidden beneath the surface.

From the 1980’s until today, the Republican promise to outlaw abortion has been the shiny moral issue Republicans present to the Christian world. But under the surface, they have bundled together a much larger set of commitments, which means that when you vote pro-life, you vote Republican, and when you vote Republican, you vote for all of the following…”

Bill (continued): “To see the list of over 30 items McClaren outlines next, please refer to Part 3 of the link. Note that this compilation was put together almost two years ago before the recent Supreme Court ‘Roe’ re-decision, is even worse today, and is rampant with racist objectives.”

I suggest stopping here for now and discuss further in future conversations since I think this blog might evoke some reader commentary that we could also consider later on.”

Theresa: “I think that’s a great suggestion; you sure have given us a lot to think about.”

Me: “I can only hope that any reader of this blog feels the same way. Tony’s courageous spirit still echoes in my mind today and continues to inspire my path in discussions like this. I’ll talk to you again soon about Chapter 5 as my story continues into the 90s.”

Ed: “Thanks for all you are doing.”

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