Tuesday, July 7, 2020

A Reflection on Justice and Collective Guilt

So, we had a third attack on a statue of St. Junipero Serra. This time in my own diocese. As these attacks continue, I see an emerging tendency which might seem entirely just from a human perspective, though not from a Catholic perspective. That tendency is to go from an entirely just anger and disgust, to a rejection of the original just causes through a guilt by association fallacy.

I say this seems entirely just if taken solely from a human perspective because it is natural to think that if Group A suffers evil at the hands of Group B, we ought to cut ties with and oppose Group B. I say it is not just from a Catholic perspective because we believe that justice means giving to each their due, and punishing the whole for the sins of the fringe is not just.

Our Catholic bishops (contra the claims of some of my fellow Catholics) have given a balanced approach to this modern iconoclasm. They condemn the evil from the fringes, while acknowledging the justified grievances that the main groups have. Unfortunately, some Catholics—based on their personal views of Church and politics—either assume the guilt of all those protesting for racial justice or all in the Church for the acts or views that the Church actually condemned.

Context is always key. People from the past can be blind to bad practices of their times on one hand, doing evil but not intending it. But things can also be misrepresented by people from the present as well. We need to investigate, not assume. As an example, I’ve seen a quote going around the internet purported to be from St. Junipero Serra as “proof” that the saint was in favor of the mistreatment of native Americans. I have two problems with that quote. First, we have no source material for the statement as translated. That doesn’t mean the quote is a fabrication of course. He might have said it. It might be verifiable under a different translation. But without knowing where we might independently verify this quote outside of the say-so of those hostile to him, how can we investigate? Second, because we have no source: if he did say it, we have no way to determine the context. Was he saying it to support it, or saying it to condemn a vicious practice that people had grown blind to§?

So, whether one thinks he was following a practice in a time when discipline was more physical than verbal, whether he was in favor of mistreatment of natives alone (something I doubt), or whether he was opposing the practice, such a person needs evidence for their claims.

Of course, one outside of a group with grievances must not be too quick to dismiss the grievance. Otherwise we risk looking like we don’t care about the grievance. But we can’t just capitulate to an unjust demand either, whether out of fear or out of misplaced#empathy. 

Yes, the Church is filled with sinners. You the reader and I the writer are two of them. We might not be guilty of the worst sins committed by Catholics or in the name of the Church. But we can’t think of those evils within the Church as “somebody else’s problem.” At the same time, we can’t assume that the individual sinners in the Church are proof that those in charge are guilty of willfully supporting those evils. The sacrament of penance exists to bring us back into right relationship with God and each other, and people do repent. Imagine if we ignored the good St. Paul did on the grounds of the evils he did before his conversion.

But once we recognize that, we must do unto others (Matthew 7:12) despite how others outside the Church treat us. Do we think the Church is being unjustly accused and attacked as a whole for the sins of some? I believe so. But if we do recognize that this unjust, that is a warning sign that we must not do it to others.



(†) Remember, we praise Bartolomé de la Casas as a saint, not Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda.

(‡) The quote in question is: “That spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of the Americas; so general in fact that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule.”

(§) Taken as translated, and having no knowledge of context, my instinct is to give it the second interpretation. But without context, neither I nor the Saint’s critics can know that to be a fact.

(#) “Misplaced” is the key word. For example, legitimate empathy calls us to consider the plight of a woman considering abortion. But it doesn’t allow us to support her abortion.

1 comment:

  1. Not directly about St Junipero, but a few thoughts on the broader topic of collective guilt/justice.

    Exodus 34:7b - ... visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.

    God may not attribute the sin itself to the descendants of the sinner, but the effect of the sin does transmit to them in some way. A child that is sexually abused is left with permanent psychological scarring, and that may affect their children in various ways, the worst being that the abused grows up to become an abuser themselves. It may take several generations for that effect to be diluted out in time. If one culture abuses another culture, there is an inherited cultural memory of that, with suspicion or fear or hatred by the originally oppressed group's descendants against the oppressing group's descendants. It doesn't mean I carry the moral guilt of my ancestors, but it does mean that I am left in a position where I need to work towards reconciliation and forgiveness that my ancestors never achieved. I'd go so far as to say I am obliged to do that, or that it is one of my responsibilities.

    There's also the concept of original/ancestral sin, where we inherit something bad, some sort of guilt, as part of our heritage due to someone else's past sins. While we don't accumulate more original/ancestral sin with each additional sin our ancestors committed, at least in a strict theological sense, sin can be transmitted from one generation to the next. E.g. attitudes that a parent holds get taught to their children. These can be good or bad - a racist parent can transmit racist attitudes to their children simply by the way they are brought up; an abused child can grow up to be an abuser; a child with a suffering parent may grow up to be more caring of those who suffer and move into a career devoted to fixing such suffering.