The Catholic Church & Antiblackness: An Interview with Katie Grimes, Ph.D.

by | May 21, 2020 | Current Events, Faith & Politics, In the News, Interview, Race

Katie Grimes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. Dr. Grimes’s recent books include Christ Divided: Antiblackness as Corporate Vice and Fugitive Saints: Catholicism and the Politcs of Slavery. Both books take a much-needed, honest look at the Church’s history of slavery and the stances that it did, and did not, take.


Can you give those who are not familiar a sense of your work?

My work seeks to make sense of the Catholics Church’s relationship to white supremacy in general and antiblackness in particular — the good, the bad, and the ugly of that. Trying to make sense of the relationship between those two things. This includes the way the Church has helped to perpetuate those things, the way it has failed to resist those things, and the way those things have corrupted the Church and “hitched a ride” in some of the Church’s practices, as well as the way that the Church has been a force for fighting those evils.

I am focused on the negative story as an emphasis, but certainly there is the other side. The reason this is my focus is in the interest of helping the Church be better, do better, and be what it is supposed to be: more authentically the “body of Christ” to use Augustinian language — to become what it has received, the body of Christ. 


How should we, as Catholics, respond to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery?

Well, is this part of a larger pattern that stretches back to slavery and in some ways recapitulates slavery? If so, we need to connect it to the larger story. If you don’t make that connection, it will be easy to dismiss incidents like this as unimportant.

But when you understand how two white men deputizing themselves, thinking that this person who they did not know had done something wrong, and that he was a threat, and that they were empowered to do something about it re-creates the dynamics of racialized slavery as it took place in the United States, the importance and meaning of this event becomes much clearer. It is no longer an individual event; it is part of a larger, ongoing pattern that helps to uphold the afterlife of slavery.

This connection also helps us better understand the racialized and race-making character of the conversation about events like this. When we debate what the victim should or should not have been doing, we are basically debating black people’s place in society: literally, that is, spatially, but also in a metaphorical sense of place. This debate also inevitably entails a debate about what power white people have to enforce that spatial location. But especially for white people and other non-black people, it can be difficult to make this connection because of the way in which events like this are often presented out of context.  This context includes not just the way that vigilante killings like this serve as a type of echo of Africanized slavery but also the way they are made possible by our racially segregated present.

Paradoxically, however, we cannot interrupt this dynamic by defending the innocence of these victims. This still keeps the focus on black people, which is where antiblackness wants it to be. Because these incidents are often highly kinetic, these debates focus even more particularly on the black body. When discussing the killers, however, the focus tends to be much more squarely on the intentions of the father and son in this case, or their motives or what they were thinking or trying to do or whether their fear was reasonable. This pits white interiority against black exteriority. The white killers are persons; the black victims are bodies. We should instead redirect our gaze onto their bodies and the way that they occupied space. This is what my work attempts to do — help us to focus on the “problem” of white bodies and the way we take up space.


Can you share another Church concern you see?

Eucharistic imbalance. For example, I went to the University of Notre Dame. We had priests in every dorm. Every dorm had its own chapel. Some classroom buildings had a chapel. You could throw a stone and there would be a Mass going on. It was wonderful. Then, at a diocesan high school that I worked at in Chicago, whose students were African-American and Mexican-American, there was one priest at a huge parish that had a grade school and a high school. We were lucky to have an all-school Mass three times a year. It was not the priest’s fault, he was stretched thin. “What is the Catholic Mass?” is something we really struggled to teach at a Catholic high school. We should be more concerned about an equal distribution of the Sacraments, especially something like the Eucharist. 


Regarding racial segregation, can individual Catholics make a difference by discerning where they live?

Rather than individual white people thinking “oh, I need to go live in a black neighborhood,” we need to move beyond just that, since a black neighborhood is not necessarily benefited by a white person living there. We need to focus on “why do these larger patterns exist? Why are these things happening?” We need to realize that antiblack racial segregation is not a natural, organic thing. It is instead something that was in many ways engineered by big government programs and policies.

Rather than focusing on white individuals, I am trying to get us to look at the bigger patterns — the corporate vices and the corporate virtues that operate within society. Simply understanding that our society is racially segregated in an antiblack way is the first step.

It is much easier to critique than to come up with the solution. I am aware of that.  


What is an example of action which individual Catholics can do themselves?

There is value at the parish level and then at the diocesan level just having some sort of project where people learn the history of their parish. For example, few Catholics realize how many suburban parishes were the product of white flight — when territorial Catholic parishes in cities became integrated, often, the entire parish would pick up and move to a nearby suburb. Simply coming to understand parochial space as not simply neutral or innocent but often racially charged I think could be deeply transformative.


You make the point in your book, Christ Divided: Antiblackness as Corporate Vice, that the Catholic Church never split over the issue of slavery. Why do you think that was the case? Do you see any contemporary issues as having the potential to lead to an institutional split in the Catholic Church? 

I don’t think Catholics will ever split in this formal, institutional sense, at least not in the foreseeable future. The nature of the Catholic Church makes it much more likely that, as is already occurring, deep disagreements among Catholics lead to not schism, but with those who disagree with the magisterial position switching to another religious tradition or simply dropping out of the formal, institutional practice of religion altogether.  This proves especially likely given the increasingly religiously diverse and interconnected character of the world. I believe it is the case that former Catholics are one of the largest religious groups in the United States. So in a real sense this is what has already been happening.

My sense is that this is not what happened in the case of slavery. For white Catholics, Church teaching on slavery or abolitionism was not a “make or break” issue. The line between nineteenth century Catholics and Protestants was much more starkly drawn, both culturally and theologically. In this way, for example, I suspect that nineteenth century Catholics were perhaps more likely to believe that there was no salvation outside of membership in the Roman Catholic Church, so one could understand how, regardless of one’s agreement or disagreement with any particular magisterial teaching, a nineteenth century Catholic would have a much greater incentive to stay in the church if they thought their salvation depended upon it.


In your writing, you argue that race is trumping religion. What do you see as the main avenues to redress this? Integrated parishes? More competent seminary training? More holistic parish outreach or ministries?

My answer to this question is just my best guess. All of those things could be good and helpful — I honestly don’t know enough about the particular issue of seminary training to even speculate on that part, but I think that, unfortunately, this country’s racial habitat is much stronger than its religious one, at least with respect to Catholicism.

This dynamic could be different in the case of Evangelicalism, for example, but I suspect that even there, Evangelicalism would take a racialized shape. These types of instances of internal reform can definitely be good. I just don’t think they, on their own, can withstand, let alone overturn, the habit-forming pressures of white supremacy and antiblackness.


Is this country’s racial habitat stronger than its religious one?

As to the existence of a general religious habitat, I honestly just haven’t done the research and lack the knowledge to be able to say.

As for the racial habitat, it is important for me to stress that I wasn’t using the word “habitat” as a synonym for environment. I’m also not trying to describe the way religious communities ought to cultivate practices that build virtue in the way Hauerwas might. I chose the word habitat for its association with non-human animals. I was trying to capture the way that anti-black racial segregation, perhaps uniquely, shapes us at a level beyond, or perhaps below, our reason and will.

It does this because of the way it shapes place, which in turn shapes bodies. As a non-human animal does its habitat, we humans adapt to our anti-black habitat without intending to or often even realizing that we have. This is one of the major reasons I believe we cannot simply perform our way out of it. We have to attend to the ways anti-black segregation habituates us by shaping our bodies.


You have written that the Church has the habits it desires. What are your thoughts on the frequent disconnect between what Catholics-in-the-pews believe, and what the bishops publicly profess?

By introducing the concept of “corporate vice,” I was trying to draw attention to patterns in the Church’s actions. This approach is definitely limited because, of course, Catholics are not now, and have never been, a monolith.

There is a real risk that my concept of corporate vice can perceive patterns where none actually exist. And it is the case that at different points in Church history, there have been some salient differences between the bishops and the white laity on racial issues. I think, for example, a good case can be made that episcopal teaching about anti-black racial segregation evolved more quickly than white lay attitudes about anti-black racial segregation. And in the 1970s during the anti-busing controversies in disproportionately-Catholic Boston, it is the case that the bishops did a great job of trying to make sure that white Catholic parents were not enrolling their students in Catholic schools simply as a way of avoiding the integration of their local public school.

But I am honestly not sure if such a divide exists between the white laity, considered as a group, and the episcopacy, considered as a group.  This question is also hard to answer by the fact that — thank goodness — the episcopacy in the U.S. is more racially and ethnically diverse than it was in, say, the late 1940s when the bishops first identified racial segregation as a sin, or even in the 1970s.

It’s also tricky because racial attitudes among white people increasingly correlate with, and are tangled up with, other beliefs and affiliations in a way that I don’t think they were previously — but I might be wrong about that. All of that is to say that I think that white bishops are probably relatively representative of white lay Catholics on so-called racial issues.


What is your next project?

It is on different theories of freedom, from the political, secular realm to the Catholic understanding of freedom, and different Protestant strands or approaches of freedom. Classical liberal notions of freedom are very much a freedom from, as expressed in the Bill of Rights, for example. This notion of freedom contends that the main role of government is to prevent other people from preventing you from doing what you want to do.

The Catholic notion focuses more on freedom as freedom from sin, freedom to do the right thing. If you are not living a morally virtuous life, in a sense, you are not free. That is fascinating to me, both in a theoretical way, and an “on-the-ground” historical way concerning the way Catholics have tried to mesh those two identities or not mesh.

I have this sense that, in general, most of us conceive of our political preferences as a fight for freedom and against slavery. We just disagree about what freedom and slavery are. We also define freedom and slavery in reference to each other–freedom is the opposite of whatever slavery is and vice versa. But too often — across the political spectrum — the definitions various groups use for freedom and slavery are really untethered from any historical reality and just become projections of pre-existing beliefs rather than a grounding guide or touchstone.

I would like to re-frame debates about freedom by turning more intently to the history of actually enslaved people, especially black victims of Africanized slavery in the Americas as I think defining freedom more directly as the antithesis of actually existing historical slavery will help us retrieve a truer and less subjective account of freedom.



Cover image by Public Co from Pixabay.


Patrick Hyland, SJ   /   All posts by Patrick