The double helix of America's DNA contains two strands that sum up its national identity. The first is sometimes described as "American exceptionalism," the Reaganite image of a "city on the hill," a beacon for nations, an ideal realized more fully than anywhere else. The second thread is his own frustration at failing to live up to that ideal: slavery, mistreatment of the poor and marginalized, a widening gap between the rich and the rest.
"Make America great again." is an open reference to the first thread, an inarticulate nostalgia for an imagined "golden age" in which we felt we were masters of our own destiny. These last few months recall the second thread: the fragmented response to the pandemic, the partisanship that rejects as "medical tyranny" the invitation to wear a mask, the ruptures in our health and education systems, and finally the outburst of frustration and anger not only among racial and ethnic minorities, but also among young whites.
In an analysis of the mismanagement of the pandemic, the Washington Post called us "a nation of individuals". That individualism that contributes so much to the American character and its myths of the rugged cowboy and the active entrepreneur has metastasized into a selfishness that speaks of rights but not responsibilities, and rewards individual freedom over the common good even during a global pandemic.
Without a national policy, the closure of businesses, schools and churches has been uneven, provoking a backlash in many communities. The bishops have rightly noted the demands of the confinement, although they have been criticized even by some Catholics who saw attacks on religious freedom in the restrictions on Masses. Archbishop Jose Gomez, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, left no room for such arguments. He led a national liturgy of prayer on Good Friday, telling Catholics that God wanted his people to learn that "we are a family" and urging them to "take care of each other". Only when it appeared that the Church was being treated unfairly, as in Minnesota, where businesses had more lenient openness directions than churches, did the bishops protest, asking not for special treatment, but for equal treatment.
As unemployment rose, it became clear that the black and Latino populations were being disproportionately affected, not only economically, but also by the virus, in terms of death and hospitalization rates. At that time of great fear and tension, the horrific murder of George Floyd ignited a hotbed of grievances. There were national protests every day. This and other crimes resuscitated the movement. "Black Lives Matter, only this time the demonstrations were attracting not only blacks but whites as well, and not only in the big cities but in small towns seemingly far from the urban chaos.
In 2018 the bishops published a pastoral letter on racism entitled. Open wide your hearts: the enduring call of love. Now, as demonstrations erupted across the country and reports of racial violence piled up, the bishops condemned Floyd's murder and called for institutional reforms.
One of the strongest calls for justice came from Bishop George Thomas of Las Vegas. In a pastoral letter, Bishop Thomas called for "a genuine conversion of heart and a commitment to renew our communities.". "We are a Church that holds that all life is sacred, from the moment of conception until natural death." he said. "Under the banner of Catholic social teaching, we say with resounding voices: 'Yes! Black Lives Matter!'"
In the wake of the demonstrations, which still continue daily in some cities, activist groups have targeted the statues. At first, the toppled statues were of Confederate leaders who fought to defend slavery as an institution, and lost. But the anti-statue movement spread, threatening the country's founding fathers like Jefferson and Washington, and then extending even to saints like St. Junipero Serra, who is blamed for the Spanish conquest and the mistreatment of California's indigenous peoples.
In the wake of these attacks, Archbishop Gomez issued a remarkably temperate letter explaining his appreciation for "Fray Junipero," a "defender of human rights". But the archbishop also challenged the demonstrators to understand the past, saying that "historical memory" is the "soul of every nation". "History is complicated."he said. "Facts matter, distinctions must be made, and the truth counts."
At this tense moment in American society, Archbishop Gomez illustrates the values that the Church brings to the public square: an appreciation for social justice and the common good, humility and a commitment to truth.
But in a noisy election year, rocked by illness and division, it is an open question whether the country will be able to listen to the bishops.
Journalist, author and editor. Director of Catholic News Service (CNS)