As a Catholic who grew up in South Georgia during the late 1960s and 1970s, I encountered plenty of discrimination towards Catholics and much more against Black Americans. My father was a cameraman who covered the civil rights movement for two of the major news networks. My mother was a social worker serving the poor. She instilled in me a deep awareness of racial and religious discrimination and the idea that as long as anyone faces discrimination before the law, we will never be a just society.
My mother took great pride in the fact that the first group of predominantly white clerics to support the civil rights movement were Catholic bishops and priests, and the first schools to integrate were the Catholic schools. I suppose she was influenced by Archbishop Paul Hallinan of Atlanta. Hallinan and the bishops of Charleston and Savannah established a program of sermons, study clubs, and school instructions to teach Catholics about racial justice and the dignity of the human person.
I remember hearing a homily from a Glenmary priest who vividly described the parallels between the passion of Christ and the suffering of the Black American community. His point was that Catholics, through Christ’s suffering, should be in solidarity with our Black neighbors who were suffering. The Glenmary Home Missioners served rural communities where Catholics were a minority in states like Georgia, which was less than two percent Catholic at the time.
The Glenmary Home Missioners also preached against anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. Catholics had faced discrimination in the South, but too often the Catholic community had kept its head down to avoid provoking attacks from the KKK and their supporters. For a short time in the 1950s and 60s, southern Catholics in Georgia and South Carolina made common cause with their Protestant, Black, and Jewish neighbors to oppose racial and religious discrimination. As Catholics were committed to this social justice work here at home, many were also espousing a spiritual calling to align themselves with the poor and oppressed abroad, through the Liberation Theology movement in Latin America. It was, indeed, an inspiring time for Catholics who believe in social justice.
Recently, leadership has been less inspiring. In 2019, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) endorsed a rule change proposed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to allow faith-based organizations that receive federal funding to discriminate based on their religious beliefs and moral values against LGBTQ+ and other people. The fact that the USCCB endorsed the change does not mean that all of the bishops support it, but such statements influence politicians, activists, and voters.
The committee that endorsed the change believed it to be a matter of religious liberty. From their perspective, the federal rule requiring adoption and foster care agencies that receive federal funds to serve LGBTQ+ couples was discriminatory against Catholic agencies. The USCCB’s decision made it more difficult for children in the foster care system to be placed in safe and loving homes by supporting discrimination against LGBTQ+ families. Worse, they left members of their own flocks vulnerable to discrimination.
As USA Today reported, South Carolina had been allowing faith-based adoption agencies to practice discrimination based on religion while receiving state and federal funds. Miracle Hill, a foster and adoption agency in Greenville, illustrates the problem. Miracle Hill refused to allow Aimee Madonna, a Catholic mother of three, to foster children because they objected to her faith. As Religion News Service reported, Miracle Hill also rejected Sue Barrise, a retired schoolteacher, from serving as a foster parent when they heard she attended St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church. Lydia Currie and Beth Lesser, who are Jewish, have very similar stories of discrimination by Miracle Hill.
Even though Miracle Hill received a $600,000 federal grant to provide these services to eleven counties in South Carolina, they used the idea of “religious liberty” to justify religious discrimination against Catholics and Jews. Catholic bishops thought they were defending religious freedom, but they endorsed a rule change that would make Catholics subject to discrimination and that would also have protected anti-Semitic prejudices on the part of Southern evangelicals. The bishops have made it more difficult to move children in the foster care system into safe and loving homes.
St. Bonaventure warns us about the dangers of choosing the apparent good over the actual good. Indeed, this is how the serpent tricked Adam and Eve. The serpent presented eating the fruit of knowledge as a good in that it would make Adam and Eve like God; instead, it stripped them of their likeness to God. Discerning Catholics need to reach out to their bishops and warn them that while religious liberty appears desirable, it is a bitter fruit.
Colt Anderson is a Roman Catholic theologian who has served nine years on the faculty of a seminary, three years as the Academic Dean of a Catholic theological school, and five years as the Dean of the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham University. He is a member of the Interfaith Coalition for Children’s Rights.