Commentary

Prejudice, Right or Wrong

Father Jerry Pokorsky
By Father Jerry Pokorsky | June 12, 2019 | 2:52 PM EDT

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

During a recent “listening session” on racism sponsored by a Catholic diocese, a retired priest accused his fellow priests of “deep prejudice”:

[The retired priest] also feels immigrants are mistreated. “We’ve made progress, but it has been a brutal struggle to bring people of color into the church of [the diocese],” he said. “Even now, there is a deep prejudice among some of my fellow clergymen. They don’t want to have to deal with it, in a diocese that is already half immigrant.”

Since the retired priest is conflating the alleged “prejudice” of his confreres with their opinions on immigration policy, it is helpful to parse his charges for purposes of clarification.

“Prejudice” means to “pre-judge” a person or group based on traits and patterns of behavior.  A prejudice is either reasonable or unreasonable.  I do not trust a priest who dissents from the Church’s moral teachings on human sexuality. Further, my prejudice predisposes me to send penitents to doctrinally safe priests for Confession.  Indeed, my inclination has become a matter of conscience.

Similarly, I do not trust priests who profess to be “gay and celibate.”  I am very much familiar with the studied ambiguity of gay priests and, with prejudice, assume the priest is likely an active homosexual who narrowly defines “celibacy” as “not married.”  Such a truncated definition of celibacy works well to provide cover for the various shades of homosexual debauchery, including the sexual abuse of adolescents.

Perhaps the retired priest would agree and protest he is speaking only of ethnic prejudice.  Again, I plead guilty.  My father was of Polish heritage, and my mother Norwegian.  During his “Prairie Home Companion” radio program, Garrison Keillor often told ethnic jokes.  I laughed when he quipped, “As rare as a Norwegian who tips.”  I grew up among hard-working Norwegian farmers who counted their pennies to make ends meet. Before they cashed in on the American dream, their frugality was necessary and continued in humorous ways even after they became comfortable middle-class Americans. 

Ethnic groups have various traits and, with prejudice, we joke about the characteristics – sometimes with affection and charity, and at other times with malice.  I am very familiar with jokes that disparaged immigrant Poles who had trouble with English.  But in time and with goodwill, the jokes have become mostly benign.  Need we condemn Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” and censor the term “paddy wagon”?

Of course, ethnic jokes can be cruel and abusive.  But underlying prejudices are often realistic. (It is said Stalin regretted the Soviet annexation of Poland because of Polish stubbornness. Tell me about it.)  Tempered by a Christian mind, an ethnic joke can be amusing and harmless.  Good-natured teasing of cultural traits in the proper setting is not at all immoral or “racist.”

The identification of common traits is the foundation of ethnic prejudice, good and bad.  The Church canonizes saints from around to world to elevate and acknowledge ethnic and tribal affinities.  Heroic Christian virtue purifies – but does not eliminate – prejudices.

Sociologists and psychologists routinely identify ethnic traits and patterns for various purposes (including criminal profiles, often with a wink and a nod, to avoid unjust charges of racism).  Many dioceses sponsor “multi-cultural ministry” programs that are based almost entirely on defining models of habitual behavior to avoid misunderstanding.  It is helpful to understand that in some cultures, it is polite to take off one’s shoes before entering the household.  Properly formulated prejudices facilitate mutual understanding and courtesy.

Some prejudices, however, reveal sinful inclinations.  Multi-cultural ministry often reveals a soft-racism, a condescension by Caucasians toward other races.  There are African American, Vietnamese, Hispanic, and Korean ministries in multi-cultural programs.  But we never see a Caucasian ministry program – not even in Uganda.  The omission suggests that elitist Caucasians think of themselves as innately qualified to identify those ethnic groups in need.

This is not to suggest that pastors should ignore specific pastoral needs and common courtesies.  In a previous parish with a large population of Vietnamese immigrants, I introduced a Mass in Vietnamese.  When a Vietnamese priest wasn’t available, I celebrated the Mass.  I recited the priest’s prayers in English, and the people responded in Vietnamese.  I didn’t think of my initiative as an exercise in “multi-cultural ministry.”  I was just trying to nourish my people with the sacraments.   My experience fed my prejudices.  I saw the pattern of the devotion of a people who had to fight to retain their faith under Communist oppression, and I encouraged their children not to neglect their ethnic Catholic heritage.

The retired priest may suggest I’m missing his point.  He may argue that my sinful ethnic prejudices prevent me from welcoming the new immigrants.  But I cannot recall refusing Communion to a single immigrant or denying absolution to any of my penitents who have accents that vary from my Midwest American accent.  I raise money for Catholic Charities to feed the poor regardless of their immigration status.  I send out the Legion of Mary to visit the people of my parish without regard to race, color, creed, or sexual orientation.  Divergent views on immigration are usually just good-faith political policy differences.

By impugning the motives of many of his brother priests, the retired priest ducks reasonable argument and disagreement as he attempts to take the moral high ground.  The racist label is routinely affixed to anyone who disagrees with the conventional wisdom of open borders immigration.  Almost every political conservative is labeled “racist.”  Overlooking that Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger’s roots were overtly racist (eugenics, to reduce the black population) abortion advocates accuse pro-lifers of – you guessed it – racism.

Patterns of prejudice are natural.  Everyone has “deep prejudices.”  But our prejudices must be tested against the truth of man’s dignity created in the Divine image, fine-tuned and always used to serve justice.  

Most of us have plenty of sins against charity to confess, but it’s cheap to smear those who disagree with our immigration views as “prejudiced.”  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, properly understood.

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.

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