Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
David DeCosse is the director of Religious and Catholic Ethics and Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.
“No justice, no peace!”—no slogan has perhaps been more identified with Black Lives Matter protests in the last weeks than these powerful, concise words.
“If you want peace, work for justice”—no slogan has perhaps been less identified in the American mind with Catholicism in the last decades than these powerful, concise words uttered almost 50 years ago by Pope Paul VI.
Closely aligned slogans only tell us so much. But the similar wording of these two rallying cries—one forged in the streets, the other at the Vatican—point toward untapped possibilities for Catholic and religious engagement with Black Lives Matter. Unlike the religiously-inspired civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, Black Lives Matter is a secular movement open to religious partners.
Indeed, many religious individuals and groups—Catholic and otherwise—have joined in the recent protests. Moreover, Black theologians like Shawn Copeland and Bryan Massingale have written powerfully on Catholicism and race in America. After years of delay, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in 2018 issued a document called “Open Wide Our Hearts” that condemned racism.
But for those steps forward, there have been many steps remaining in place—or even going back. Tortuously slow in producing “Open Wide Our Hearts,” the USCCB has been lightning fast in denouncing things like the recent United States Supreme Court decision that affirmed the civil rights of gay and transgender persons. On a far-right but ominous fringe, Catholics have invoked a medieval Crusader faith to march at Charlottesville in the name of white nationalism.
Numerous factors account for this tepid or resistant Catholic stance toward Black Lives Matter. Some factors Catholics share with many other Americans: The blinding privileges of whiteness; tribal political energies; and wealth, among others. But some factors, I think, are more distinctly if not essentially Catholic—like a preference for unchanging order. The brief slogan of Paul VI was aimed precisely at correcting such a preference.
The slogan “no justice, no peace” became associated in the late 1980s with Black protests against racist and police violence in New York City. Now as then the words work powerfully in a double-edged way. First, they call attention to the persistent failure to hold police accountable. But the concern about justice also extends to education, economics, health, and more. If justice isn’t done in the face of such chronic injustice, the slogan says, we’re going to continue to disturb the peace until it is. Second, the expression speaks to a basic moral logic: Without justice, it’s not possible to have peace.
When Pope Paul VI issued his message for World Day of Peace on January 1, 1972, he did so amid a huge historical change in Catholicism. At the Second Vatican Council from 1962-65, Catholicism began to turn its eyes to the entire world. And there it confronted cries for justice of the impoverished and colonized. Paul VI’s message about justice and peace spoke to the growing awareness of this reality.
Peace has many counterfeits, Paul VI noted. A totalitarian imposition of power mocks peace. A balance of power only simulates it. To find the origin of true peace, Paul said, we have to take stock of our truest intuitions for other persons. And there, he said, we find justice manifest in the “sincere feeling” and “true respect” we know we ought to bear toward others.
But how are we to understand such “true respect”? Peace may have many counterfeits. But justice suffers from a more singular problem: It gets stuck in the past. Thus Paul VI noted how justice provides the basis for the mutual rights and duties by which we have society at all. But he also noted how we slip defensively into construing such rights and duties as abstract, unchanging truths that take on a life of their own detached from a “true respect” for persons. To work for justice understood in this timeless way too often is in service to order, not peace. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s noted criticism comes to mind of the “white moderate” who “is more devoted to order than to justice.”
In what, then, does a “true respect” consist that constitutes justice and provides the basis for peace? First, such respect is grounded on the recognition of real, concrete human persons and their inalienable dignity. Think of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. “Every man today knows he is a person; and he feels he is a person: that is, an inviolable being, equal to others, free and responsible—let us use the term: a sacred being,”Paul VI said. Second, such “true respect” requires recognition that justice cries out for structural change in the here and now. “It is a dynamic Justice, and no longer a static Justice,” the pope said. And thus we are obliged to “work for justice” if we want peace.
The conversation between Black Lives Matter and different religious traditions has begun and will no doubt continue. Here I wish simply to note the Catholic moral tradition’s suspicion of appeals to order and its support for the demands of justice as the way to peace. “No justice, no peace,” indeed.