The Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century was based on protests against the establishment church, much as American protests from coast to coast this summer target the establishment government. Protests are often good and healthy to an institutional system, but sometimes they are destructive.
The religious protests throughout Europe 500 years ago were well warranted. Selling of indulgences, simony, and adulterous or criminal popes topped the long list of abuses. “Simony” has its origin in Simon Magnus of The Acts of the Apostles who offered Jesus’ Disciples payment in exchange for divine powers; notorious acts of simony, or selling of ecclesial roles or sacred items, were commonly known during the Reformation. Similarly, the selling of indulgences, or reduction of divine punishment (like years in purgatory), were also scandalous ecclesial actions worth challenging. And, of course, there were corrupt popes, like the Medici bankers and sinister Borgias who were entrapped in sex, money, and power. Martin Luther and others who protested those horrendous behaviors had good reason to do so.
Those protesting in the United States throughout the summer of 2020 also have good reasons, primarily rooted in systemic social and racial injustices. Like the religious corruption during the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, it has lasted in our country for many generations. The first time I heard the term “DWB” or “driving while black” was during college, over forty years ago, when I was riding in the car of a black friend late at night in central Missouri when a car came up behind us speeding; rather than passing, it tailed us. When my friend sped up to avoid getting bumped, the unmarked police car pulled us over, ordered my friend out of the car, harassed, and handcuffed him. I don’t recall how we got out of the situation but remember an enlightening conversation with my friend that night about his experiences and how young black men are often held suspect by police.
Our Catholic Social Teachings call us to Solidarity, Human Equality, Dignity for Every Human Person, Association, and Participation, among other mandates. These tenants challenge us to always stand with those who are mistreated and participate in our government to change societal attitudes that are unjust. Though there are ways that we should protest injustices, toppling statues, burning flags, and destroying government property are the wrong ways: we can’t build up by tearing down. The national dialogue now taking place will help us become a better nation and better citizens. We need to understand that statues, government property, and the American Flag mean different things to different people. It’s never going to be perfect in the Catholic Church or in American society; but our task, as Catholics, is to advance healthy dialogue. As the NFL season gets underway, we see many professional athletes model the kinds of conversations we ought to have with our family members and friends.
On the sidelines and in the bleachers, as some stand tall with hand over heart to illustrate respect for the dignity, sacrifice, and suffering endured by brave and loving forbears, others will sit or kneel because of the sadness and disgrace they have experienced. In churches, we will still stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, seeking to be made saints, and we’ll also kneel, mindful of our sinful state, perhaps even ashamed for the faults of our ecclesial and national ancestors. Many Catholics will never take our eyes from the crucifix because we realize that only Christ can elevate us to exalted levels of grace, just as many Americans cannot take our minds from the flag because, even though imperfect, we’re still one nation under God.