Passion Consistent with the Depth of the Wounds of the Oppressed – LR.-M. Mosely

Passion Consistent with the Depth of the Wounds of the Oppressed

by LaReine-Marie Mosely

1. Introduction

Black liberation theology has much to offer the wider Christian community. J. H. Cone, the father of black theology, displayed throughout his life and his formidable corpus, what it means to acknowledge black experience as an indispensable source when doing theology. He believed that “because black theology is survival theology, it must speak with a passion consistent with the depths of the wounds of the oppressed.”[1] The historical record attests to the hatred and injustice leveled against the African American community in the United States and in other regions of the Atlantic slave trade. This same passion has also fueled the black church. For Cone, the language of theology must be passionate—a “language of commitment, because it is language which seeks to vindicate the afflicted and condemn the enforcers of evil.”[2]

Too often, after the killing of unarmed African American men, women, and children by law enforcement, there is no place for black Catholics to go to manage the psychic violence and homegrown terrorism they have known. Catholic religious leaders are either silent or they speak with no passion—some suggesting that they do not wish to incite violence. When they do make comments, they immediately follow them by affirming law enforcement in the very next breath. Cone concludes that ‘American theology is racist; it identifies theology as dispassionate analysis of “the tradition,” unrelated to the sufferings of the oppressed.’[3]

Moral theologian, B. Massingale has made the broader claim suggesting that “to say that racial injustice is not a major concern of Catholic social teaching would be an understatement”.[4]  Such a record makes it hard to believe that these leaders have the heart of a shepherd or understand the urgency of the moment for people who are “walking, driving, or studying while black” or for those who are waiting at the southern border seeking safety and a new life. Thankfully, some letters written from individual bishops addressed to their dioceses and archdioceses have been marked  by some  passion, compassion, hope, and care and tailored to the members of their flock.[5]

In the pages that follow, I will revisit two Catholic ecclesial gatherings that took place in Baltimore, Maryland over a century apart, to observe responses or lack thereof on the part of bishops who are the official teachers of the Catholic faith. Then, I will briefly engage the burgeoning gift of synodality, in the hopes that African American Catholics, God’s image in black,[6] can experience a church that can be prophetic, accountable, and fruitful into the 21st century and beyond, especially on behalf of the oppressed. 

2. The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, 1866

The year was 1866 when the bishops of the United States gathered for the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore in the country’s premier see and first diocese. In Dom Cyprian Davis’s magisterial work, The History of Black Catholics in the United States, he recounts the circumstances surrounding this plenary council.  At the midpoint of the Civil War, Henry Binsse, the Holy See’s agent in New York, conveyed to the Congregation of the Propaganda “that it would no longer be possible for the church in the United States to maintain ‘a political policy of reticence and abstention.”[7]Chattel slavery, after all, rendered bondspersons, property, thus violating all of their human rights.  Baltimore Archbishop Martin J. Spalding, reached out to Cardinal Barnabo, the prefect of the Congregation of the Propaganda, a year before the end of the Civil War, and requested that a second plenary council be convoked.[8] One reason Spalding gave for wanting to bring together the U.S. bishops was to discuss a pastoral plan to address the evangelization and the spiritual needs of the soon-to-be-emancipated black Americans.[9] Barnabo gave his approval for this second plenary council and shared Spalding’s apostolic concern for this population.[10]          

In Spalding’s letter to Archbishop McCloskey of New York, informing him of the upcoming council, Spalding referred to the present moment, as “a golden opportunity for reaping a harvest of souls, which neglected may never return.”[11] Sadly, the majority of bishops were not open to the pastoral concerns shared by Spalding and Barnabo. Their personal views on the peculiar institution of slavery may have grounded their disinterest. Additionally, these bishops were provoked by the idea that a prefect, who could be made a bishop, would be in charge of this pastoral plan. Nevertheless, Davis notes two examples of bishops who had been in favor of slavery, becoming strong voices in favor of promoting the pastoral care and well-being of formerly enslaved persons.[12] Archbishop Spalding was one such example. Bishop Venot of Savannah was another .[13]  

Due to the massive amount of work on the agenda of the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, the pastoral care of black Americans was relegated to an extraordinary session that took place after the official close of the council.[14] At the conclusion of this extraordinary session, Davis states,

[T]he council fathers rejected the notion of an ecclesiastical coordinator or prefect apostolic. In fact, nothing new was created to deal with the situation on a nationwide scale. It was decided that each bishop who had blacks in his diocese would decide what was best and work in concert with others in the provincial synods.[15]

With this inaction, “a golden opportunity” had become a missed opportunity. Additionally, this marked an early occasion when church leaders in Rome displayed a genuine concern for African- descended people in the United States when the bishops of the nation were unable to do so.[16]

It appears that the bishops attending this extraordinary session were unable to get out of their own way so that they could discern how to care for the spiritual and pastoral needs of the newly freed black Americans. The published decrees of the council are both telling and ominous. Davis cites them, ‘The council decreed that it should “gravely weigh on our conscience that all might have access to draw near to Christ; that all who administer the sacraments might be present to all who seek them…”  If ‘through some stupidity’ it should happen that this is not the case, ‘one will merit the greatest opprobrium, who forgetful of his office, shall not offer the means of salvation to all who seek, whether black or other and who on account of this lack of care should perish [spiritually].’[17]

3. Fall 2019  Meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops 

One hundred fifty-three years after the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) gathered in Baltimore for their fall meeting. One of the most significant exchanges during this meeting centered on their provisional updated draft of the 2015 document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” At issue was an amendment brought to the floor by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago to include paragraph 101 from Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, (GE) in its entirety. It reads as follows:

The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend. Our defence of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already bornthe destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.[18]

Cupich’s amendment attempted to amplify Pope Francis’ wider teaching about human life being sacred in all its stages, with special attention to the poor and vulnerable. Nevertheless, the assembly of bishops rejected this amendment because some were apparently intent on not lengthening the document. According to historian and theologian, Massimo Faggioli,  “the effort to neuter Pope Francis’s message in the United States continues.”[19] With these words, Faggioli was giving voice to a belief that the USCCB is at odds with Pope Francis. It is widely believed that bishops appointed by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict are of a different ilk than those appointed by Pope Francis. While a footnote referencing the reader to paragraph 101 in GE was supposed to be included in the text, the difficulty, as some assess it, is the fact that the USCCB has made abortion their preeminent concern while Pope Francis has written about embracing a broader approach to life issues. Pope Francis could not have been more clear in paragraph 101 of GE  as he spells out that all of life is sacred and that suffering humanity, especially, demands the church’s compassionate response. These sisters and brothers are Schillebeeckx’s threatened humanum in our midst and they deserve a prophetic and ethical response that makes clear that these circumstances should not be and must be changed.[20]

The failure of the U.S. bishops to incorporate the entire paragraph from GE  is another missed “golden opportunity” to highlight the church’s largesse and preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.  The lives of these sisters and brothers are marked by struggle and are often cut short due to violence, poverty, and poor health care. When the U.S. bishops make abortion their “preeminent” life issue, it appears that they are perseverating on abortion and the so-called “fortnight for freedom” while they rarely write or speak on other social issues. 

4. A Synodal Journey of Creativity and Responsibility

When speaking about the synodal process during an interview in 2013, Pope Francis affirmed, “We must walk together: the people, the bishops and the pope. Synodality should be lived at various levels.”[21] In September 2018, the International Theological Commission (ITC) published the English translation of “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church.” In it, the authors break open this neologism and explain its use over the recent decades. Rooted in Scripture and Tradition, this concept, like the church, is both ancient and new. 

The ITC has indicated Pope Francis’ role in the development of synodality and how he highlighted Blessed Paul VI’s institution of the Synod of Bishops. Pope Francis has also explained that synodality is the path “which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.”[22]

4.1. Creativity

Synodality and the path it opens can provide a space where the People of God can share “the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties”[23] that they experience in a manner that can form community. Black Catholics and other marginalized Catholics want to know that their pope, bishops, sisters, and brothers are passionate about injustice “and will speak with urgency consistent with the depth of the wounds of the oppressed.”[24]

In a compelling article Elissa Roper offers a refreshing explanation of what it means for the church to be synodal in “Synodality: A Process Committed to Transformation.” This transformation is about “journeying, creativity, and responsibility.”[25] When individuals are open to developing a new consciousness through “the renewing of their minds (Romans 12: 2),” it is a deepening of their baptismal call and their walk with Jesus Christ.[26]This transformation can enable our church community to face the stark reality of our institutional and personal involvement with racism, nativism, sexism, heterosexism, clericalism, and all types of exclusion. Then, we need only pivot to face the hard, cold, facts surrounding the global clergy sexual abuse scandal and cover-up as accusations continue to surface[27], thus prompting our righteous indignation and passion “consistent with the depths of the wounds of the oppressed.” 

Synodality is a way of being in relationships where people can tell their stories of disappointment that their church community did not walk with them at moments of vulnerability, such as times past in the United States when black Catholic parishes were closed or when black Catholic individuals experienced discrimination in Catholic parishes, grades schools, or during Mass.  We cannot forget the plight of displaced sisters and brothers at the southern border, who are now being taken to other Central American countries, to await assistance. 

Creativity can happen along the synodal path as the faithful and their bishops speak frankly about their concerns and possible solutions. For instance, a parish community or entire diocese might form study circles based on Davis’ The History of Black Catholic in the United States. This is important since the history of black Catholics is usually not included in histories of the Catholic Church in the United States. As long as members of the community are committed to listening to each other’s stories, practices like these will move people toward a greater synodality.

More recently, the trend of closing or consolidating Offices of Black Catholic Ministry to be part of Offices of Multicultural Concerns, may cause one to wonder whether the concerns of black Catholics are being adequately promoted  How might the void that has been created in neighborhoods where Catholic parishes and schools once thrived be filled? Some congregations of women religious have opened study/learning centers for students or adults to provide opportunities for uplift. These concrete examples of being a presence and serving can be a powerful witness of the Catholic Church’s concern for children and adults in struggling situations and/or neighborhoods.

4.2. Responsibility

Roper maintains “[t]ransformation for a synodal Church at the universal level begins with an acknowledgement of the baptismal authority and responsibility of all members.”[28] It is with this spirit that individuals and groups can come to terms with  sins of omission and commission regarding the promotion of the Kingdom of God. Sins of racism, nativism, heterosexism, and clericalism are a good place to start where everyone can reflect upon their complicity against the backdrop of synodality and a commitment to walk with one’s church community, even when it is uncomfortable.

One way of being responsible is by understanding one’s social location, literally and figuratively. For instance, Baltimore is the first Catholic diocese in the United States. It is also a city plagued with a high murder rate, the opioid crisis, poor city management, the riots following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, a history of housing discrimination and children suffering the long-term effects of lead poisoning.[29] Add to this, struggling public schools and the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and it is not hard to realize that this city cries out for justice. By being in tune with the location of their meetings, the bishops could very well allow this message to influence the spirit of the meeting.  Something similar can be said for all of us. How can our social location have bearing on the choices we make and the things we spend time on?

5. Conclusion

In this synodal spirit, all members of the church can journey together into our shared future ever mindful of the dangerous memory of sisters and brothers who have passed and those who  walk with us still. The process of remembering them is a gift and a challenge as J. B. Metz would note:

There are memories in which earlier experiences flare up and unleash new dangerous insights for the present. For brief moments they illuminate, harshly and piercingly, the problematic character of things we made our peace with a long time ago…Memories of this sort are dangerous and incalculable visitations from the past. They are memories that one has to take into account, memories that have a future content…[30]

May our church community have the courage to be faithful stewards of these unpredictable dangerous memories and to act upon them.


J. H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Twentieth Anniversary Edition, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1986.

C. Davis and J. T. Phelps, Stamped with the Image of God: African Americans as God’s Image in Black (American Catholic Identities), Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004.

C. Davis. The History of Black Catholics in the United States, New York: Crossroad, 1990, 117.

M. Faggio. “Adrift and Alone: The Bishops Meet and Miss the Point”, in Commonweal, November 25, 2019., Accessed on December 2, 2019.

Pope Francis, A Big Heart Open to God: A Conversation with Pope Francis, New York: HarperOne, 2013.

International Theological Commission. “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church,” Accessed on January 11, 2020.

J. Marbella, “Beginning of Freddie Gray’s life as sad as its end, court case shows,” in The Baltimore Sun, April 23, 2015.

J. B. Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, New York: Crossroad.

 E. Schillebeeckx, Edward, Christ the Christian Experience in the Modern World, The Collected Works of Edward Schillebeeckx, Volume VII, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Magisterial Documents:

Gaudium et Exultate,, accessed on December 1, 2019.

Gaudium et Spes, Accessed on January 11, 2020.

[1] J. H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Twentieth Anniversary Edition, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1986, p 17. Italics are mine.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] B. N. Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010, p 44.

[5] Archbishop W. E. Lori of Baltimore has written two letters on racism.  Bishop M. J. Seitz of El Passo wrote, “Night Shall Be No More.” This letter on racism was a response to a mass shooting in that city on August 3, 2019 that targeted Latino/a people.

[6] C. Davis and J. T. Phelps, Stamped with the Image of God: African Americans as God’s Image in Black (American Catholic Identities), Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004.

[7] C. Davis. The History of Black Catholics in the United States, New York: Crossroad, 1990, 117.

[8] Ibid, 117.

[9] Ibid, 118.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 118.

[13] Ibid, 119.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, 120. Italics are mine.

[16] Ibid, 121.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Gaudium et Exultate., accessed on December 1, 2019. Italics are mine.


[19] M. Faggio. “Adrift and Alone: The Bishops Meet and Miss the Point, in Commonweal, November 25, 2019., Accessed on December 2, 2019.

[20] E. Schillebeeckx, Edward, Christ the Christian Experience in the Modern World, The Collected Works of Edward Schillebeeckx, Volume VII, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014, pp 649-659.

[21] Pope Francis. A Big Heart Open to God: A Conversation with Pope Francis, New York: HarperOne, 2013, 39. 

[22] International Theological Commission. “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church,” 1. Accessed on January 11, 2020.

[23] Gaudium et Spes, 1. Accessed on January 11, 2020.

[24] J. B. Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, New York: Crossroad, 105.

[25] E. Roper, “Synodality: A Process Committed to Transformation. The Australasian Catholic Record, 95 no. 4, Oct. 2018, 412-423.

[26] Ibid. 416.

[28] Ibid. 416.

[29] Freddie Gray and his siblings suffered from the long term effects of lead poisoning.

See J. Marbella, “Beginning of Freddie Gray’s life as sad as its end, court case shows,” in The Baltimore Sun, April 23, 2015.

[30] J. B. Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, New York: Crossroad, 105.


Jose Mario C. Francisco is a Filipino Jesuit Professor at Loyola School of Theology, Ateneo de Manila University. He has taught at other institutions in the Philippines and abroad; among them, East Asian Pastoral Institute, Gregorian University and Boston College. His research deals with the interface between theology and cultural studies in Asian Christianity. He has published in Concilium and other international journals as well as in books like The Oxford Handbook of Asian Christianity. He is on the editorial board of The International Journal of Asian Christianity and Asia Pacific Mission Studies.