Deacon Steven Greydanus and Damon Clarke Owens on Race and the Church

Published October 2, 2020

Deacon Steve Greydanus has a conversation with a deeply devout fellow Catholic, an African-American man named Damon Clarke Owens. He is theologically impeccable in every way, a good and holy man. But because the conversation is about race, presented in the most non-threatening and non-confrontational way imaginable and with complete accord with the Catholic tradition, –and yet still gets overwhelmed in the comboxes of the National Catholic Register with MAGA Catholics who prove Chesterton’s remark that “Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world.” In this case, the bare minimum proposition that racism is an evil to be opposed is unendurable to the noisy cadres of Real Catholics[TM] who shout down the few Normals who dare to raise their voices in support of the article. Dear God, we still have so far to go.

Damon Clarke Owens doesn’t want to be talking to me about race.

Marriage and family life are his passion and the heart of his apostolate. For decades he has maintained a full speaking schedule at Catholic conferences, seminars, parishes and schools and on Catholic television and radio, presenting Catholic teaching on marriage, sexuality, theology of the body and natural family planning (NFP). 

Owens’ distinguished credentials include serving as the first executive director of the Theology of the Body Institute, New Jersey director for the National Organization for Marriage and coordinator for the Archdiocese of Newark’s NFP office. In 2018, Pope Francis honored Owens with the papal Benemerenti Medal.

Most recently, he and his wife, Melanie, founded Joyful Ever After, a nonprofit ministry focused on helping couples “get the marriage you want from the marriage you have.”

“My ministry is devoted to marriage and family because I know marriage and family are at the heart of everything,” Owens tells me in a telephone interview. “I didn’t expect to be drawn into this new fire around racism. I’m not asking for it. But it’s drawing me in. And I’m being called to it. And I’m like, ‘Lord, I trust you; I will do whatever you ask me to do.’”

Although he and I have been friends for nearly two decades, this is the first time I can recall that we have talked directly about race. (Our families met in 2002 through mutual friends, and for many years we worshipped together at St. John’s in Orange, New Jersey, where my family still attends and where I serve as deacon. Damon and Melanie now live in the Philadelphia area with their eight children.)

I’m talking to him now out of a conviction that the discussion among Catholics about race and racism should be led by Black Catholic voices. I’m talking to him because I trust him, and whatever he has to say, I want to hear it — and I believe other white Catholics should hear it, too.

This is not the only such discussion I’ve had recently. Among the 24 members of my diaconal formation class are three Black deacons, and I’ve had conversations with them, as well.

In these and other exchanges I’ve found that, among other things, there is no single Black experience of race and racism. Different individuals from different generations and social backgrounds arrive at different perspectives.

In one respect, though, my Black friends appear to share a common conviction: When it comes to race and racism, a lot of white people don’t get it — and don’t want to hear it.

“We all hate discomfort. We all hate being challenged,” Owens tells me. “We hate being stretched out of our comfortable categories, even if we count ourselves as intellectuals and reasonable, faithful Catholics.”

As an example, Owens cites the experiences of his longtime friend Gloria Purvis, who is well-known both for her pro-life work (among other pro-life activities, she has worked with the Northwest Pregnancy Center and Maternity Home in Washington and the Maryland Catholic Conference’s Respect for Life Department) and also for her anti-racism activism (she served on the National Black Catholic Congress’ Leadership Commission on Social Justice) — both topics she talks about regularly on her EWTN Radio show, Morning Glory.

“Conservative Catholics love Gloria’s passion and strength when she talks pro-life,” Owens observes, “but when she does the same thing on race, some of them go apoplectic. She’s the same person. There’s no guile in her, no attenuation based on audience. When people love the topic she’s talking about, she’s a hero, but when they don’t, to some she’s a ‘Marxist.’”

Owens doesn’t indict only Catholic conservatives. “It’s very clear to me that across the whole political spectrum — progressive, liberal, libertarian, conservative, even independent — we Catholics too often place our politics before our faith,” he says.

But, like Purvis, Owens’ work brings him into dialogue with an audience that is more conservative than not. “Given my work over the past few decades in marriage, pro-life and family ministry, I’m very plugged into Catholic folks on the politically conservative side,” he acknowledges.

“I’m calling out conservatives because I don’t have a lot of experience on the progressive side. But far too many Catholic conservatives are conservatives first, and that becomes their lens for understanding everything in our faith, instead of our faith informing their politics,” he says. 

“These are people I have so much in common with. I know them. I’m comfortable with them, which is why the response on the race thing from conservatives in the last few years, the last few months in particular, has been deeply disappointing.”

As with other hot-button topics, including abortion, marriage and sexuality, Owens believes that a complete understanding of race and racism can emerge only from a fully Catholic anthropology founded on Jesus Christ. 

Read the whole thing. It was a noble attempt on Steve’s and Damon’s part. But the prideblind MAGA cultists who constitute the readership and donor base of the Register are not gonna let any black Catholics tell them they might have something to learn or change in their lives. If they want a black person’s views on race they’ll give it to them.

8 Responses

  1. Incredible that whites can’t see that the problems Blacks have today are result of 400 years of oppression. No group has suffered more than Blacks. De facto slavery didn’t end until the 1960s. And we expect Blacks not to have significant problems. Whites are responsible indirectly for Black crime because whites ruined the self esteem of blacks.

  2. Chesterton has, and will always say it better than I can:

    “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

    Progressive Catholics are continuing to make the mistake of “fixing” Racism through Government. – BUT –
    Conservative Catholics in America are far too busy preventing the gross mistake of Racism from being corrected at all, just to spite the Progressives.

  3. Has there ever been a survey conducted of black American Catholics and ex-Catholics to see if there is a widespread belief among them that they are treated as unwanted stepchildren or worse?

  4. Of course Damon Clarke (or Gloria Purvis) have a right to their opinions, and I’m sure they’re worth listening to. But they can only speak for themselves: they can’t speak for all blacks Americans any more than Mark Shea can speak for all white Americans. I don’t doubt his sincerity, but I wonder about some of his assumptions. He seems certain that George Floyd was treated by the police as he was because of racism–I’m not really on board with that. He says that African American criminality (his word) was the result of historical factors–but those factors (in his view) appear limited to post-Reconstruction era inequities in the police and judicial system. He doesn’t mention the potential of unintended effects of Great Society style programmes, some of which may have fostered a culture of entitlement and grievance. To be fair, he does acknowledges the collapse of the family (which, I gather, the focus of his apostolate), a blight on society as a whole but particularly on African Americans. In my view, this is in large part related to decadent values pumped into the world by a decadent Hollywood-music industry. I suspect gangsta rap, or whatever the current fad is, has more influence on young black males than Jim Crow.

    That said, I think he made a lot of good points, including this one: We can’t even dialogue with someone who says something that whiffs of political error. That’s so true today, and as true in religion as in politics. Last night I responded to a comment from one of the Where Peter Is owners that basically said, ‘Why do you come here–why don’t you go hang out on a traddie site?’ Well, I come to WPI (or to Mark Shea) because I’m interested in what they have to say, in spite of–no, because of–the fact that they disagree with me on many things.

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