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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

322: Courage is what enables conviction to be translated into action - Fr. Bryan Massingale

Day 322: Monday, February 1st, 2021

1st Day of Black History Month

Courage is what enables conviction to be translated into action - Fr. Bryan Massingale

Father Bryan Massingale is the only publicly gay, African American, Catholic priest in the country. For almost four decades, he has served as a priest working for racial justice in the Church and is deeply committed to the Black Lives Matter movement.

He is also committed to gay Christians: “I dream of a church where two men and two women can stand before the Church, proclaim their love and have it blessed in a sacrament of marriage. And that their love would be seen as divine. That God is present in that relationship. When we look at their relationship, we touch God.”

Courage, I discovered, is perhaps the least studied of the virtues. For example, we learn in the Catechism that the cardinal virtues are prudence, temperance, fortitude (or what we call courage), and justice; the theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity. We say a lot about every virtue except courage.

But Thomas Aquinas taught us that courage is the precondition of all virtue. Without courage, we’re not able to be prudent. We’re not able to be just, because courage is that virtue that allows us to surmount the fear that comes with the following of the Gospel. If we’re going to do anything that is difficult, there is going to be hesitation; there are going obstacles and opposition, and the fear that those obstacles engender in us. Courage is that virtue that enables us to not be afraid. We still feel afraid, but it’s a virtue that enables us to not let fear keep us from doing the right, actualizing the good.

Another way of putting it is that moral courage is what translates conviction into action.

To put this into the conversation we’re having today: there are a lot of good white people who know what the right thing to do is. But they don’t do it because they’re afraid of the disapproval of their friends or family, or they’re afraid of the consequences of speaking up and speaking out, being in solidarity and being an ally. Courage is what enables conviction to be translated into action.

It isn’t that people don’t have the conviction, but they don’t have the courage to act on those convictions. So this is the reason why we need courage, especially in the pursuit of racial justice.

What St. Thomas of Aquinas says is beautiful: anger is the passion that moves the will to justice

There’s always going to be a cost to speaking out. Whenever I do an interview like this, my email will fill up with people telling me everything that was wrong about what I said. I can guarantee you that—it just happens. Whenever you speak for the cause of justice, whenever we follow Jesus, to be honest, there are going to be consequences. It’s not that we don’t know what the right thing is. We are people of conviction, but if we don’t have courage, you won’t translate that conviction into action.

Anger has gotten a pretty nasty reputation in Catholic catechesis. I think most of us of a certain age learned that anger was one of the seven deadly sins, that we were supposed to avoid it.

This is a great insight because it means that all too often injustice festers in our world because people aren’t angry enough to do something about it.

To use an example: when I see a woman being abused by a man, I should be angry, because when I angry, then I’m going to do something about it. I’m angry, so I’m going to call the police. I’m angry, so I’m going to intervene. I’m angry, so I’m going to tell someone to stop it.

What allows racism to exist in our society, quite frankly, is that we don’t have a critical mass of people who are angry. To put it more directly, we don’t have a critical mass of white Americans who are angry about the situation. Anger is a passion that moves the will to justice. Thomas understood that unless we are angry in the presence, at the reality, of injustice, then the status quo will all too often continue.

There’s a lot of concern, especially among some circles, about the violence that is a part of some of the protests. I want to be very careful here, because I think that we have a tendency to overstate the reality and the presence of violence. Burning buildings and broken windows make for more compelling video and images than people who are peacefully protesting. And so I don’t want us to get the understanding that violence is what characterizes all of the protests that we were seeing. Yes, violence can be an instance of misdirected anger. It can be this kind of out-of-control rage that Thomas speaks about.

But that’s too easy. People always say that there are better, more effective, more ethical ways of people making their point. I hear that, but I want to press them on that. If there are better, more effective, more ethical ways of people making their point, I wish they would tell me what they are. Because people of color, black Americans, have marched. We have demonstrated. We have organized. We have protested. We have voted. We have studied. We have taught. We have begged. We have pleaded. We have cried out. We have wept—for years, for decades, even centuries.

And still we are being killed while jogging. Or poor Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old kid killed for just sitting in a park. If there are better and more effective ways to do this, then don’t just homilize about that. Tell me what they are.

That’s a way of avoiding a very difficult truth. The reason why these measures haven’t proved effective up till now is because white Americans, or not enough white Americans, don’t want substantial change. When people despair of a political solution to their legitimate grievances, then we cannot be surprised when at times violence appears as an attractive option.

Martin Luther King Jr. said that most white Americans are neither unrepentant racists, nor are they forthright racial-justice advocates. The majority of white Americans, he says, are suspended between two extremes: they are uneasy with injustice, but they are also unwilling to pay a price to eradicate it.

So for those who would condemn the violence—and I think we all agree that nonviolence is the preferred way of making our grievances known—I challenge them to say, we’ve done that and we’re still here. It’s time now to not simply decry the violence, but to start looking at the legitimate grievances, and to summon the will in this country to do it.


won’t you celebrate with me

won’t you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

Lucille Clifton - 1936-2010


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Goodbye Song (Farewell Oh Farewell)

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