Editorial: A Culture of Encounter: On the Pastoral Letters of Bishop Mark Joseph Seitz

For readers unfamiliar with his biography, Mark Joseph Seitz was the Auxiliary Bishop of Dallas from 2010 to 2013, when Pope Francis appointed him as the Bishop of El Paso. He was installed in July of that year and has been a tireless advocate of the rights of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and others from the border region affected by our broken immigration system—what he has termed, in his 2017 pastoral letter on migration, “Sorrow and Mourning Flee Away,” as “a scandal to the body of Christ in El Paso.”

Bishop Seitz’s pastoral letter is both a trenchant critique of current US border policy as well as other causes of violence to migrant communities, from the illicit flow of weapons and drugs to economically exploitative trade deals. He recognizes that climate change is a “root cause” of migration and advocates for comprehensive immigration reform that “prioritizes family unity,” promotes fair and equitable economic development, and demilitarizes the situation at the border. At the same time, he acknowledges that he is a “spiritual father” to thousands of border patrol agents who want to stem weapon and drug trafficking but are “troubled in conscience” by increasingly hostile, anti-family, anti-immigrant policies. To them he appeals to “treat all you encounter with dignity and respect” and to remember that “no human being is illegal”.

Encounter, or encuentro, is a key word in this text, activating the human dimension within the bishop’s moral argument. “Our Chihuahuan Desert has been a powerful place of encounter,” he writes, “where a true culture of encuentro has taken root and allowed flowers of life, culture and faith to bloom even in the driest of sands.” Elsewhere he speaks of “moments of encounter with our migrant brothers and sisters” as “occasions for conversion”—a means of allowing ourselves to be evangelized by the other, the poor and the marginalized, and so awaken to them as human beings rather than as threats or statistics. Such a mission to outreach is predicated on recognizing that “[e]very human being bears within him or her the image of God, which confers upon us a dignity higher than any passport or immigration status.”

Though the bishop’s letter is addressed primarily to his diocese, all American Catholics—all Americans, full stop—ought to follow his lead in denouncing for-profit detention centers. According to an August 19, 2019, report from the website The Hill, over 70 percent of immigrants being detained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are held in for-profit facilities that are privately owned. One wants to say this is antithetical to our nation’s values, but, sadly, the trend of outsourcing everything—including sensitive human rights cases such as mass immigration—to corporations who are more committed to making a profit than to any notion of equity or justice is a feature of our era, pointing to what the authors of The Hill report refer to as “a disconnect between capitalism and morality.” (As David Albertson reported in a recent piece for Commonweal, “Federal contractors win upwards of $700 per day for each imprisoned child.”)

Last year Bishop Seitz followed “Sorrow and Mourning Flee Away” with another pastoral letter, “Night Will Be No More,” in reaction to the massacre in El Paso on August 3 in which 22 people were killed. Here the bishop unmasks “the false god of white supremacy” that inspired the shooter, Patrick Crusius, who purposely targeted Latinos and who is alleged to have posted a manifesto online minutes before the murders stating, “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” The two pastoral letters are similar in their approach, in that they center identity over ideology; indeed, the bishop writes in “Night Will Be No More,” “our deepest identity is not given to us by empire, or politics or the economy or the colonialist, but is a gift of God.”

The bishop challenges his readers to move beyond surface critiques of racism that either see it as something that has been vanquished, a relic of the past, or focus exclusively on political solutions at the expense of confronting the “soul sickness” that is at the spiritual heart of the problem. Racism can “distort our imagination and will,” insinuating itself in the very structures of our society, and as a structural sin it can “unite people around fear and hate.” It is “a sign of the anti-reign” of God, who, in the promise of the Resurrection of His Son, brings about the unity of the human race. Bishop Seitz posits the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist as the “graced gateway” to this “fully reconciled humanity,” and, as such, vital components for combating racism.

All of these tools—historical memory, confrontation with the church’s legacy of colonialism, recognition of racism’s structural and spiritual realities, the healing balm of the sacraments—are essential for the healing of a “heart-sick” world in which racism is allowed to fester. As in his pastoral letter on migration, the bishop emphasizes a triumph of love over fear, that we might “encounter others in vulnerability . . . with a willingness to be changed for the better by right relationships with God, others and the earth.” Building on this encounter, we grow from passive witnesses to active participants in the dismantling of racist structures: “It is not enough to not be racist,” the bishop writes, “We must also make a commitment to be anti-racists in active solidarity with the suffering and excluded.”

This distinction between “not being racist” and “making a commitment to be anti-racist” brings to mind an observation of national affairs analyst Jeet Heer in the wake of the 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in which nine African Americans were killed. Writing in the New Republic, Heer cited several politicians who refused to acknowledge the racist motive of the perpetrator, Dylann Roof. “This unwillingness to admit a racist motive,” Heer said, “has a deeply political motive, for doing so would mean admitting that racism is a real, ongoing problem in American society—one that requires policies to counteract it.” He went on to identify the “creed of anti-anti-racism” that runs through American political discourse:

The creed of anti-anti-racism goes something like this: racism was a problem in the past, but no longer is a serious issue; the chief barrier for non-whites to advance in American society is their own behavior; attempts to remedy racism, such as affirmative action, are themselves a form of racism.

The reality is that racism is still a serious issue in our society, as the shootings in El Paso, Charleston, and numerous other places make clear, and that, in Bishop Seitz’s words, “our unwillingness to stamp out racism continues to accrue debts being paid for in blood, the blood of people of color and those we deem different.” In his two recent pastoral letters, the bishop offers a roadmap forward, founded on a culture of encounter, infused with the life of the sacraments, and expressive in the end of charity, justice, and hope. All Catholics, Christians, and others committed to the work of healing our societal wounds are encouraged to read them here and here, and begin together to “more fully anticipate the diversity and unity of the Reign of God.”

Michael Centore
Editor, Today’s American Catholic

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