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Race, the Church and America
As nearly 100 men marched on Aug. 11 through the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the flickering tiki torches illuminated not only a newly confident movement committed to white supremacy, who chanted “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us,” but also shed light for the bishops of the United States on an important new mission of theirs: to take a renewed stance against racism.
April 4 brings the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. In the wake of a year that brought widespread protests over NFL players kneeling to protest racial inequality and police brutality, heated discussions over history and Confederate monuments, and street melees between alt-right white supremacists and anarchists, that milestone arrives at a time that race in America is a topic nearly impossible to ignore.
Times of duress
The morning after the demonstration in Charlottesville was supposed to be a protest against removing a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a local park. By that afternoon, the governor had declared a state of emergency, violence between protesters and counter-protesters left more than 30 injured and one woman dead, and a shocked nation wondered what exactly had happened.
The next day, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement condemning the violence and acts of hatred at the rally. Almost two weeks later, the USCCB formed an ad hoc committee against racism, chaired by Bishop George V. Murry, SJ, of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio.
Bishop Murry told Our Sunday Visitor that the Church has failed to be a consistent critic of racism.
“We issue a statement, it may touch some minds and hearts, and then we tend to forget about it — which is very human,” he said. With the recently established ad hoc committee on racism, the bishops are showing that “the time has come for us to be a consistent voice of opposition to this evil.”
A number of steps are being planned by the committee to raise consciousness about racism and how to center its response in Christ. In addition to helping with a forthcoming pastoral letter by the U.S. bishops on racism, they also are organizing an ecumenical gathering to discuss experiences of racism and best practices in confronting it.
Bishop Murry also said that the U.S. bishops would organize listening sessions around the country, because “racism takes on different faces.” Racism in the Pacific Northwest mostly might target Native Americans, he said, whereas in the Southeast of the country racism often is directed at African-Americans.
|U.S. Bishops on Racism|
“We do not deny that the ugly external features of racism which marred our society have in part been eliminated. But neither can it be denied that too often what has happened has only been a covering over, not a fundamental change. Today the sense of urgency has yielded to an apparent acceptance of the status quo.
“Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of races. It is the sin that makes racial characteristics the determining factor for the exercise of human rights. It is a denial of the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation.”
— “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” pastoral letter on racism (1979)
Upon its release, all Catholic organizations will be encouraged to use the forthcoming pastoral letter and accompanying study guide to begin conversations around race.
“So much of the problem we have is a lack of knowledge, is a lack of understanding, and there’s also a fear and hesitancy that people have about talking about race,” Bishop Murry said. “When we don’t talk about race issues, they get pushed to the side, and then they explode in times of great stress.”
Those conversations will be used to bridge the experiences of different people, and Bishop Murry hoped that from those discussions local solutions and actions would occur. Bishop Murry pointed to the alt-right rally in Charlottesville as a “perfect example” of the enormous stress affecting the nation. While white nationalists had an increasingly visible profile leading up to the 2016 election, and after it, the “boldness” of the rally, and subsequent violence, left the nation stunned.
A renewed intensity
The Catholic Church’s consistent witness to the pro-life movement, and to religious liberty, will now be brought to racism, Bishop Murry said. After the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, he said, the bishops called for opposition to legal abortion, but also sought to build a culture of life.
“We want the same type of intensity,” Bishop Murry said.
That is a task that has been difficult to sustain previously. An event like Charlottesville gets a lot of attention, “but then people go back to their normal lives,” Bishop Curtis J. Guillory, SVD, of the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas, told OSV.
Breaking that cycle requires a change both simple and profound: getting to know each other. But Bishop Guillory sees an important role for the Church in achieving that, because of its universality.
“On any given Sunday, you have people from different backgrounds, different cultures at Mass. And the Mass is all about one faith, the Eucharist,” he said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity, but we have to work at it,” he said. Racial reconciliation, he said, would require people to abandon the hearsay and myths that so often dominate racial relations and encounter each other as people who share a common humanity.
Racial reconciliation is a ministry as much of hospitality as it is of justice for Bishop Guillory. The danger of leaving the wound of racism to fester, he said, is that society becomes “more tribal, more isolated.”
“What makes a strong, harmonious, respectful society is really when people recognize their common humanity and work toward the common good, instead of being divisive.”
Challenges for the Church
The challenges faced by African-American Catholics are those of every Catholic, but often exacerbated by the history of racism. Amanda Wilson, a youth minister at Most Pure Heart of Mary parish in Mobile, Alabama, said, “I think overall there needs to be a focus on vocations — all vocations,” which should include “a targeted effort to reach out to black people who are discerning religious life.”
“You don’t see a lot of African-American religious,” she said, partly because of the history of some Catholic orders refusing to admit African-Americans.
But she also said that dedicating resources to building up the family would be one of the most beneficial things for African-Americans, inside and outside of the Catholic Church. “There are a lot of broken families in the African-American community,” she said. Young people too often are not learning how to live in a two-parent household, or learning how to live in healthy romantic relationships. An important part of the Church’s mission would be to recall and uphold “what it is to be a father, what it is to be a mother, a husband, a wife — how to court a woman, how to be respected as a spouse.”
“From those strong families will come results,” Wilson said.
“There’s a need for Catholic men, especially black Catholic men, to be at the side of Catholic women,” she said. “We’ve come to a place where a lot of people don’t understand what the Faith teaches. I think it’s so important to evangelize these people and show them the beauty of the Church, show them that they are needed in the Church.”
Father Patrick Smith, pastor of St. Augustine Church in Washington, D.C., told OSV that he believes the biggest obstacle to effective evangelization of African-Americans has been the presence of racism in the Church and the failure to address it. African-Americans, he said, often encounter a persistent disregard by other Catholics: that if they do enter, their concerns will not be heard, their experience will not be welcomed, and they will not be represented in decision-making.
Too often, Father Smith said, there’s an unwillingness to express the uniqueness of the African-American Catholic experience out of fear of it being looked down upon. Diversity in the Church should not be feared or suppressed, said Father Smith.
“There’s good news to bless the Church and strengthen our mission from black Catholics, and Polish Catholics, and German Catholics, and Latino Catholics,” he said. “The sum of our experience will only make us stronger.”
But, he added, it was important to see that diversity in the Church “is not an issue of the profession of faith! The Gospel is superior to any and every culture and race.”
Ralph McCloud, executive director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, pointed to his home city of Washington, D.C., as an example of the effect of racism on a community. Many people are living in “deprivation, poverty and a huge loss of hope,” with no sense of escape, he said.
“The trauma that my ancestors lived through reverberates within me and the larger African-American community [today]. Withstanding slurs, hate speech and insensitive gestures are still part of my experience. I am often told that I am being too sensitive. I am often told I should ‘be grateful’ for how far African-Americans have come.”
McCloud told OSV that “African-Americans face higher mass incarceration rates, higher unemployment, higher poverty rates and are experiencing an ever-growing gap in the accumulation of wealth among the nation’s middle class.”
According to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization focusing on incarceration and the criminal justice system, “African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males, and if current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.” Approximately 44 percent of youth in juvenile facilities are African-American.
McCloud also pointed to the practice of “redlining,” where banks for decades refused to issue mortgages to borrowers in certain neighborhoods, typically inner-city and African-American. Not only were African-Americans prevented from taking out mortgages to improve their homes, they often also were prevented from moving to the suburbs by racially restrictive covenants, which forbade white homeowners from selling to black families.
A recent report by “Reveal” from The Center for Investigative Reporting strongly indicates the practice seems to continue today. Even after controlling for variables like income and loan amount, researchers found that in 61 metro areas, African-American applicants were less likely than white applicants to receive a home loan. In a country where owning a home is a way to build wealth, African-American homeownership stood at 41.7 percent in 2016, a nearly 50-year low.
“Racism manifests itself in many ways that don’t necessarily make the news,” McCloud said. “Policy decisions that affect housing, zoning, school resources, economic development and community needs are often implemented without the input of the persons whose lives these decisions directly impact.”
Bishop Roy Campbell, an auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Washington, told OSV that the challenges facing African-Americans are not only the lingering overt prejudice and discrimination and division in the country, but also “what the pope calls a ‘culture of indifference,’ where even people of goodwill can add to the problem by remaining silent and not taking a lead to address these injustices.”
That can stem from a failure to recognize that racism has an effect on all of society.
“People’s potential and contribution to society cannot happen when those people are repressed, ignored and held back,” Bishop Campbell said.
And discovering precisely those conditions is the beginning of healing them. One of the greatest challenges in racial reconciliation, he said, “is to have people talk and get to know one another.”
Misunderstanding, distrust and fear thrive in ignorance about other people, he said. “When we talk to one another, on the other hand, we learn from each other, which will help us to understand the challenges each of us face and allow us to extend a helping hand to one another.”
For many white Americans, the changes brought to the country by the civil rights movement represented a culmination of justice. But the legal changes only paved the way for needed cultural changes to occur — changes that have not fully happened.
Amanda Wilson said that besides outright racism, there is a miasma of stereotypes and assumptions that make for painful encounters. For example, one Mardi Gras in Mobile, Wilson invited a friend to a parade in her grandmother’s predominantly African-American neighborhood. The friend asked Wilson if the black parades were safe.
Asked about “white privilege,” Wilson said that it does exist, “but not everyone who is white has white privilege.” One lens to view it, she explained, was in “not having to worry about things.” For most white people, a hairstyle can be just a hairstyle, while Wilson’s Afro is interpreted as a hippie or Black Power statement. Going into a store for most white people means not worrying about being instantly viewed as a possible thief and being followed by store detectives.
|The Catechism on Race|
“Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity.
“Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.”
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1934-35
Bishop Murry said one of the problems of systemic racism is that “it is very nicely hidden.” If an African-American were refused entrance to a supermarket because of the color of his skin, “people would be up in arms!” he said. But Bishop Murry said that if someone in that store sees an African-American wandering around the aisles, and immediately concludes he’s looking for something to steal, “that’s a systemic form of racism, and that’s what we have to challenge within ourselves.”
But much more insidious for Bishop Murry is the attitude “that people from minority communities are not going to succeed.” The constant reinforcement of the idea that the American dream of success and betterment is out of reach, he said, destroys hope.
Andrew Peters of St. Columba, an African-American parish in Oakland, California, said grasping the pervasiveness of institutional racism was an important aspect to any conversation about racial justice. “I think they’re all good folks, but they’re not realizing it. Institutional racism, that is not the fault of those individual people — it’s just what it’s been.”
His wife, Francine, said the Church at times fed into institutional racism by not thinking people of color could contribute to the Church. “It reinforces the idea that what is good and fruitful is white.”
For Father Smith, while the Church’s social teaching against racism is important, “the real discussion is about racial justice: Who are we hiring? What are we practicing in public leadership? Who is in the room when we make decisions?” While the social teaching of the Church is “second to none,” he said, it first has to be read and applied in the Church. “Racial justice is about shining the light of the Gospel on ourselves and seeing how we are called to grow.”
While the conversation around race continues nationally, lasting change occurs in local communities. The Archdiocese of St. Louis, since the police shooting of Michael Brown and the ensuing riots in Ferguson, Missouri, has made a commitment to foster racial reconciliation. In 2014, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson pledged himself to the work of dismantling “systemic racism,” and the archdiocese has continued to follow through with initiatives such as the Peace and Justice Commission, which works to help strengthen families, or through the archbishop’s recent invitation to all priests to preach on racism on the first Sunday of Lent.
Father Steve Robeson, associate pastor of St. Rose, told OSV that parishioners’ reactions ran a spectrum, from “why are we hearing about this?” to “let’s hear it; what can we do?” The range of opinions does not faze him. “It’s foolish to expect 100 percent agreement,” he said.
But the discussions have covered valuable ground, covering topics like redlining and economic justice, to discussing financial literacy and avoiding high-interest loans.
Father Robeson said that the leadership of Archbishop Carlson had been indispensable to the parish’s efforts. Before Ferguson happened, he had tried to start discussions around race at the parish, but he had been unsuccessful. “When you try and get into specifics, that requires the strongest and most united leadership,” he said.
At one discussion, Father Robeson said, a speaker’s presentation had been met by objections that if African-Americans exercised more personal responsibility, they would not have the problems they do. Father Robeson said it was important to maintain a “both/and approach”: While no one denies the role of individual responsibility, he said, it was important also to recognize the community’s responsibility for their brothers and sisters. The dialogues succeed, he said, when “a light goes on,” and one person finally hears the story of another person’s “persistent struggle for justice.”
“That’s what the Church is for: truth,” he said.
Francine Peters said that “when we talk about justice, we need to think about the justice that the Church is putting out. And I don’t mean social justice, in that you take up the cause about abortion, or the cause about housing. I’m talking about justice for everybody.”
Her husband, Andrew, agreed. “When we challenge each other about keeping our better angels, it’s a better world all around.”
Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from California.