ST. LOUIS — Amid the inflamed passions in Ferguson, Mo., over the shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer, the Church has given a prayerful presence for peace and justice. Its chaplains have ministered to protesters and police alike.

But St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson has a message for the rest of the country: The issues in this St. Louis metropolitan community go far beyond this tiny town of 21,000 and demand that Church and society work toward resolving them — or else “tragedies and chaos will occur again and again.”

The events surrounding the death of Michael Brown, 18, by Officer Darren Wilson, 28, are still unclear, and the work for justice and peace in Ferguson is only beginning now that calm has returned. And while the media cameras will turn away from Ferguson, Archbishop Carlson made clear in a Aug. 20 Mass for peace and justice at the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis that the time has come to “dismantle systemic racism” persisting in Ferguson and elsewhere in society.

The archbishop laid out five initial steps:

  • re-establishing the Human Rights Commission in the Archdiocese of St. Louis;
  • commissioning the St. Charles Lwanga Center “to begin a study and offer solutions to decrease violence in our communities and in our families”;
  • “an ongoing commitment” to help young people out of poverty by giving them scholarships for education in Catholic schools — more than 3,000 youth already receive such scholarships;
  • the archdiocese’s full support to Ferguson churches dealing with poverty and racism;
  • and asking the archdiocese’s priests to offer a Mass for justice and peace.

In this interview with the Register, Archbishop Carlson talks about the “deep and complex” issues at play in Ferguson. But he makes clear that Catholics in every community have to ask themselves the hard question: What are they doing to help those in their backyards who are poor, in need and even desperate to know the love of Jesus Christ?


What is the Church’s view on the social unrest in Ferguson? Are police to blame or the protesters? Or is there something deeper at the root of the anger and simmering violence in Ferguson?

There are many reasons for the unrest in Ferguson, but we should not be too eager to place blame on any one particular group. Ultimately, the root of the problem is sin: Sin is inside each one of us, and it works its way into all our relations.

It’s as old as the problem of Cain and Abel. The Old Testament law “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” was not a positive prescription; it was meant to rein in the sinful tendency for violence to escalate, as each person “hits back twice as hard.” Who’s to blame? Everyone born since Adam and Eve. What’s the solution? For all of us to be quick to apologize for our own faults and as quick to forgive the faults of others as we want them to be in forgiving ours.

That being said, the issues at play here are very deep and complex. As a community, we must re-examine the value we place on life itself and start to actively promote the dignity of the human person as a creation of God.


Based on feedback from pastors and community leaders, what has you most concerned here?

In conversations with pastors around Ferguson and in my personal visit to the memorial location, I have gotten a decent sense of the community. Most of the residents of Ferguson are ready to return to peace and calm.

Something that concerns me is the seeming mistrust of authority. I pray that our civic leaders and law enforcement officials will have the wisdom and courage to handle this ongoing situation with dignity and fortitude.


You outlined in your homily last Wednesday a number of steps the archdiocese would take to “dismantle systemic racism” in Ferguson. Can you explain more what you mean by that? Many Americans think we’ve put those days behind us, but your observation seems to indicate that is not necessarily the reality in other places.

We integrated [professional] baseball and schools a long time ago. But we haven’t “integrated” everyone’s hearts. We have some racially integrated neighborhoods in St. Louis, and we still have some racially segregated neighborhoods — and that tells us something about people’s attitudes. I don’t think St. Louis is unique that way. The unrest in Ferguson is just an indication that we haven’t come as far as we’d like to believe. Sometimes the notion that “we’ve put those days behind us” is a refusal to look at how far we still have to go — in people’s hearts and in the organization of society.


Do you see other underlying problems that need to be actively addressed? Is this why you asked the St. Charles Lwanga Center to study and propose solutions to “decrease violence in our communities and in our families”?

The most pressing issue I see in society as a whole is the breakdown of the family structure. The family is the fundamental unit of society. I am hopeful that the upcoming Synod on the Family will help the whole Church address this severe problem. If families are broken, society will be broken. When families are healthy — spiritually and physically — it is easier to build a healthy society. We need to make family life work.

Education also plays a very significant role in the effort to decrease violence. If children have a solid educational background, they are far less likely to engage in risky behavior. As a center for African-American youth, the St. Charles Lwanga Center, under the direction of Father Art Cavitt, will be crucial in proposing ways to decrease violence in our community.


What are your thoughts about the police response to the protests?

Again, we all need to remember the inherent human dignity we have as children of God. The protesters have a right to peacefully assemble, and we are grateful for that right in this country. Likewise, I commend the police for trying to do their job in a very, very stressful and tense situation. I am very thankful that there have not been more injuries as a result of the chaos. I trust that law enforcement will continue to protect the public safety. I pray that cool heads will prevail on both sides.


You said the archdiocese is re-establishing the Human Rights Commission. Why is this an important step, and what will the impact be in promoting justice and peace in the community?

My decision to re-establish the Human Rights Commission was prompted in large part by my conversations with the pastors in Ferguson and other community leaders. I sense a need to help promote dialogue among leaders in our community. I cannot know what the impact will be; my hope is that, by re-establishing this commission, it will provide better guidance to me and the entire archdiocese on matters relating to the basic rights of human beings.


Have the parishes, schools, Church agencies and Catholic community been responding to your call for prayer and concrete action to promote peace?

Indeed, the faithful of the Archdiocese of St. Louis are coming together in both prayer and action, as they so often do, to respond to this situation. As stated in my letter to the faithful, I have asked the Catholic schools of the archdiocese to pray a daily Rosary for peace in Ferguson and our world. I have asked all priests in the archdiocese to offer a Mass for peace and justice, just as I did this week at the cathedral. The Curia of the archdiocese has been gathering every day to pray the Rosary. Likewise, I am very grateful for the role Catholic Charities has played in organizing fundraising and assistance efforts.


What more would you like to see done?

What more would I like to see done? I’d like to see every person of faith ask themselves: Is my response to this situation based on faith or just my own natural inclinations? Are we really putting our faith into action — challenging ourselves to go to a deeper level? This is a real test for the faith community. I’d like to see us ask: Are we seizing our moment as people of faith? And I’d like all of us to be able to respond together: “Yes!”


Are the issues here bigger than Ferguson?

The issues here are bigger than Ferguson. They are as deep as the hold of sin on the human heart and as broad as the solidarity of the entire human race. Not just the Church, but the entire country, needs to look at these issues. They are diagnostic of a deep flaw in each one of us, a flaw that affects all of our interactions. If we don’t find a remedy for those flaws — individually and socially — tragedies and chaos will occur again and again.

But, as the Church, we know we have the remedy: Jesus — knowing him individually, letting him re-organize our relations with each other. The Church can take the lead in being honest about diagnosing the problem and being an example of the remedy.


Thank you so much, Archbishop Carlson. As a final question, does the Church in the U.S. need to take a good look at itself in its cities and neighborhoods and actively address the situations of injustice, violence and inequality before another tragedy and riots happen? 

We so often speak about the New Evangelization as if it’s something still coming but not yet here. I believe the issue in Ferguson provides an opportunity for Catholics, especially in St. Louis, but also around the world, to take a hard look at their own local communities and ask themselves if they are doing enough locally to help the poor and needy in their backyards; to ask if we are embracing the New Evangelization to the fullest.

We so often think that to do missionary work we must be overseas in exotic countries. But, so often, we have a missionary field in our own communities. People all around us are hurting and empty. They desperately need to know about the love of Jesus Christ in order to fill that emptiness. When they don’t know the love of Christ, they will often resort to violent outbursts of anger and hatred.

Pope Francis, like his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, has extolled us over and over again to preach the Gospel through charity and mercy. Pope Francis told the youth at World Youth Day in Brazil to go home and make a “messy” Church. Well, that “messiness” starts in our own neighborhoods and communities.

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.