CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The violent “Unite the Right” protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the tragic death of counterdemonstrator Heather Heyer have galvanized U.S. Catholic leaders in their work to eliminate racial hatred, prejudice and violence from U.S. society and the Church itself.

“The times demand it; our Gospel demands it,” Bishop George Murry of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, told reporters at an Aug. 23 press conference in Washington. Bishop Murry joined Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), to announce a new anti-racism effort undertaken at the diocesan, parish, school and other institutional levels.

“Recent events reveal yet another reminder of what can be traced back to the original sin of the United States: racism,” said Bishop Murry, who is heading the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Racism, created in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy.

The Aug. 11-12 “Unite the Right” events, organized by Charlottesville blogger Jason Kessler, featured a torchlight vigil and a procession that jarred the world. Ordinary-looking white people were seen carrying weapons and torches while chanting various vile slogans against blacks, other people of color, immigrants and Jews.

The Aug. 12 rally subsequently exploded in violence when the “alt-right” marchers, bearing various Nazi, Confederate and white supremacist flags and accompanied by armed militia groups, collided with violent left-wing “antifa” activists. Peaceful protesters were caught in the dangerous middle. News reports confirmed that a young man had driven his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heyer, 32, a Charlottesville native, and injuring 19 others. Two state troopers, who were monitoring the protests from a helicopter, also died after their chopper crashed.

Ahead of the Charlottesville violence, a USCCB special task force had already produced a plan of action to promote racial reconciliation and peace in communities, and a pastoral letter on racism was slated to be released in 2018. However, Bishop Murry disclosed the new committee’s aim now will be to marshal resources for a concerted national effort, including a summit of religious leaders to develop a united front to end racism.

Bishop Murry underscored the need for all Catholics to embrace the task. “We must all seek to find a place in this effort,” he said.

The events in Charlottesville had earlier touched off fierce denunciations of white supremacist movements and racism from the Church’s hierarchy.

Days before his city was slated to host another protest, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston issued a sharply worded statement that called for Nazism and other extremist ideologies “to be opposed in word and deed.”

“Those who seek to resurrect a new form of Nazism and extreme nationalism — those who denigrate African-Americans, who preach and practice anti-Semitism, who disparage Muslims; those who threaten and seek to banish immigrants in our land — all these voices dishonor the basic convictions of the American political and constitutional traditions,” he said.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, who had been the USCCB’s first African-American president, told Crux Aug. 14 that the Church’s bishops and pastors must prioritize local efforts. “For bishops who govern local churches that don’t have a very diverse community, they, too, have to speak. The people in their pews, whether they have African-Americans or Hispanics or Asians, or even Muslim neighbors, they have to know that silence in these matters is construed as approval,” he said.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who is also Native American, stated that the country needs “more than pious public statements.” He said “Charlottesville matters,” calling it a “snapshot of our public unraveling into real hatreds brutally expressed.”

“If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts and an insistence on the same in others,” he said. “That may sound simple. But the history of our nation and its tortured attitudes toward race proves exactly the opposite.”


Charlottesville’s Catholics

Charlottesville has three Catholic churches, and parish staff or parishioners at all locations informed the Register that the rallies had deeply disturbed and upset the Catholic community.

Holy Comforter parish shares the same street as the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue. The pastor, Father Joseph Mary, had left to visit family in Africa before the “Unite the Right” rally. It was clear, however, that the African-born pastor symbolized everything the white nationalists opposed: He is a Ugandan-American and an immigrant who gained citizenship four years ago.

The Aug. 12 Saturday vigil Mass at Holy Comforter was relocated out of concerns for safety.

Parishioner Peter Zinman told the Register some parishioners would have preferred not to budge. Their Jewish neighbors worshipping on Shabbat had to endure “Unite the Right” marchers filing past the synagogue, screaming anti-Semitic slogans.

The synagogue’s Torah scrolls were located off-site, over concerns of arson, and worshippers had to exit via the backdoor after their services.

Zinman told the Register that thousands of people in Charlottesville have attended prayer vigils in the aftermath of the alt-right rally.

And he welcomed the bishops’ initiative as a sign that “somebody [in the Church] is taking this seriously. It is definitely something that needs to be done.”


Resisting Radicalization

The events in Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia and a population of around 50,000, showed that racial ideologies had the power to radicalize young Americans, Catholics included. Neo-Nazi and other white racial ideology groups have made no secrets of their attempts to seduce tradition-minded Catholics: One site posted an article stating, “Traditional Catholicism Is Pro-Fascism, Jew-Wise, and Perfect for White Nationalists.”

Nicholas Fuentes, a clean-cut 18-year-old alt-right broadcaster from Illinois, stated in a variety of interviews that he joined the “Unite the Right” rally to protest the diminishing Eurocentric racial makeup of the United States. Fuentes, who has Mexican ancestry, publicly self-identified as a Catholic.

Peter Tefft, a Catholic from Fargo, North Dakota, who has frequented Eucharistic adoration there, also attended the “Unite the Right” rally. Tefft was denounced afterward by both his diocese, which is home to a large community of Sudanese Catholics, and by his own family.

His father, Pearce Tefft, told The Washington Post that his son had not learned at home to embrace the racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic beliefs he now espoused, but had become radicalized via the internet over the last two years.

Tefft’s family members have been organizing public opposition to any white nationalist or neo-Nazi demonstrations in the Fargo area. Pearce Tefft, in an open letter to “my prodigal son,” asked him to “renounce the hate, accept and love all” — otherwise “you will have to shovel our bodies into the oven, too.”

Fargo Bishop John Folda told the Register that the local Church has vital tools at its disposal to re-emphasize its teaching on human dignity and against the sin of racism. He said “regular preaching” was vital to help the faithful understand the Church’s social teaching, while liturgies, prayer services and social activities that bring together people of different ethnic groups “can demonstrate the real catholicity of the Church.”

He said the faithful at an individual level have a critical role to play in reaching out to neighbors of different races, “especially those new to our community or parishes,” and making them feel welcome.

“Our parishes have long welcomed people of all races, but there is always more that can be done.”


Putting Love Into Action

Father Stephen Thorne, an African-American priest and pastor of St. Martin de Porres Church in Philadelphia, told the Register that the Church can help inoculate against racism by seeking out opportunities to build relationships across racial lines.

His mainly African-American parish and another rural, mostly white parish in Parkesburg, Pennsylvania, have an active relationship, where parishioners from both churches come together to meet and worship.

Gloria Purvis, an African-American Catholic and co-host of EWTN’s Morning Glory radio show, told the Register that she has been in discussion with a number of white Catholics and priests who reached out to her for ideas on how to facilitate dialogue.

She said getting people to pray together and talk — with roughly equal groups of white and black persons — could be led by a skilled presenter. Parishes also could make public reparation for the sin of racism, through Eucharistic Holy Hours or praying the Rosary together. Purvis said Catholics could also pray the Liturgy of the Hours together and make it an opportunity for ecumenical unity by inviting Christians from predominantly African-American churches to join them in this form of the Church’s public prayer, which consists of their shared Psalms, readings and canticles.

Father Thorne said all pastors need to preach on the sin of racism, especially as it is on people’s minds, and assist the faithful in putting the Church’s teaching into action.

“We have the language as Catholics, as people of faith, with Scripture and Tradition, to address these issues,” he said. “It should be the Church leading the conversation and the Church bringing people together.”


Challenging the Culture

Princeton political philosopher Robert George told the Register that Catholics must challenge the culture, and not let political allegiances dilute their collective witness. George said the white nationalism on display in Charlottesville cut against both the natural law and the divinely revealed truth that God made all men and women in his image and likeness.

George stressed that Catholics who align with the political left also need to condemn left-wing violence when it happens, such as the attempted massacre in June of Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, on a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, just as Catholics on the political right need to unequivocally condemn racially motivated violence when it happens.

He also cautioned against Catholics using violent extremists to smear the other side.

“Most Catholics know and understand this,” he said. 

In an Aug. 24 column, “The Epidemic of Hate and Its Cure,” Archbishop Chaput referenced the vitriol that has contaminated the national discourse in recent months, across the political spectrum.

“So, yes, hate has a home here all right: not just among white nationalists, immigrant-haters and neo-Nazis, as loathsome as their ideas are, but also among the ‘progressive’ and educated elites who have the power to insulate themselves from the consequences of their own delusions and bigotries.”

Catholics must take the lead in manifesting love towards all, Archbishop Chaput said, as an antidote to this deep-seated hatred.

“Our ‘enemies’ are people like us, whatever their ideas and identities. And they have a right to our patience, restraint and respect, whatever the cost — just as we have a right to demand the same from them. It’s not easy work, but it needs to start somewhere. It should start with us.”

At the same time, as Archbishop Chaput and his brother U.S. bishops have communicated collectively, the top priority in this regard is to combat the racism that continues to stain America’s social fabric.

Speaking in his capacity as USCCB chairman, Cardinal DiNardo affirmed in an Aug. 23 statement that the U.S. Church would be working for the conversion of hearts in order to put an end to racism, wherever it exists. The events in Charlottesville, he explained, “offend our faith, but unite our resolve.”

“Let us not allow the forces of hate to deny the intrinsic dignity of every human person,” he declared. “Let the nation and world see the one body of Christ move to the defense of our sisters and brothers who are threatened.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.