BALTIMORE — The U.S. Catholic bishops have issued a new pastoral letter that invites Catholics to reflect on the sin of racism and provides a road map for them to redress racism’s enduring harm on U.S. society and the Church.
Bishop Shelton Fabre of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, who heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, told the Register that the pastoral letter has been under development for the past four years, ever since the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, showed how the wounds of racial division in the U.S. were still far from healed.
Bishop Fabre said the bishops wanted to lift up this issue for Catholics in light of the demands of the Gospel and Catholic teaching, giving hope to those who have been harmed by racism, encouragement to those who try to eradicate racism, and challenge the hearts of those who perpetuate racism.
“At the very heart of racism is a denial to recognize the basic human dignity of someone of a different race or ethnicity, to recognize the gift of human life that God has given to them,” Bishop Fabre said.
In their letter, the bishops stated that racism is “a moral problem that requires a moral remedy — a transformation of the human heart — that impels us to act.”
“Love compels each of us to resist racism courageously,” they said. “It requires us to reach out generously to the victims of this evil, to assist the conversion needed in those who still harbor racism, and to begin to change policies and structures that allow racism to persist.”
In “Open Wide Our Hearts,” the bishops noted the U.S. has never sufficiently contended with the impact of overt racism on the country and has not taken the necessary time to reflect on “where the racist attitudes of yesterday have become a permanent part of our perceptions, practices and policies of today.”
As a result, the bishops acknowledged that many Americans may hold these views subconsciously, not just consciously. They said Catholics “must be honest with ourselves” and examine their consciences.
Experiences of Racism
The letter noted that many communities throughout U.S. history have experienced racism, but the bishops highlighted the Native-American, African-American and Hispanic-American experiences as particular examples of racism that have left lasting scars and an impact on present generations.
Native-American nations overall experienced colonial and U.S. government policies, it stated, that “were often violent, paternalistic and were directed toward the theft of their land. Native-Americans were killed, imprisoned, sold into slavery and raped.”
The letter spotlighted the forced removal of Native-American peoples from their lands, which continued into the 20th century whenever they were seen as an obstacle to progress, as well as forcing Native-American children into boarding schools that aimed (in the words of one contemporary) to “kill the Indian, and save the man.”
African-Americans, the bishops pointed out, were subjected to “chattel slavery” — a different form of slavery than in classical antiquity — because they were “bought and sold as mere property, often beaten, raped and literally worked to death.”
The violence continued after the end of slavery: The bishops noted 4,000 lynchings of men, women and children took place in 800 counties from 1877 to 1950, and there were active efforts to frustrate black attempts to rise out of poverty through small farming, entrepreneurship, education or unionization, as well as their participation in the political process.
Hispanic Americans, the bishops noted, have experienced racial discrimination since the 1846-48 Mexican-American War. The bishops noted this discrimination has been seen in housing, employment, health care and education. In certain cases, they received similar treatment as African-Americans, from being explicitly denied service based on their race to at least 500 known cases of lynching.
The bishops noted that a racist assumption that all Hispanics are in the country illegally has led to American citizens of Hispanic descent being deported from their own country.
“These attitudes of cultural superiority, indifference and racism need to be confronted; they are unworthy of any follower of Christ.”
Racism Is a Life Issue
The bishops also made clear that they were teaching “unequivocally” that racism is a direct attack on human life and dignity. Their pastoral letter noted that people of color “are disproportionately affected by poverty, targeted for abortion, have less access to health care, have the greatest numbers on death row, and are most likely to feel pressure to end their lives when facing serious illness.”
The bishops also said that Catholics can never fulfill Christ’s command to love by following an attitude of merely “live and let others be.” Rather, Christians must “see others as our brothers and sisters” whose suffering or thriving impacts them, since “if [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
And they invited Catholics to discover the great cultural diversity within the Church and the models of holiness that reflect this.
“We can also promote knowledge of the martyrs, blessed and saints of the different cultural groups and nationalities present in our midst and propose them as models of faith for the entire Church,” they said. Some of the causes the pastoral letter mentioned were Servants of God Sister Thea Bowman and Father Augustus Tolton, as well as the Native and European La Florida martyrs.
Missionary Disciples Against Racism
The bishops have called on the clergy, religious and lay faithful “to endeavor to be missionary disciples, carrying forth [the letter’s] message of fraternal charity and human dignity.”
Bishop Fabre noted the bishops’ committee on racism has developed resources for clergy and religious to preach and teach on racism and how to address it in society, and they expressed hope that Catholics would read and engage with the letter.
Marie Kenyon, the director of the Peace and Justice Commission for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, said the archdiocese would be implementing the pastoral letter, particularly in preaching on the sin of racism during Lent.
“I feel like we’ve been given our marching orders,” she said.
Gloria Purvis, a black Catholic and host of EWTN’s Morning Glory radio show, told the Register that the letter is a “good first step” to help Catholics understand the nature of racism as a sin and how it has had lasting effects on communities.
“They are right that we need conversion of heart and to recognize this is an issue of recognizing people are made in the image and likeness of God,” she said.
“We will see what happens.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.