Only the Church Does Anti-Racism Right

COMMENTARY: “Racism is learned behavior, and Catholics can play a significant role … by taking a hands-on approach.”

Saints celebrated by the Black community are well known, from Perpetua and Felicity to the Venerable Augustine Tolton, shown here in 1887.
Saints celebrated by the Black community are well known, from Perpetua and Felicity to the Venerable Augustine Tolton, shown here in 1887. (photo: Public domain / Simmons, William J. Public Domain/Wikipedia)

In the decades I have been alive, I have seen herculean efforts to address racism. From kindergarten through college, adults taught against racism at every stage of my life. Institutions everywhere poured time and money into diversity. Newscasters were diverse, movie characters were diverse, the most popular family on television was the Huxtables, the most popular talk show was Oprah!, and the most popular actor was Will Smith. We celebrated Harriet Tubman in school, celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day at home, and then celebrated a Black American in the White House.

So — why didn’t it work? Why is race the pressing issue that it is, as if the last 50 years never happened?


Secular Answers Failed 

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in May, it is more clear than ever: You have to pick one or the other — either secularism or racial harmony. You can’t have both.

All the secular-racial-diversity money in the world can’t solve a problem that stems from the human heart. Only faith can do that. 

If you believe that one God created all people in his image and commands that you love them, you will eventually have to confront your personal feelings, whatever they are, about people of different races. But relativism breeds intolerance. If there is no objective truth that we all have a duty to discover and honor, then whoever has the most power in a given situation determines what is right and wrong — whether it be your schoolteacher, the media or a police officer. You can’t teach that racism is wrong and that “your truth is as good as my truth.”

It is no accident that the greatest advances of human rights in the United States have come from religious people, from Sojourner Truth to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Catholic Church.

So, why aren’t more people looking to the Church for answers? My last column, comparing the anti-racism movement and the pro-life movement, was the perfect introduction to this column, because there are two stories to the Church’s response to racism, just as there are two stories about the Church and abortion. 

One story is the Church’s unwavering condemnation of abortion, from the Didache to Pope Francis and U.S. bishops calling abortion the “preeminent” issue of our day. The other, darker, story is the fact that many of those who wrote, defended and expanded abortion laws were Catholic-raised, Catholic-educated, proud self-proclaimed Catholics: Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo, Nancy Pelosi and Sonia Sotomayor, to name just a few. And don’t leave out Catholic voters who propped up the abortion industry with their votes.

The Church’s fight against racism is the same way: There are Catholic heroes and villains, but the Church’s teaching gets it right.


Black From the Beginning

The Church’s history in Africa starts when Jesus fled there as an infant. It continues with the first individual baptism story in the Acts of the Apostles Philip baptizing an Ethiopian. The Ethiopian Church became one of the world’s earliest and most beautiful expressions of Christianity.

The Church’s teaching on slavery has certainly developed, but you can see it unfolding from the beginning. Paul preached obedience to slaves, just as he preached obedience to the citizens of unjust Roman rulers. But he also urged Christians to show kindness beyond what is owed to “property” to slaves, made one slave “a brother,” and told us all that we are “neither slave nor free.”

It is difficult to track Church teaching on slavery, because countries have embraced various economic arrangements that bind laborers to bosses, including: serfs, indentured servants, apprentices, the military draft, wards of the state, etc. Certainly, though, chattel slavery has always been “the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery,” as Church Father John Chrysostom put it in the fourth century.

As racial slavery grew in the 15th century, so did the Church’s denunciations, with papal threats to excommunicate slavers as early as 1435, then repeated again and again for centuries. 

When the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, Black Catholics had already been on the continent for nearly 100 years in St. Augustine, Florida, Father Cyprian Davis points out in his history, Black Catholics in America. The nearby Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, Florida, established in 1738, would become the oldest Black town in America. On the West Coast, when Los Angeles was founded in 1781, more than half of its families were Black.

But racist Catholics were here early, too: Bishops were sometimes part of the solution and sometimes part of the problem, often keeping silent on race issues. Bishops’ sins included agreeing to slave owners’ demands that slaves not be catechized, taking sides with unions against black laborers, and treating black women religious orders shamefully. Startling Vatican interventions were sometimes necessary, as when Pope Pius IX agreed to place one bishop’s terrible pastoral letter about slavery on the “Index of Forbidden Books” in 1864, or when, in 1904, the Vatican complained that the “condition of Catholic negroes” in the United States was “not in conformity with the spirit of Christianity, which proclaims the equality of all men before God.”


The Catholic Contribution

But that’s how the Church works. People are sinners; the Church corrects them — and alongside the villains are saints and heroes. Saints celebrated by the Black community are well known, from Perpetua and Felicity to the Venerable Augustine Tolton. Black Catholic heroes like journalist Daniel Rudd (1854-1933) are less known.

He was a pioneering Catholic journalist in 19th-century America who had a clear-eyed view of race in America. “The Catholic Church alone can break the color line. Our people should help her to do it,” he wrote. “We need the Church; the Church wants us.”

He saw the Church as the world’s best answer to racism. Why?

First, he said, “because she has up to this time been the only successful leader of men of all the other races,” he wrote.

That’s a great point. Anyone who dreams of an international multiracial organization dedicated to love should be advised that one already exists. The Catholic Church doesn’t strive for diversity. It is diverse. Worldwide, more than two-thirds of Catholics are nonwhite. By 2050, five of the 10 countries with the largest Christian populations will be in Africa. In America, Catholic churches are more diverse than other denominations.

Second, Rudd wrote, “[T]he Catholic Church is not only a warm and true friend of the Colored people but is absolutely impartial in recognizing them as the equals.”

Jesus said we were to love every neighbor as ourselves — even strangers; even Samaritans; even our enemies — and the Church teaches that we all have infinite dignity.

A third reason is the Church’s social teaching. “We have noticed in many of the papers published by Colored men statements that the Catholic Church is not and has not been the Negro’s friend,” Rudd wrote. “[W]e call attention to the encyclical letter of our Holy Father, Pope Leo XII. … In its treatment of the rights of rich and poor it has not been equaled by any writer upon this subject, because it comes from the authority of the teaching Church.”


Love, Not Violence

A last reason the Catholic Church is best on race is its focus on reconciliation. Author Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers is a modern-day Daniel Rudd. 

“If we are to defeat the evils of racial injustice, we must always lead with love,” he said in a recent speech, “not rioting or looting or vandalism. 

“Racism is learned behavior, and Catholics can play a significant role … by taking a hands-on approach.”

The Church’s approach has always been to convert, not just condemn. Relativism and violence will always fail. The Church has the only answer to racism — God’s.