Cardinal Wuerl’s Pastoral Letter Confirms U.S. Church Must Act on Racism

Previewing a broader initiative by the U.S. bishops, the DC cardinal says his archdiocese hopes to illustrate how parishes and individuals can make a difference.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl leading a procession with a relic of St. John Paul II.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl leading a procession with a relic of St. John Paul II. (photo: Archdiocese of Washington. )

WASHINGTON — Cardinal Donald Wuerl has added momentum to the U.S. Church’s fight against the sin of racism in society with a new pastoral letter that sets forth for Catholic faithful the practical action, rooted in Catholic teaching,  they can take to dismantle structures and attitudes of racial prejudice that persist in American society.

The Cardinal’s pastoral letter comes in advance of a widely anticipated pastoral letter on racism from the U.S. bishops, and affirms the efforts of bishops, clergy, and lay faithful that the Catholic Church must teach and take practical action against racism in society and individuals, both at the local and national levels.

“The goal of the letter is to remind all of us, including myself, that we can make a difference. We do make a difference,” Cardinal Wuerl told the Register. “This isn’t some global issue that we’ve got to wait for somebody else to resolve.”

The cardinal’s pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Racism Today,” addressed first the theology of the Church’s teaching on the dignity of every human person created in the image and likeness of God, and underscored the Church’s practical actions to confront racism in individuals and society must spring forth from its teaching.

Cardinal Wuerl’s decision to release the pastoral letter on the Solemnity of All Saints, Nov. 1, also served to illustrate how attitudes of racial superiority, hatred or prejudice, had no place among the saints in heaven or in the Church below. The letter explained racism was even graver matter for Christians, because the sin also violates their supernatural unity in Christ’s body.

“Intolerance and racism will not go away without a concerted awareness and effort on everyone’s part,” he wrote in his pastoral letter. “Regularly we must renew the commitment to drive it out of our hearts, our lives and our community. While we may devise all types of politically correct statements to proclaim racial equality, without a change in the basic attitude of the human heart we will never move to that level of oneness that accepts each other for who we are and the likeness we share as images of God.”

The cardinal noted the various steps the archdiocese and its ministries have taken to address racism and promote diversity in its institutions. But he also noted parishes can play a key role in fighting racism through catechesis, homilies and prayers of the faithful, as well as how it intentionally evangelizes.

He told the Register the starting point for Catholics to dismantling the sinful structures of racism in society, or within themselves, begins with each person “recognizing something is not right, and being humble enough to say we need to do something about making it right, including our own personal commitment to make this right.”

Cardinal Wuerl acknowledged the U.S. bishops would be releasing a pastoral letter on racism in 2018. He explained the archdiocesan synod had identified racism and diversity as priorities, but the recent incidents pf violence over race, illustrated the archdiocese needed to take action now that would complement the collective action of the USCCB.

“All of us have to go about our responsibilities, and this is a just a step in that direction,” he said. Because the archdiocese includes the nation’s capital, he said it also was the “voice of the Gospel in the nation’s capital.”

Cardinal Wuerl emphasized that he wanted individuals in the Church to realize they could not be bystanders and could actually do something. He said the parish is going to be critical in forming people to confront racism, because it is the voice of the Church that has “immediate contact with the people.”


Momentum Building

Cardinal Wuerl is the first U.S. cardinal to issue a pastoral letter that confronts the sins of systemic racism since the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago’s pastoral letter in 2001. That letter, “Dwell in My Love,” coupled a forceful condemnation of systemic racism in society and the Church with a clear roadmap for how Catholics could take action against racism, which had taken on “more subtle forms” than three decades ago. (Cardinal Wuerl told the Register that internet blogs and social media have become one of the vehicles for subtly spreading — and normalizing — racism.)

But Cardinal Wuerl’s pastoral letter stands on the shoulders of Catholic bishops and other leaders — both Black and White — who have called strenuously, over the past several years, for the U.S. Church to confront racism as a real problem, and a cancer to human solidarity.

Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, wrote two pastoral letters on the racial divide, besides giving numerous talks on the practical steps Catholics could take to address it; Bishop Robert Baker of the Diocese of Birmingham co-hosted a conference on racial reconciliation with Samford University called “Black and White in America: How Deep the Divide?”; and Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis directed the archdiocese to examine structural racism in society and the Church and work with black and white Catholics to take practical actions to address it root and branch.

The USCCB already had been ramping up efforts to equip bishops and their dioceses with knowledge of structural racism and practical steps they could take toward racial healing. But the ugly manifestation of undisguised racism and violence by white nationalists, neo-Confederates, and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville galvanized the U.S. bishops’ conference to create an ad hoc committee against racism, and prepare a pastoral letter on racism that would build upon their 1979 pastoral letter on racism, “Brothers and Sisters to Us.”

The bishops are scheduled to hear a report from the new anti-racism committee at their upcoming Nov. 13-14 fall assembly in Baltimore.

Catholics Encouraged

Cardinal Wuerl’s pastoral letter had an immediate impact outside the archdiocesan boundaries.

Marie Kenyon, director of the Peace and Justice Commission of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, told the Register that Cardinal Wuerl’s status as a national leader sent a strong signal to Catholics in the rest of the country, and served as a boost to their own efforts to confront racism in the St. Louis area.

“The Catholic hierarchy has been silent on this for a very long time,” she said. “We’ve been very blessed that Archbishop Carlson has taken a lead on this.”

Kenyon said the reaction to the cardinal’s letter would serve as a bellwether to evaluate how Catholics might respond to the upcoming pastoral letter on racism coming from the U.S. bishops, particularly with “pushback from the clergy and the folks in the pew.” It would also provide an opportunity for feedback in areas that needed to be addressed more, which could also guide how the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter could be strengthened.

But she stressed that eliminating racial prejudice in society and the Church is a long-term process. Their own active efforts on racism in St. Louis have made them conclude it will take at least “a generation to really change people’s minds.”


A Saintly Goal

Gloria Purvis, co-host of EWTN’s Morning Glory program and a volunteer with the National Black Catholic Congress and Black Catholics United for Life, told the Register that Cardinal Wuerl’s All Saints Day pastoral letter demonstrated “what a great sin racism is,” because in Heaven the saints come from all different races and together behold God’s face in eternity.

“Mother Angelica was right: You cannot make it to heaven disliking even one person,” Purvis said.

She explained that the Church needed to look closely at its own ministries in order to confront racism. Purvis said the fact that it takes a “white man’s voice that racism exists” for Catholics to do something about it was illustrative of the problem.

Another aspect is the quality of the Church’s ministries, apostolates, and programs: She indicated one manifestation of systemic racism is when parish ministers water down or omit areas of Catholic doctrine, such as human sexuality, because of the prejudiced belief that African-Americans will not understand it or practice it.

Purvis said it would be beneficial if the U.S. Church followed the example of St. John Paul II, and corporately asked forgiveness and made act of spiritual reparation for the sins of the Church and its members regarding racism, such as slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and other failures to show real solidarity with persons of color.

Racism has to be also fought with spiritual means, she stressed, asking for God’s grace to overcome a sin that has haunted American society for a long time.

“You can’t do a great evil for more than 100 years without any attempt at spiritual reparation,” she said. “We have not spiritually addressed this demon — we need to exorcise it.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer. 

Michelangelo, “Creation of Adam” (detail), Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-1512

From One Man God Made All Nations

“The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: ‘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.’” (CCC 1935)