Catholic Bishops Join in Efforts to Reaffirm Black People’s Dignity

More Catholic bishops, clergy, and laity say the Catholic Church needs to exercise a clear leadership role in the nationwide movement to reaffirm the dignity of Black lives.

Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle
Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle (photo: USCCB / US Bishops)

WASHINGTON— Amid the nation’s mass protest over Black lives and dignity, and at the Mass on Aug. 28 commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington, Archbishop Wilton Gregory declared, “We are at a pivotal juncture in our country's struggle for racial justice and national harmony.”

The archbishop noted the original civil rights movement was marked by the language of faith and declared the Archdiocese of Washington would launch its own initiative to bring clear, visible Catholic leadership into the fight against racial injustice.

“The existing social order was clearly challenged by people of faith,” he said. “That is exactly what we need today.”

A number of Catholic bishops are now raising their voices and taking decisive steps forward in their dioceses to make sure the Church’s voice and actions are clearly heard in the broader movement to reaffirm Black people’s dignity in society .

The Washington archbishop’s message came amid ongoing protests and a few days after destructive riots and violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which saw businesses destroyed and two protesters killed. On Aug. 23, after resisting arrest, Jacob Blake, who is Black, was shot point-blank in the back seven times and seriously injured by a police officer, igniting Kenosha’s protests. The officers had a warrant for Blake’s arrest stemming from a July incident in which he was charged with third-degree sexual assault, trespassing and disorderly conduct.

Blake’s mother, Julia Jackson, said at a press conference she was praying for the country’s healing.

“Everybody, let’s use our hearts, our love, and our intelligence to work together to show the rest of the world how humans are supposed to treat each other,” Jackson pleaded.

Archbishop Jerome Listecki held an Aug. 27 Mass in Kenosha for the people there. The archdiocese previously held a June 25 prayer service for racial justice at the cathedral, and a July 11 Black Catholic March for Racial Justice.

Many Catholics in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee are eager to see the Catholic Church demonstrate sustained leadership, beyond these individual events, in the broader movement to promote Black lives and dignity in society. Amy Grau, communications director for the archdiocese, told the Register on Aug. 28 that they are “in the process of brainstorming to come up with comprehensive and effective strategies.”

The U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter on racism, Open Wide our Hearts, taught, “Racism directly places brother and sister against each other, violating the dignity inherent in each person,” and called on Catholics “to join others in advocating and promoting policies at all levels that will combat racism and its effects in our civic and social institutions.”

A number of Catholics have already taken the initiative to act on the Church’s teaching and formed a group called “Black Lives Are Sacred,” which could help inform the archdiocese’s long-term strategy.

Sara Larson, a spokeswoman for Black Lives are Sacred MKE [Milwaukee] told the Register they held public witness in Kenosha at an intersection on Sunday, Aug. 30 after attending an interfaith prayer service.

“It felt really important for us to be there in that community,” said Larson, who is white and a longtime supporter of the pro-life movement. Black Lives are Sacred has held six other public witness events on Thursday evenings, partnering with a different church each time in Milwaukee and the surrounding suburbs.

“We wanted to be visible, and let people know there are Catholics who really do care and are willing to say we support you, we care about racial justice, and we believe in the dignity of every human person,’” she said.

Bringing Catholic Clarity

The U.S. has seen 4,700 demonstrations for Black lives in 2,500 towns and cities (40% of U.S. counties) since protests in Minneapolis erupted on May 26 over George Floyd’s police-related killing, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

Catholic bishops have stepped forward to bring the Church’s moral and spiritual clarity to the decentralized racial justice movement that started in 2013, has become known by the hashtag and slogan, “Black Lives Matter,” and rapidly spread throughout the country following Floyd’s death.  A number of bishops have explained this Black Lives Matter movement is different from the similarly named, but Marxist-oriented, Black Lives Matter Global Network, which has just 17 local chapters in the U.S. and Canada.

Bishop Anthony Taylor of the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, issued a July 2 Black Lives Matter statement outlining that Catholics must not “miss the point that if Black lives really mattered as much as white lives, our whole society would be structured differently.”

He described “structural injustices” in law enforcement, employment, health care, and education that demanded action by the Catholic Church, and could not be left to “secular Marxist-inspired class struggle.”

“[It] is so important for us to insist that Black Lives Matter and to view the task before us through the pro-life lens of our Christian belief in the God-given intrinsic dignity of every person, [including] in this case Black people,” he said.

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori echoed those concerns in an essay in America magazine, calling on Catholics to understand the meaning of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” through the lens of the Gospel and the Catholic Church’s social teaching, particularly the right to life.

“Being true to that teaching requires us to act on our beliefs, not just talk about them,” the archbishop wrote. “Because Black Lives Matter, then each of us must do our part to create conditions in which every Black person has the opportunity to be born, to grow to maturity, to live in community and to flourish.”

The Baltimore Archdiocese is in the midst of crafting a strategic plan to implement the concrete steps outlined in the archbishop’s pastoral letter The Journey to Racial Justice. Ellen Russell, director of community affairs for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said the goal is to equip the archdiocese “not only to speak out against racism, but to take action that will bring about genuine change in our own Catholic community and the society in which we live.”

Supreme Knight James Ellis of the Knights of Peter Claver, a family-based, historically Black Catholic fraternal order open to all, told the Register that he has seen much more sustained action, not just words, from the U.S. bishops than in times past.

“That’s really encouraging,” he said. Ellis said it seemed the successive killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd (which involved different kinds of alleged law enforcement failures) seemed to drive home the urgency for many bishops “not to let this slip off the table.”

“We’ll see what happens in the days that follow,” he said.

Raising Up Heroes

In Louisville, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz raised the Catholic Church’s voice when calling on the mayor to ensure justice in the police shooting of Taylor, a Black woman and EMT. He has been emphasizing Catholic teaching on racism in his program, and at the cathedral he blessed Catholics before “a peaceful walk for peace and justice” to the Louisville courthouse. 

Archbishop Kurtz told the Register he discussed at the most recent priests’ council meeting racism and what their 110 parishes could do.

“When we talk about the issue of racism, we're not simply talking about those parishes or parts of our diocese that are predominantly African American,” he said. “We're talking about everything.”

One thing the archbishop said the Church needs to do is to promote “heroes” and keep putting a face to “what we want to promote.” One of those heroes, Archbishop Kurtz said, is Daniel Rudd, a devout Black Catholic journalist who is buried in Bardstown. Rudd tirelessly worked for racial justice, and was a driving force behind the National Black Catholic Congress. Rudd had said: “The Catholic Church alone can break the color line. Our people should help her to do it.”

Bishop David Zubik in the Diocese of Pittsburgh has taken concrete steps to strengthen Black Catholics spiritually and bring their voice into every level of the diocesan structure, following the recommendations of an ad hoc committee.

“I want our Black Catholics to know [that] they're an integral and important part of the diocese,” he told the Register in an interview. Bishop Zubik’s first step was re-establishing St. Benedict the Moor as a personal parish in the Black Catholic tradition. “This is just the beginning.”

The diocese also posted on its website “Toward a Catholic Understanding of the Phrase Black Lives Matter” by Father Matthew Hawkins, the diocese’s newest ordained Black Catholic priest. Father Hawkins and the other St. Benedict the Moor priests led a Black Lives Matter vigil on June 28 with hymns, prayers, and silent reflection.

A day of prayer and fasting is planned for Sept. 9, the feast of St. Peter Claver.

Resolve from the Top

Andrea Auguster, a Black Catholic and former youth consultant for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register that Catholics need “more explicit leadership” from the U.S. bishops on racial justice. But the local Church’s effectiveness greatly depends on the personal commitment of the bishops.

“It starts from the head,” she said. “The head will set the tone. If the bishop or archbishop is not on board with the movement, that will trickle on down.”

Auguster said Catholics are looking for prayer and action. Clear leadership, she explained will give greater credibility to the Church’s entire witness and bring its powerful voice into the racial justice movement.

“The Catholic Church can contribute its voice,” she said. “It’s the largest organization in the world, and when the Church speaks, the world listens.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.