Confronting the Sin of Racism

Most Reverend George V. Murry, S.J., Bishop of Youngstown, Ohio, and chairman of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, was scheduled to deliver a special presentation in St. Louis on March 22, 2018 entitled: ‘The Church as a Consistent Voice to Eradicate Racism.’ He was unable to attend, due to health concerns. The Diocese of Youngstown said in a May 31 statement that Bishop Murry, who is being treated for acute leukemia, has been released from the hospital and doctors are “pleased” with his body’s response to treatment.

Bishop Murry has graciously permitted the Incarnate Word Foundation to publish his February 2018 remarks to FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities) members on: ‘Confronting the Sin of Racism.’


Confronting the Sin of Racism 

Most Reverend George V. Murry, S.J., Bishop of Youngstown, Ohio, and chairman of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism

Nearly thirty-five years ago, a Catholic organization sponsored a conference entitled “Voices of Justice: The Challenge of Being Catholic and American in the 1980s.”  One of the keynote speakers, Union Theological Seminary professor and author, James Cone, issued a “theological challenge” to the Catholic Church.  He stated:

What is it about the Catholic definition of justice that makes many persons of that faith progressive in their attitude toward the poor in Central America but reactionary in their views toward the poor in black America? It is the failure of the Catholic Church to deal effectively with the problem of racism that causes me to question the quality of its commitment to justice… I do not wish to minimize the importance of Catholic contributions to poor people’s struggles for justice, but I must point out the ambiguity of the Catholic stand on justice when racism is not addressed forthrightly.

Cone’s reservations concerning the adequacy and effectiveness of American Catholic reflection on racism as directed toward African Americans also have been expressed by official voices within the American Catholic Church. In 1989, the US Bishops’ Committee on Black Catholics issued a statement commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Conference’s only pastoral letter concerning racism, Brothers and Sisters to Us. Sadly, this anniversary committee found little worth celebrating. It concluded that:

The promulgation of the pastoral letter on racism was soon forgotten by all but a few. A survey… revealed a pathetic, anemic response from archdioceses and dioceses around the country… The pastoral letter on racism had made little or no impact on the majority of Catholics in the United States… In spite of all that has been said and written about racism in the last twenty years, very little—if anything at all—has been done…; such as it was yesterday, it is today.

These reflections detail the significant lack of compliance of the American Church with its own recommendations contained in Brothers and Sister to Us. While racism is America’s most persistent sin, it appears that the American Catholic Church has continued to be virtually silent about its significance in its seminaries, churches, and every other segment of the larger Catholic society in America. Which leads to the question why? What is the place of race in the American Catholic imagination and how can we begin to actually confront racism?

What do I mean by racism? Everyone I have talked to has his or her own definition of racism. I define racism as race prejudice plus power, a conscious or unconscious assumption that one race is superior to another which is then re-enforced by political, social, economic and societal power.

Most expressions of racism today, at least racism directed against African Americans, can be traced directly back to our nation’s involvement with the transatlantic slave trade during colonial times. Therefore, it would be prudent for us to begin our investigation at that point in American history.

According to historians Henry Louis Gates, between 1525 and 1866, approximately 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. Of that number, 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage, and disembarked in North America, the Caribbean and South America. Three hundred eighty eight thousand were sent directly to the British colonies of North America.

In 1839, Pope Gregory XV issued In Supremo, an apostolic letter that condemned the slave trade in the strongest possible terms and initiated a debate within the U.S. Catholic community. Some put forward Gregory’s letter to make the case that the Church opposed any and all forms of slavery, while other American Catholic leaders sought to interpret the apostolic letter in the narrowest possible fashion in order to minimize its significance.

For example, many bishops in the South were slave owners. For some of them, slavery was not simply an institution that had to be endured, but it was a blessing for black people. As one bishop wrote, slavery was “an eminently Christian work, because it led to the redemption of millions of souls.”

Here it is important to point out that this negative attitude towards blacks in the Catholic community was not unique to the South.  Even in the North, the sentiments of the Catholic laity, most of whom were recent immigrants, was decidedly anti-black.

In the years leading up to and during the Civil War and even after the destruction of institutional, there were few white Catholics who really believed that blacks were equal to whites. Just as their Protestant contemporaries, white Catholics bore an assumption of black inferiority.

Despite these negative notions, there was always a remnant of Catholics that worked diligently to advance race relations in the United States. One individual who was responsible for such efforts was Daniel Rudd.  By the end of the nineteenth century, Rudd had made himself known to both clergy and laity as the leading Catholic representative of the black race. In his newspaper, American Catholic Tribune, Rudd wrote:

“The Catholic Church alone can break the color line. Our people should help her to do it.”

With this sentiment, Rudd developed the idea of a national congress of African American Catholics.  The first black Catholic lay congress took place in January of 1889.  The delegates, numbering over 200, made appeals to labor organizations, factory owners, and trade unions to admit black men into their ranks. Subsequent black congress meetings stressed the Church’s need to preserve the deposit of faith regarding “the equality of all peoples before God.”  The meetings consistently reminded the Church of the mission to announce love in place of hate, to raise up the downtrodden, and to proclaim the essential value of all men and women.

Still, most Catholic parishes remained segregated along racial lines during the first half of the 20th century. Some dioceses created separate parishes for blacks while in other areas, blacks could attend any Catholic Church but often had to sit in the rear of the church or in the balcony and were unable to receive communion until every white parishioner had received. Some parishes even placed screens between the setting areas of the two races.

Moving forward in history, the Catholic Church’s role during segregation and the Civil Rights Movement was at best ambiguous and complicated. Suffice it to say that there were many Catholic leaders including bishops, pastors, religious women in full habit, and university presidents who risked their lives to support the cause of racial justice.

But in the judgement of most historians, they were the exceptions to the rule. For the most part, the Catholic Church and its rank and file members remained on the sidelines and watched from afar. After the Civil Rights movement undoubtedly some progress was made, but exactly how far we have come is another question.

When considering the history of race and the Catholic Church, one cannot help but wonder why in the United States there was so little social consciousness among Catholics regarding racism. As the global Church has championed human dignity and equality, why has the Church in America been incapable of enunciating clear-cut principles and taking clear cut action that has led to a change of attitude not only concerning African Americans but also Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Jews and immigrants?

In his letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul tells us that Jesus is our peace.  It is by means of his shed blood and broken body that the dividing walls of enmity have been demolished. Today, the Catholic Church in America must recognize that Christ wishes to break down the walls created by the evil of racism, whether this evil is displayed publicly for all to see or buried deep in the recesses of our hearts. If not, we are destined for history to continue to repeat itself and once again the Church will be perceived as a silent observer in the face of racism.

On August 23 of this year, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, established an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism. The committee will focus on addressing the sin of racism in our society and even in our Church and the urgent need to come together as a nation to find solutions.  I have been given the privilege to serve as chair this committee. While I realize that the task appears overwhelming, I am committed to the goal of helping the Church become a consistent and productive voice in eradicating this plague.

Nearly forty years ago, Brothers and Sisters to Us asserted that, “racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family… and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.” The bishops and lay members of the Committee Against Racism will have the opportunity to listen to the needs of individuals who have suffered from the sin of racism. We will have the opportunity to bring members of all different races to the table to work with us to find solutions to this epidemic of hate that has plagued our nation for far too long.

One initial effort will be an ecumenical gathering in May 2018, of religious leaders to frankly talk about this problem. Another initiative will be to organize listening session around the country to better understand the many faces of racism and how best to respond. We likewise will organize a National Conversation on Race in our parishes, schools (elementary, secondary, colleges and universities), seminaries, Catholic Charities organizations, Catholic Health organization, and social service organization. The basis of the conversation will be a pastoral letter which is being completed even as we speak. When published, it will include a study guide to help promote discussion. The goal will be to listen, educate and change hearts, which will lead to a change of attitude and behavior.

If race in the Catholic imagination is to exemplify the love of Christ, it must move forward with the realization that no one can enter full communion with the Lord if one’s relationship to the other is marked by indifference or oppression. One can become one with others only if one can speak the truth of one’s sinful past, asking and granting forgiveness and reaching out to one another in a spirit of reconciling love and solidarity.

Therefore, with trust in the Holy Spirit and rooted in the courage of the saints, let us begin to see every human being as created in the image and likeness of God and leave behind attitudes of superiority and fear.