Why the U.S. bishops strongly backed an anti-racism pastoral letter
BALTIMORE (CNA) • A pastoral letter against racism won a nearly unanimous vote at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ general assembly Nov. 14.
The letter aims “to combat the scourge of racism in the hearts and minds of the faithful, in our own church communities and in the structures of society,” Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodeaux, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism and its Subcommittee on African-American Affairs, told the bishops Nov. 14 at their fall assembly held in Baltimore.
The USCCB Cultural Diversity in the Church Committee, chaired by Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, MSpS, spearheaded the letter’s drafting and guided it through the voting process.
Bishop Fabre said the letter encourages “honest self-reflection” by individuals and the Church and addresses racism “in a broad sense” as it affects various races and ethnicities, including Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, and immigrant groups.
“It does convey, I hope in no unclear terms, the Church’s remorse for any role her members may have had, in the present or in the past, in the commission of racist acts and the spread of racist attitudes,” he said.
The letter, titled “Open wide our hearts: the enduring call to love – a pastoral letter against racism,” passed by a vote of 243 to 3, with one abstention, during the bishops’ assembly. Discussions took place immediately before the vote and in a Nov. 13 question period with Bishop Fabre.
“The statement condemns racism but also seeks to raise awareness of its impact on people and communities, and assists pastors, communities, individuals in confronting racism,” Fabre said Tuesday. The letter conveys the bishops’ “grave concern” about the rise of racist expressions in American society, in public discourse, and on social media, while discussing racism’s effect on institutions and public policy.
Fabre said in a Nov. 14 statement from the U.S. bishops’ conference that “The entire body of bishops felt the need to address the topic of racism, once again, after witnessing the deterioration of the public discourse, and episodes of violence and animosity with racial and xenophobic overtones, that have re-emerged in American society in the last few years.”
He characterized the present time as among the “key moments in history” when the bishops come together to offer “a Christian response, full of hope, to the problems of our time.”
The letter follows several years of racial tensions in the U.S., sparked by incidents including police shootings of African American men that prompted major protests in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, among other parts of the country.
The Trump administration has engaged in strong rhetoric against undocumented immigrants and has issued stronger policies against undocumented immigrants at the border.
There is also an apparent resurgence in white nationalism and the rise of a new predominantly internet-based “alt-right” movement. In August 2017, white supremacists and neo-Nazis came from across the country to rally in Charlottesville, Va., ostensibly to unite a right-wing movement and to defend Confederate statues from critics who wanted them removed. A 20-year-old man drove a car into a group of rally counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19.
The bishops’ letter, Fabre said, aims to draw lessons from “the most painful examples, historic or contemporary,” of racism and highlights Catholic teaching on the human person as an image of God. The letter “calls individuals to conversion and action” and seeks to engage everyone. The letter is aimed both for those who have “held racist thoughts or committed racist acts” and “those who have felt the sting of racism.”
The U.S. bishops’ conference said the letter “asks us to recall that we are all brothers and sisters, all equally made in the image of God.”
“Because we all bear the image of God, racism is above all a moral and theological problem that manifests institutionally and systematically,” it continued. “Only a deep individual conversion of heart, which then multiplies, will compel change and reform in our institutions and society.”
The bishops stressed the moral imperative to “confront racism’s root causes and the injustice it produces.”
“The love of God binds us together,” the bishops continued. “The conversions needed to overcome racism require a deep encounter with the living God in the person of Christ who can heal all division.”
Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond, in whose diocese Charlottesville is located, said the rally resulted in a “great deal of concern” from dioceses and parishes.
He also spoke of problems in cross-cultural understanding. During Holy Week, a Hispanic community organized a Good Friday display that included an image of Judas hanging himself from a tree. The use of a noose disturbed African Americans in the community, who disproportionately suffered from lynchings and mob killings up through the 20th century.
Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham spoke in support of the letter, citing Birmingham’s role as “ground zero of the civil rights movement.”
“We’ve come a long way in Birmingham from 50 years ago and we are still trying to achieve the goals of this document,” he said.
The letter acknowledges progress against “the evil of racism” since the bishops last addressed the topic, in a 1979 letter.
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas said his experience as a priest serving an African American community made him a better priest. He voiced appreciation of the letter’s connection to the pro-life movement in rejecting “any attack on the dignity of the person,” including racism.
From Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix came gratitude for the letter’s focus on Native Americans and its recognition of “all they have suffered” and their contributions to the Church today. In the Phoenix diocese there are 11 missions to Native Americans, and 80 percent of Catholics under age 20 are Hispanic.
Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu said that “gross expressions of racism” need to be addressed. He also wondered about smaller expressions of racism that may not even rise to the level of sin but still impede unity.
In one community, some African Americans tended to mistreat Hispanics, while in another an Asian community was “very hostile” to Hispanics in a way that was “a scandal,” he said. In another parish, despite leadership saying they wanted to include Hispanics, “they just didn’t get the fact that holding the parish council meeting during the Spanish Mass was a problem of not including Hispanics.”
Bishop Fabre said the letter is for “Catholics and all people of good will,” with practical suggestions for individuals, families, dioceses, and individuals, as well as Catholic organizations.
Bishop George Murry, SJ, of Youngstown had originally led the effort, but poor heath prevented him from continuing.
Fabre emphasized the intense, prolonged collaboration among many bishops to produce the text, which he called “a true expression of our collegiality.” The initiative has attracted interest from both Catholics and non-Catholics and will be a foundation for the U.S. bishops’ future work.
By a unanimous voice vote, the bishops also approved the continuation of the canonization cause of Sister Thea Bowman, overseen by the Diocese of Jackson.
She was born to a Methodist family in Yazoo City in 1937 and was the granddaughter of former slaves. She converted to Catholicism due to the witness of religious sisters and joined the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. She became an advocate of racial integration and of African Americans in society and the Church, and founded the National Black Sisters Conference.