When racially motivated lethal violence erupted at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and most recently in Buffalo, New York, Catholic Church leaders reacted.
Such high-profile reminders of the tragic carnage of racism inspire nuns, deacons, priests and bishops to condemn violence and bring people together in prayer – not only to implore God’s mercy, but to raise awareness of a culture of hatred.
But racially-inspired mass shootings — like the May 14 murder of 10 black people in a Buffalo grocery store — are only the most visible aspect of racism, and many Catholics believe Church leaders have the responsibility to help society find a way to eradicate the scourge of bigotry.
“This is an evolving process,” said Charisse Smith, chair of the diversity committee for Lawrenceville, a school board at Notre Dame Catholic High School in New Jersey, who pointed out that there are many approaches to leading on this issue that may help in one area but not others.
“It’s strategic, it’s planning, things happen and things have to be handled carefully,” Smith told Catholic News Service. “Sometimes things require immediate action and we’re not always going to get it right.”
Many see that systemic racism is woven into just about every system and institution of American society, some of it blatant, but much of it is subtle. There are also plenty of white Americans who don’t believe systemic racism exists.
“I don’t think any institution in the United States is sufficiently committed to the fight against racism,” said Bishop John E. Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, who gave a talk in 2021 titled “Why Black Lives Matter: A Catholic Perspective on Racism”. ”
“I don’t think the Church in the United States has given it high enough priority, nor do I think we have convincingly taught our members what our catechism teaches, that racism is a sin” , Bishop Stowe said in an interview with CNS.
“And I don’t think we understand the concept of systemic racism yet,” he added. “Both how we operate from this and – God forbid – you use a phrase like ‘white privilege’ because that’s even more controversial than talking about systemic racism.”
Raising awareness about racism and white privilege and how to discuss it without further alienating people can be one of the areas where church leaders can be most effective, said Robin Lenhardt, a law professor at the University of Georgetown and one of the founding faculties of the new Georgetown Racial. Justice Institute.
The huge megaphone that the Church has in parishes, service groups, diocesan schools, diocesan centers, universities, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and even the Vatican can be used in countless ways to help more people to understand white privilege, systemic racism and how to truly embrace racial harmony and equality, Lenhardt told CNS.
Following the 2020 murder of George Floyd – a 46-year-old black man who died in the custody of a white Minneapolis police officer – and subsequent nationwide protests, prompted Archbishop of Philadelphia Nelson J. Pérez to create an archdiocesan commission for racial matters. Healing to address systemic racism within the Church and society at large.
“Just being uncomfortable with discomfort is what I would like to see from the Church,” said Azzeiza Beadle, a 2017 graduate of Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, who was the one of the leaders of this school’s Shades Club, a group that has helped address racism on campus.
“Knowing that there are people in your community (of the Church), there are things they see that they may not like, and it is normal that they do not like not those things,” she said, referring to pastors and bishops across the United States who have heard from people of color in their dioceses.
“Listen to them, try to understand where they’re coming from, and try to see how you can maybe change a bit to make sure the community you have is good for everyone involved,” Beadle added.
It’s something Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Va., has been trying to do in his diocese for the past few years.
Bishop Burbidge held listening sessions throughout his diocese to hear the life experiences of people in his region, especially those from racial minorities.
He said it had been particularly important to him, acknowledging that as a white male he was not a victim of discrimination or systemic racism and that signs of it were not organic in nature to him. him.
“You need to listen to the experience of those you serve, with those you work with or your colleagues,” Bishop Burbidge told CNS in a 2020 interview. is not the reality in my diocese. This is not the reality in my parish, nor in my company. Until you started listening to stories…and maybe you weren’t aware of it.
He said that’s why the bishop’s 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” encourages U.S. bishops to conduct these listening sessions so they can better understand how racism affects their diocese and all of society. .
“You hear directly from people whose experience may be very different from yours,” Bishop Burbidge said, “or even very different from what you perceive to be the reality.”
It’s also important for church leaders to allow facts, research and statistics to guide them in their fight against racism, he said.
Ongoing racism in the United States appears to be on the Vatican’s radar and several recent episcopal appointments by Pope Francis have placed more black bishops to lead dioceses in areas with historically notable racial tensions, particularly in the South. .
“I think Pope Francis sends a very strong intentional message,” said Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington, the only black cardinal in the United States “That if we in the United States are an immigrant community …the episcopate should reflect this diversity.I think Pope Francis is very intentional about these appointments.
“He wants men who are pastors, compassionate, generous and approachable servants of the Church,” Cardinal Gregory told CNS in a May interview. “I think he wants them to reflect the face of the Church in the United States.”
Church leaders can be champions in helping society as a whole confront systemic racism in the criminal justice, education, housing, health care, seminary and parish systems, but most importantly, they can help people understand what white privilege is and its impact on society, Bishop Stowe says.
The topic of white privilege is sensitive, often misunderstood, and it often puts white Americans on the defensive, especially when they don’t identify any type of privilege in their own lives.
“The reality is that there is a social structure in place that privileges white people over people of color and the Church has taken advantage of that – not always knowingly – but the Church has certainly taken advantage of it,” Bishop Stowe said.
“If we want to promote unity, if we want to promote reconciliation,” he said, “if we don’t want to have to march through the streets and see the kind of violence that comes when people are oppressed, so we have to pay attention to what is being said.
“We have a large Catholic African-American population that we always refer to in the Church as ‘these people,’ like ‘others,’” Bishop Stowe said. “We don’t even recognize them as members of the Church. We do it subconsciously, but it’s “the black church” as if it’s different from the black people who are part of our church.
At this point, Oblate Sister Marcia Hall suggests that Church leaders begin teaching in American seminaries how systemic racism reaches all levels of society, including the Church, in order to better prepare priests of the future.
Sister Hall told CNS a story of black friends who attended a 2020 Mass in Richmond, Va., and when it came time for the peace sign, the three white seminarians in the pew in front of them turned, looked at them then turned their backs facing the facade of the Church without ever offering a sign of peace.
“It’s not something that happened in 1960, 1970, 1980, it was in 2020,” she said. “So I think Church leaders need to be more forceful with the people they ordain — or bring into religious life — about race, be more outspoken and be more honest about the impact it has had. on the Church and the impact it continues to have on the Church and that we – all of us – have to deal with.