The recent rise in anti-migrant rhetoric, coupled with the increasing visibility of white supremacist groups and explicit racist behavior, has resulted in a national race crisis that is in some ways similar to the racial tensions experienced in the fifties and sixties. For Catholic communities of color, this crisis and the ensuing dialogues regarding race in America created an urgent desire for our American bishops to deliver a pastoral response. This desire for a response from our American bishops is not unprecedented. At significant times in American history, the bishops have penned pastoral letters addressing racism in our culture. In each case, the pastoral letter was in response to significant changes in the social climate that resulted in the increase of racial tension among the citizens of the nation. For example, in 1958, the bishops wrote Discrimination and Christian Conscience to condemn the blatant forms of racism found in forced segregation and “Jim Crow” laws. Ten years later in the spring of 1968, the bishops again penned a letter entitled National Race Crisis to condemn the scandal of racism and the policies which led to violence that erupted in many major cities across the nation. Then again, in 1979, the bishops wrote Brothers and Sisters to Us, a pastoral letter addressing how racism was still affecting so many, highlighting the structural and institutional forms of racial injustice evident in the economic imbalances found in our society. With each letter, the Church demonstrated that it remains consciously aware on some level of the ever-changing temperature of the nation regarding race.
Therefore, like most socially aware Catholics, I eagerly awaited the release of a new pastoral letter on race in America. Last November, the US Conference of Bishops released the document, Open Wide Our Hearts; the Enduring Call to Love. As I read through the document I was initially impressed with the document’s inclusion of those burdened and oppressed by racism to include both the Native American and Hispanic experience, alongside the African American experience. Furthermore, I was struck by the bishops’ admission that the Church’s silence in these matters at various points throughout American history was, in a way, giving tacit approval to the practices of racism, and that the Church needs to repent and ask for forgiveness for this lack of response.
However, alongside these high points in the text, I also realized that within its pages are several shortcomings. The most prevalent disappointment in the document is the inability for the authors to deliver frank language about the systemic racism that exists as part of the reality of Catholics of color today. While the document does a fantastic job of detailing the atrocities carried out by the early European settlers against the Native Americans, the inhumane treatment of African Americans during the slave trade and “Jim Crow” era, and the discrimination experienced by Hispanic Americans over the years, the document does not address current systemic racism nor identify how current white Catholics, unconsciously or consciously, participate in the continued oppression of communities of color.
The word “racism” appears more than 50 times in the document; however, when “white” appears in the document, it is only when speaking to historical eras long ago. Furthermore, while the word “sin” is used just under 20 times, always in reference to racism, the terms “privilege” or “supremacy” are not mentioned at all. Stated another way, the document goes to great length to identify that racism is a sin, but equally appears to make effort to not identify the sinner. While I do not believe that this was intentional, the document does not sufficiently challenge white Catholics to consider their role in a systemically racist society.
One of the major failures of the letter is the missed opportunity to acknowledge the reality that racism, while it affects communities of color, is not fundamentally their problem; rather, it is a problem for white Catholics. It is obvious to any Catholic that overt acts of racism are contrary to the Christian tradition; however, what is not as evident is the unwitting complicity in the very structures that are designed to ensure continued oppression of communities of color and maintain the dominance of whites in America. Ultimately, what was needed was a strong pastoral statement with a clear message to those in positions of social power and privilege that they must discontinue their blissful silence and change.
With that being said, I will say that, along with this critique, I found a great cause for joy near the close of the document; namely, the introduction of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism. According to the document, this Committee has been tasked with providing the resources needed to listen to and advocate for those harmed by racism. True to its words within the document, one can easily find resources on the web pages of the USCCB. These electronic resources are specifically designed to address both systemic racial biases that exist in our Church and those biases we carry in the recesses of our heart. This Committee has also begun conducting listening sessions throughout the country, directly addressing and having dialogue with those harmed by racism. It is my hope that the work of this committee, strengthened by this pastoral letter, will facilitate conversations that go beyond the contents of the pastoral letter.
In the fall of 2015, Pope Francis stood before the US Congress and stated, “The effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples.” In my heart, I believe that Open Wide Our Hearts is a genuine effort by our bishops to address the harms experienced by faithful Catholics of color. While there are some shortcomings in language and length within the document, the letter also provides tangible practices that, along with the efforts of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, can have lasting benefits for the entire Body of Christ.