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The Church and Racism: Cardinal Donald Wuerl on the Challenge of Racism Today (Ramón Luzárraga)

November 1, 2017 marked the release of the newest pastoral letter authored by the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Donald Wuerl. This letter, The Challenge of Racism Today, is both a summation and an update of the arguments made against racism by the United States Catholic Bishops Conference in their 1979 pastoral letter, Brothers and Sisters to Us.

While renewed racial tensions, prejudices, and conflicts in the United States motivated Wuerl to write this pastoral letter, by coincidence the year of the letter’s release also marks the 101st anniversary of the establishment of the first Catholic organization designed to combat racism, the Committee for the Advancement of Colored Catholics. R. Bentley Anderson wrote in his book, Black White, and Catholic: New Orleans Interracialism 1947-1956, what began as a group that sought to combat the injustice and neglect suffered by black, Catholic, American combat soldiers returning from World War I, quickly transformed into a group that campaigned for the well-being of all black Catholics in the United States.

Anderson writes of how national Catholic organizations designed to combat racism found themselves divided between persons like Father John LeFarge, S.J., who wanted such organizations to be interracial organizations, and Thomas W. Turner, who believed that those same organizations should be organizations exclusively for black Catholics. Their different understandings of the origins and nature of racism added to their division over how it ought to be combated in the Catholic Church and American society.

Meanwhile, during those same 101 years, the Catholic bishops wrestled with the legacy of racism. The Catholic University of America was in its early years a desegregated institution, only to become segregated by the third decade of the twentieth century, joining the Knights of Columbus and religious congregations which discriminated against black Catholics. By the mid-twentieth century, most U.S. Catholics either acquiesced to racial segregation or saw it as a socio-political problem instead of a moral problem which violated the central moral tenets of their faith.

According to Anderson, the push for the desegregation of the Catholic Church in the United States began in the post-World War II era, at least on an official, institutional basis. Even then, desegregation efforts took their time. In 1947, the Archbishop of St. Louis, Joseph Ritter, ordered the desegregation of Catholic schools and hospitals. That same year, a group of seven-hundred Catholics threatened to file a civil suit against his initiative. Ritter, in a letter read in every parish, threatened excommunication to any Catholic who would involve themselves in that action, which effectively ended opposition to desegregation in that archdiocese. Archbishop Patrick A. O’Boyle ended segregation in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. in 1948. In 1952, the New Orleans province of the Society of Jesus, led by the provincial William Crandell, S.J., with the support of the Father General Jean-Baptiste Janssens, S.J., adopted a policy of desegregation which was implemented across all its apostolates in the southern United States. Martin Luther King made reference to that in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail when he commended “Catholic leaders” in Alabama for their desegregation of Spring Hill College. Many other religious congregations went through their respective struggles with desegregation, admitting black Catholics as candidates for the priesthood and religious life.

The 1950s saw pastoral letters against segregation issues by bishops in Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia. One of those bishops was the Archbishop of New Orleans, Joseph F. Rummel. In 1962, he finally ordered the desegregation of the Catholic schools in his diocese. He also excommunicated three Catholic laypersons. Jackson Ricau and B.J. Galliot were two leaders of two different segregationist groups, and the third person was the notorious segregationist and politically powerful President of Plaquemines Parish, Leander Perez, all of whom openly protested and resisted the archbishop’s order. The efforts of Archbishop Rummel and other Catholics in New Orleans like Dr. Norman Francis and Joseph Fichter, S.J., dismantled institutionalized segregation in that city.

Finally, the U.S. Catholic bishops as a whole issued three pastoral letters on discrimination, desegregation, and racism, approximately ten years apart over a thirty-one year period. Discrimination and Christian Conscience was issued in 1958, National Race Crisis in 1968, and finally the aforementioned Brothers and Sisters to Us in 1979. After 1979, letters and statements by individual bishops have been the norm.

What this history teaches is that if Catholic Americans and others of our fellow citizens are tempted by fatigue over the moral and social problem of racism that we thought was put behind us with the election of President Barack Obama, and are tempted to blame persons and politicians of either the left or the right for reigniting a problem we thought was overcome, that same history reminds us that systematic, Catholic efforts to combat racism in America are barely a century old, and that those efforts were often discrete and uncoordinated. Compounded with that is the fact that civil rights laws are barely a half-century old. Minorities in America have only been fully guaranteed full political enfranchisement under the law for only that same span of time. The return of racial tension and conflict reminds us, as Brothers and Sisters to Us argued, that laws only eliminated the most blatant forms of institutionalized racism but covered over the rest. Racism was driven underground into its lair: the sinful, fallen nature of human beings. In the great arc of American history, we’ve only begun the fight.

Both Wuerl and his brother bishops employ the same main arguments against racism in their respective letters. The first argument is grounded in human ontology. Racism violates the essential dignity of the human person by stripping away that dignity. It fails to acknowledge and seeks to suppress the fact that each human person is made in the image of God. The mere fact of our existence is a sign of God’s will that we live and flourish. Racism contradicts God’s will by threatening human flourishing and existence. The underlying theology argues that race is an evolved, surface trait which informs human identity but is not decisive to the essence of human identity the way qualities like gender or the Imago Dei are. In other words, human identity traditionally is held to be imprinted on the human soul. It is there that the Imago Dei and our gender as male or female is ultimately found. Race is not a quality found on each human soul, therefore we cannot be judged on the ground of a non-essential (though not unimportant) human quality.

The second argument used by Wuerl and his brother bishops is that racism violates the human solidarity established by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ in his Church. Employing oft-quoted Scripture passages (e.g., Galatians 3:28) and official Church documents (e.g., Lumen Gentium 51), all of which speak to Jesus’ universal mission to redeem all human beings by bringing them into communion with God the Father through his Church, racism is condemned as a violation of his mission and will that we all be one. In other words, racism is an act where one human being or group of human beings exclude or subordinate others in God’s Church and God’s family.

Saint Augustine’s Trinitarian-based ecclesiology, though not explicitly referenced in either letter (but echoed), can be put to good use here. In De Trinitate, Augustine argues that the perfect unity of the Triune God, where the diversity of the persons and the unity of the Godhead complement and reinforce each other, model how we ought to behave as a Church. We, in turn, are called to imitate God by seeking ways where our diversity as human beings can be employed to enhance our unity as Church, preventing that unity from degenerating into a gnostic uniformity. Our unity, in turn, brings direction and purpose to our diversity in helping us achieve communion with each other and with God. Our diversity makes us privy to diverse experiences, knowledge, and wisdom, which we all critique for the sake of truth, with which we teach each other how to be better Christians. Racism interrupts and wrecks our common endeavor as Church.

While both letters speak extensively of the complexity of racism in the Church and the United States, and identifies the groups which have been victims of racism, neither identifies the main types of racism practiced today: white supremacy, colorism, and the varieties of prejudices minorities level toward one another. Racism is a hydra-headed monster. If and when the main, historic prejudice of United States history, white supremacy is beheaded, the problem of racism in our country and Church will not have been solved. Racism will return in another form. Racism is a problem that is not unique to the United States. Each country wrestles with their own forms of racism, and the Church in each country must work to overcome it.

Last August 23rd, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops formed a special committee on racism led by the Bishop of Youngstown, George Murray. Statements on racism from Catholic organizations and leaders have been made in company with Cardinal Wuerl’s pastoral letter. Father Bryan Massingale, professor of applied Christian ethics at Fordham University and a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, has been crisscrossing the United States writing and giving academic lectures and popular presentations, emerging as a contemporary Catholic leader on the subject of race and racism in the Church and American society. These efforts should mark, to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, the “end of the beginning” of us grappling decisively with the issue of racism. This Catholic groundswell of thought on racism in the Church and in the United States ought to be marked by the bishops revisiting the subject in a new pastoral letter, one with the authority and gravitas of their impactful pastoral letters on nuclear weapons and the economy.

Ramón Luzárraga is Division Chair of Undergraduate Studies and Assistant Professor of Theology at Benedictine University – Mesa in Mesa, Arizona. His interests include political theology, and Hispanic and Caribbean theology.

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