In a recent blog post published by U.S. Catholic, Stephen Schneck, the Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, calls on the United States Catholic bishops to take a clear, prophetic stance against racism. He notes that the emboldening of white nationalists and the “alt-right” by the election of Donald Trump as president and the spike in hate crimes against racial and religious minorities demands an urgent response from the bishops.
In his post, Schneck recognizes that the bishops have already begun to take some action, and he points to a Task Force to Promote Peace in Our Communities that was established last summer. Earlier this week, the Task Force, chaired by Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, published a report along with recommendations for how the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) can better address the evil of racism. The Task Force’s report demonstrates some of the positive ways the Catholic Church in the United States can respond to racism, but also illustrates some of the weaknesses faced by the church that must be addressed if its response to racism is to be effective.
First, some of the strengths.
Centrality of Prayer. The Task Force report makes prayer a central part of the church’s response to racism. On September 9 of last year, the USCCB called for a National Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities, and the Task Force recommends that this National Day of Prayer be made permanent. The report also calls for further opportunities for prayer organized by local bishops and parishes. The report rightly states that “Prayer for peace in our communities is essential.” Prayer is essential because overcoming racism depends on opening our hearts to God and God’s transformative power. Prayer reminds us that as Christians our hope is that “God’s will be done.”
Dialogue and Encounter. In its report, the Task Force points out that the church is particularly well-placed to create spaces where the dialogue needed to combat racism can take place. One of the factors contributing to the perpetuation of racism is our isolation from the experiences of others different from us, particularly along the lines of race and ethnicity, social class, and geography. Often times people underestimate the pervasiveness of racism because they do not experience it themselves. The Task Force recommends that dioceses and parishes should encourage dialogues about racism, violence, and policing to promote better understanding on all sides. It also helpfully recommends that bishops, other church leaders, and everyday parishioners seek to experience the “lived reality” of those who are different from them.
Community Organizing. On multiple occasions the report encourages community organizing by local communities to address issues related to racism such as policing, poverty, and violence. The report strongly supports the efforts of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, an initiative of the USCCB that provides funding and support to local organizations involved in such efforts. This is a positive aspect of the report because it accentuates the Catholic social teaching principle of subsidiarity, that the people most directly affected by racism ought to have a leading role in responding to it, rather than having solutions imposed upon them.
Teaching Authority. Finally, the Task Force notes that the USCCB’s strategic plan calls for a pastoral letter on racism some time between 2017 and 2020, and the report urges the USCCB to accelerate the drafting of this letter. It also calls for a less formal statement on a shorter time frame to address the more pressing concerns raised by “post-election uncertainty and disaffection.” The Task Force is correct that the issue of racism demands a strong, authoritative statement from the bishops, and that such a statement would be invaluable for the church’s efforts to combat racism. The bishops’ 1979 pastoral letter on racism, Brothers and Sisters to Us, was a powerful statement that presented a challenging, nuanced critique of racism and outlined a church response to it. But the letter is now nearly forty years old, and yet the problem of racism persists and has taken new forms. The bishops must lend their teaching authority to challenging the evil of racism anew.
Although on the whole the Task Force’s report reflects the positive efforts the USCCB is making in combatting racism, there are also a few weaknesses that ought to be addressed in the coming months and years.
Absence of Repentance. Reading through the Task Force’s report, one gets the impression that racism is a problem that exists “out there” in American society, but it fails to address how Catholics themselves participate in racism and how this affects the life of the church. The church must be a prophetic witness against racism in society, but to do so it also has to effectively seek repentance for the ways in which Catholics themselves contribute to racism. At one level this simply means educating Catholics about racism and its effects on people and the community. For example, there is a widespread misunderstanding of racism that considers it only in terms of hateful words and actions motivated by race while ignoring the broader social effects of racism. Part of the church’s efforts should include educating parishioners about these deeper, institutional forms of racism, which the church has long recognized as sinful in its teaching. But the church must also address more forcefully how institutional racism and even outright bigotry are sometimes reflected in its own life, in terms of parish life and worship, budgetary priorities, and leadership recruitment and promotion.
Lack of Local Buy-In. Despite the report’s endorsement of local organizing efforts and the efforts of local parishes to combat racism, the report does not include any significant discussion of how to promote local buy-in. Most of the initiatives mentioned in the Task Force’s report are spearheaded by the USCCB at the national level, but would need to be implemented by local dioceses and parishes, requiring a level of cooperation that is by no means guaranteed. This problem is certainly not unique to the issue of racism, but is nevertheless crucial because of the point raised above—the widespread ignoring of anti-racism initiatives developed by the USCCB would be one more sign of U.S. Catholics’ complicity with racism. There is no easy solution here, since these initiatives cannot be made mandatory in any meaningful sense, but the bishops ought to explore ways to create more grassroots by-in for such crucial initiatives.
Scriptural Witness. Finally, the Task Force’s report does not make any significant appeal to Scriptural witness in its response to racism. This is understandable since it is a committee report rather than a true pastoral statement, but as the church continues to respond to racism, it must do so in a way that appeals to Scripture. This is important not only to ground these efforts in revelation, but also to better integrate them into the church’s preaching and liturgy. Incorporating the church’s teaching on racism into the liturgical life of the church in this way would prove much more effective in educating the faithful than bulletin inserts or workshops attended by the already converted.
The Task Force’s report is encouraging, both because it signals that the U.S. Catholic bishops are beginning to devote significant energy to the issue of racism and because it provides several positive recommendations on ways the church can effectively combat racism. At the same time, the document is not perfect and reflects some of the weaknesses in how the Catholic Church has addressed racism. The report itself encourages a process of dialogue, however, and hopefully through this process the church can develop a response to racism that best reflects the demands of the Gospel.
Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.