Catholics and Race: New Hope for the Universal Church

I first learned about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case from my sixteen year old nephew. We were seated at the dinner table, taking in a casual dinner of pizza and wings and making plans for the next day. At my request, he checked his smartphone and read the updating Facebook and Twitter posts of his friends, which varied from support of the verdict to what one might mistake for naive, youthful anger and belief that such a narrow set of conditions, six people on a jury defining one moment of an obvious chain of events, as “self-defense” could help redirect, or sanctify, the unease that runs below the surface of our daily lives in the US when we are faced with the many fissures and conflicts that stem from racial inequality.

But my thoughts were of my nephew. Nothing in life could have prepared me for the slow motion miracle that was his growth from round faced, wide eyed boy to the ever elongating frame and increasing spiritual depth of a young man. He is one year younger than Trayvon, whose first name I use consciously, as Trayvon was more alike my nephew than different from him.

As spiritual people, we are no strangers to the loss of children. The cries of King David over Absalom still stir in the bones of very father who has lost a son. The quiet dignity and anguish of Mary, cradling Jesus in the Pieta resonates not just with art historians, but with every mother who has lost a child and longed, at the very least, to embrace him in his final moments.

I’ve been so discouraged as I have listened attentively to the reaction to the verdict on various media outlets. There’s a place and time for politics, but between the conservative radio host chanting in hushed tones, “Slavery. Race. Slavery” before the start of his show, the successful white legal expert proclaiming to the African American professor, “Oh…I get it! I get it!” and the lawyers and surrogates for George Zimmerman, insinuating those who are dissatisfied with the verdict are both “angry” (given) and “hateful” (why?), I have felt, among other things, a growing uneasiness that their words, crafted to assert power over the viewer and promote their agenda, are not enough to help me grieve this wound felt across the country.
President Obama, when taking the historic step of addressing our country’s racial divide at length on July 19th, spoke not with the authority of his office, but with uncharacteristic vulnerability, referring to the locking of car doors and the clutching of purses in elevators in his presence before he was a senator. He spoke about encouraging a national discussion on race, but he, too, acknowledged the limitations of what politicians, even presidents can do, to open the doors of understanding and to speak in a meaningful way that many somehow engage the suffering and the hopes of Americans when it comes to race. To calm the deep unrest that plagues us and provide a foothold for a spiritual and just people who must begin to heal each other and ourselves.

As a Catholic, I have yearned for adequate words to engage this situation in a deeper, more spiritual sense. Isn’t there a way for us, as Catholics, to talk about race in a way that is rooted in the truths we hold most dear and guide us to action?

Yes. And that language is this:

“Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of races. It is the sin that makes racial characteristics the determining factor for the exercise of human rights. It mocks the words of Jesus: “Treat others the way you would have them treat you.” Indeed, racism is more than a disregard for the words of Jesus; it is a denial of the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation.”

These words were not spoken from a church pulpit or from a podium at a rally. They were not posted by a blogger or a published in a scholarly journal. They were written in a letter from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, to the faithful citizens of the United States, in the year 1979.

Catholics, lay and ordained, have had much to grieve for in recent times and we have hungered for wise and just moral leadership from our Bishops. Also, due in part to politics, we have been far more focused on the issues that divide Catholics, such as gay rights, abortion and immigration rights. I do not discount the importance or weight of these issues, but I suggest that this letter, which also clearly defines racism as a pervasive, enduring evil that touches people of all races and classes, tells the history of racism in the US in detail and proposes in the strongest possible language how we, the faithful, may combat racism in our personal lives, our churches and our society, can serve to unite Catholics across the United States in a much needed spirit of justice and reconciliation.

The reasons this letter was never aggressively evangelized may have been due to a lack of will on the part of some, fear of backlash or a lack of effective communications and public relations mechanisms, which we now clearly have in abundance. Someday, history may give us those answers, along with the truthful assessment that the letter does bear the weaknesses of its time (As Father Bryan Massingale asks in his groundbreaking book, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, “Who is the us?”). But it is my hope that history may also record that Catholics in the United States read this letter again and responded to the Trayvon Martin verdict not with hatred toward George Zimmerman or a demand for legislation, but with a clear, unified voice, from our churches and homes, that we understand racism, not as an opinion one can have or a social phenomenon to be studied, but as a sin. A sin which we will struggle against with courage and mercy as a unified family of faith, welcoming all who will join us.

I ask every Catholic who reads this article to link to the USSSCB website and read this letter. It is a bit long, but I hope we, as a people, are willing to sacrifice a half hour of leisure time for ourselves and our brothers and sisters of all races and cultures. I ask that each person who reads this letter approaches their parish priest and asks them to preach about this letter and about racial justice. We can also ask that this letter be posted on bulletin boards, next to the posters calling for priestly vocations and charitable donations and ask that this letter be featured prominently on our parish website.

But, even if our parish priests and lay ministers fail to lead, we can make a difference. We can tell our children that racism is a sin. We can set a zero tolerance policy for any racial slur or joke said in our presence. We can humbly correct those around us who use this language or expect us to participate in racial jokes at any level and, rather than search for the right words, we can state humbly, but with pride that our faith teaches that racism is more than wrong, but is sinful. And, most importantly, we can and, I believe, must, draw ourselves away to the privacy of our rooms, as Christ taught us, and pray to our Father, who knows our every secret, to illuminate our thoughts and feelings that prevent us from embracing our brothers and sisters of all races and backgrounds as equals, and ask for the grace and guidance to take any and all steps necessary to drive this ignorance and hatred from our hearts. If we ever were looking for a validation and need for the sacrament of reconciliation, purging this evil from our lives must be it.

Combatting racism, as anyone who has experienced it will tell you, will not be an easy, comfortable or brief struggle. All Catholics, regardless of race, must acknowledge that combatting racism, which is vital to the survival of the modern Catholic parish, will not happen without missteps and that we all, to paraphrase Saint Paul, have fallen short and will fall short again. We may say the wrong thing to each other or lash out in anger when faced with ignorance or intolerance. But Christ’s love, mercy and forgiveness, and His Eucharist, which calls all of us, regardless of color, class or sexual orientation, to become one with Him and each other, will serve as a compass where men may fail to lead.

When we reach out to each other this Sunday at the sign of peace, we may not say anything more than, “Peace” but we may acknowledge silently, as we take each other’s hand or embrace, as I will with my nephew, that we stand together, acknowledging each other anew, as people of equal dignity, made in the image of the God who is love, and that we are prepared both to convert ourselves from within and to defend each other from this enduring evil. We can say together…

I am Catholic. I believe racism is a sin.

Stephen Ott, OFS, is a Secular Franciscan and pastoral theology student at St. John’s University in New York City. He just completed his hospital chaplaincy internship at Bellevue Hospital and has been trained by the NYU Spirituality Initiative headed by Dr. Marc Galanter.


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. GOD IS LOVE. There’s no room for racism in that equation.

  2. Reblogged this on Pammcc1952's Blog.

  3. I am a follower of Christ. Racism is not an issue of colour, it is an issue of the heart, a sin-stained heart. Well said. Thank you.

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