What the church is teaching—and learning—about the sin of racism

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Evan and Elyssa Bradfield with their daughter, Josie.

Evan and Elyssa Bradfield both teach in Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas. Both welcome the opportunity to work for racial reconciliation through education. They are pictured here with their daughter, Josie. (Photo by Jay Soldner.)

I'M A WHITE WOMAN of Slavic descent, two generations removed from my European roots. Any conversation about racism has to begin like this, since what we say about race comes from where we’re seated at the table. In my case, my complexion is fair. English is my native language. I enjoy the advantage of being Christian in a mostly Christian-friendly society.

In other words, growing up a coal miner’s granddaughter in humble circumstances, I’ve still been the beneficiary of a hidden system of privilege. Compared with the multitudes that approach our borders today, my grandparents got through Ellis Island with an E-Z Pass. In two generations, our family leaped from barely literate to college-educated. While no one handed us opportunity on a platter, our name and background didn’t slam doors in our faces either.

This personal narrative reveals the invisible but deadly fruit of racism. Racism isn’t simply about nasty assumptions and sneering remarks, hurtful as those are. Most Americans, we’d like to think, are better than that. No, racism is dangerous because of a solidly built, two-tiered system that allows one kind of people to advance while pinning another kind (or every other kind) in place. It’s an inequality so integral to how our society operates that its beneficiaries can no more see it than its victims can be unaffected by it.

Racism has been called the original sin of the United States. It’s a painful admission to make if you love this country, but as the saying goes, the truth sets us free. We abide in the stabbing paradox of being citizens who pledge allegiance to “liberty and justice for all”—a vow taken, hand over heart—without a thought for our slaveholding founding fathers, their vote-less wives, and the native peoples endlessly, wretchedly betrayed.

Liberty and justice have been in short supply for many in this country. The list of those who have experienced racial discrimination is very long.

A paramount sin

Those who appeal to religious authority find the church has much to say—and learn—about this pervasive and persistent evil. The church defines racism as a paramount sin: “not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world” (Brothers and Sisters to Us, USCCB, 1979). Racism is the failure to acknowledge God’s likeness in a sister or brother. Therefore, “to struggle against it demands an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society.”

This understanding of racism isn’t solved by a personal resolve to swallow stereotypes unuttered. Our bishops have firmly named racism “an attack on life”: a form of violence as morally grave as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, poverty, and unjustifiable warfare (Open Wide Our Hearts, USCCB, 2018).

U.S. bishops have taken up the subject many times. In 1958, they denounced segregation and Jim Crow legislation in Discrimination and Christian Conscience. Ten years later, during urban race rioting, the bishops condemned national policies contributing to the rage and frustration in National Race Crisis. In perhaps their strongest critique of how racist systems perpetuate their evil in economic imbalances, in 1979 the bishops offered Brothers and Sisters to Us. Ten black bishops wrote their own pastoral letter, What We Have Seen and Heard, in 1984. In 2018, we hear again from the USCCB in Open Wide Our Hearts, which frames racism in a bracing historical overview and biblical/theological analysis. In 2020, the pope and bishops from around the world condemned systemic racism, and some church leaders “took a knee” to protest police brutality, particularly against people of color.

The USCCB website includes downloadable lesson plans for religious educators and discussion materials for parish-wide study. But as our bishops urge, we must go past strong, fine words to meaningful action if the world is going to change.

Thoughtful readers will sense this tension in Open Wide Our Hearts. People of good will already know racism is bad, but not what to do about it. We know significantly more black and Latino men are incarcerated, with longer, more severe sentences, than white men convicted of the same crimes. Many of us are ambivalent about “celebrating” Columbus Day without qualifying asterisks attached. We’re aware Native Americans still suffer the destruction of their cultures and violations of their territorial rights. Stand-up comedians of color remind us, with humor that bites deep, how America remains a white-managed enterprise in which a minority’s welcome and participation is tentative and revocable.

Father Rubén Quinteros of the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas is among Catholics and members of other churches who “took a knee” at a June 2020 Little Rock rally
Father Rubén Quinteros of the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas is among Catholics and members of other churches who “took a knee” at a June 2020 Little Rock rally calling for reforms and racial healing. (Photo by Aprille Hanson, Arkansas Catholic, arkansas-catholic.org.)

A change of heart

Our bishops ask us to do more than get “woke” to racism and to confess how white privilege benefits one segment of society at the expense of every other. They offer a staircase of ascent to promote the redemption of these bitter social patterns. The work begins within: We examine our hearts, and we change them. We pray together and learn together about what we’ve done, and failed to do. These steps aren’t as simple as they sound, and they don’t happen overnight. Nor can we finish each one, check it off, and move on. The work of conversion is always a spiral of seeing, repenting, confessing, and making recompense. We pray to see the color of our assumptions. We learn to appreciate how reflexively we circle the wagons around our stuff, our kind, our advantage.

The bishops urge us to listen across color—a dialogue that takes patience and practice. People can be quick to be defensive, less willing to accept a share of so heavy a responsibility. Many want to prove that, when it comes to the sin of racism, they’re the good guys. It’s painful to embrace that racism can’t exist without participation, consent, and silence. Many are blind to a system built and sustained for the advancement of a privileged group.

That’s why Open Wide Our Hearts includes a lengthy confessional section on how the institutional church at times championed racist systems and attitudes. It was a 15th-century pope, Nicholas V, who first permitted Spanish and Portuguese kings to engage in the African slave trade. The first U.S. Bishop John Carroll was a slaveholder. Jesuits supported their New World ministries by means of plantations worked by enslaved people. Eight of the largest communities of religious women in the United States profited by the labor of enslaved people in their households (see sidebar below). Church theologians supplied scriptural justifications for slavery and promoted a “manifest destiny” that included the subjugation of native cultures. Catholic parishes practiced segregation by race in the pews and Communion line.

Right the wrongs

What can we do to begin to right so much that’s wrong? Of course, we can pray. But we must do more than pray. We must learn and discuss. Keep in mind, even before the Civil War, some church leaders did denounce and fight against racial injustice. Figures like Father Damien de Veuster, Mother Katharine Drexel, and many missionaries labored to affirm the dignity and uplift the prospects of native and black Americans. People of color like Mohawk Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, former enslaved people Father Augustus Tolton and laywoman Julia Greeley, Haitian-born Mother Elizabeth Lange and layman Pierre Toussaint, Creole foundress Mother Henriette Delille, and Sister Thea Bowman, F.S.P.A. each provided a strong counter-witness from within the church that God’s justice won’t be denied, and can break through the most resolutely barred systems.

We see this counter-witness in contemporary religious communities invigorated by a greater racial-ethnic diversity that is the growing reality among their members.

Although there has always been racial and ethnic diversity among Catholics since the church’s inception, most generations of Americans grew up in single-race enclaves. But that is changing. Today’s young Catholics often have close-knit communities and friendships that are rainbows of inclusion. Statistics verify that young people are significantly less racist than their parents, less willing to embrace categories of “us” and “them.” It’s progress.

Open Wide Our Hearts calls us to actively push for progress. It relies heavily on the healing role of education toward the goal of defeating our inherent blindness to racism’s reach. The bishops recite the brutal history, but also go farther, exploring present-day consequences of centuries of exploitation and exclusion. They focus our awareness on the unholy relationship between our country’s astounding material achievements, and its excruciating moral failures.

They also call on us to help repair the damage to the human family and to the Earth caused by centuries of arrogance, greed, and ignorance. While it can feel like it’s late in the day to heal so deep a wound as racism at the systemic and personal level, it’s never too late to do the right thing. 

Related article: VocationNetwork.org, “Roll out the welcome mat.”

Catholic religious orders work at reconciling their slaveholding past

by Carol Schuck Scheiber

A number of congregations of men and women religious in the United States at one time bought and sold enslaved people and made use of slave labor. When the New York Times turned its attention in 2016 to the 272 men, women, and children the Jesuits had bought and then sold to bail out the financially failing Georgetown University in 1838, the attention triggered renewed pubic focus on a long-simmering concern.

Since the 2016 news coverage, Georgetown University held a student vote to create a fund for descendants of the men and women who were sold. The voluntary-donation fund was approved by students and announced by the university in late 2019. The Jesuits have also launched the “Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project” to research the Jesuit’s slaveholding history and its impact on descendants.

Leroy Hawkins, descendant of enslaved people held by the Society of the Sacred Heart, stands before the former quarters where his ancestors lived.
Leroy Hawkins, descendant of enslaved people held by the Society of the Sacred Heart, attended the ceremony “We Speak Your Names” in 2018 on the property of the Society in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. He stands before the former quarters where his ancestors lived. (Photo courtesy of Society of the Sacred Heart.)

A look at the past

A number of congregations of religious sisters have also in recent years examined their history of slaveholding and launched initiatives in response. For instance, the Georgetown Visitation Sisters of Washington, D.C. have a webpage that explores the community’s possession and use of enslaved people. It includes this apology: “We ask for forgiveness for our part in the cultural sins of slavery, and for the way that it was lived out in our early community here at Georgetown Visitation. We apologize for a lack of moral courage in addressing these transgressions.”

Other religious orders have likewise taken actions to acknowledge their history, sometimes apologizing, sometimes working with descendants of enslaved people to offer prayer and recognition, sometimes establishing memorials and scholarship funds. Each congregation has fashioned its own response, although not all congregations have made public their history of slaveholding. New York Times journalist Rachel Swarns writes, “Historians say that nearly all of the orders of Catholic sisters established by the late 1820s owned slaves.” Slaveholding was a social norm at the time; historians have noted that Southern Catholic families, priests, and bishops freely bought and sold enslaved people.

The process of reconciliation

The Society of the Sacred Heart sisters in recent years have worked at reconciling their slaveholder past. The sisters have a webpage titled “Our History of Slaveholding.” On it, the community details approximately 150 enslaved people at four of their locations in Louisiana and Missouri. The Society of the Sacred Heart formed a six-person Committee on Slavery, Accountability and Reconciliation. Through the committee’s efforts, descendants led a ceremony on R.S.C.J. property in Grand Coteau, Louisiana honoring their ancestors. The community also created graveyard memorials and a scholarship.

Several religious orders that have begun a process of reconciliation indicate that their efforts will be ongoing. They hope—as the Jesuit project puts it: “to uncover the truth of people’s stories, to honor their memories and heal relationships.” Persistence in that effort would be in keeping with the call by U.S. bishops in their pastoral letter Open Wide Our Hearts to “join us in striving for the end of racism in all its forms.”

Excerpt from "Night Will Be No More"

2019 pastoral letter on racism from Mark J. Seitz, bishop of El Paso, TX

Challenging racism and white supremacy, whether in our hearts or in society, is a Christian imperative, and the cost of not facing these issues head on weighs much more heavily on those who live the reality of discrimination. . . .

If we are honest, racism is really about advancing, shoring up, and failing to oppose a system of white privilege and advantage based on skin color. When this system begins to shape our public choices, structures our common life together, and becomes a tool of class, this is rightly called institutionalized racism. Action to build this system of hate and inaction to oppose its dismantling are what we rightly call white supremacy. . . .

Theologian Father Bryan Massingale has aptly named all of this soul sickness. Truly we suffer from a life-threatening case of hardening of the heart. . . .

The dehumanization of Indigenous and Blacks, and the displacement of the American Indian meant that these communities were deprived of the narratives, land, and religious traditions that gave their life consistency and meaning. New racialized narratives for self-understanding were forced upon them and they were forced to see themselves through the eyes of their masters. . . .

Every race and color and tribe and people and language and culture are threads in the vibrant and diverse tapestry of the Reign of God. Our suffering and pain and dispossession are transfigured in the Jesus who died on the Cross and who invites us to relocate our broken history, our imperfect lives, our desires and aspirations and our work for justice in the drama of His Reign which is unfolding all around us through the power of His Resurrection. But as builders of the Temple of Justice here in the Americas, it is not enough to not be racist. Our reaction cannot be non-engagement. We must also make a commitment to be anti-racists in active solidarity with the suffering and excluded. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it well when he said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” . . . .

This is how we write a new chapter in our history of solidarity and friendship that future generations can remember with pride. This work of undoing racism and building a just society is holy, for it “contributes to the building of the universal city of God, which is the goal of the history of the human family.” It anticipates that day when “night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever” (John 22:5).

Alice Camille
Alice Camille is the author of Fearless: Stories of the American Saints and a regular contributor to the online column “Questions Catholics ask.”




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