May 15, 2005

Part 2: Racism and The Catholic Church

Brothers and Sisters to Us, The U.S. Catholic Bishops Speak Against Racism

In 1979 the U.S. Catholic Bishops approved the publication of a document to address the evils of racism, Brothers and Sisters To Us: U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Racism in our Day. The U.S. Catholic Bishops had addressed racism as a moral evil to be eradicated from society in two prior documents, Discrimination and Christian Conscience and National Race Crisis.

Brothers and Sisters to Us begins with the observation that "Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church." The Bishops are careful to show that they understand that even though there have been considerable changes for the better and that the external features of racism in large part have been eliminated, that "In large part it is only the external appearances that have changed . . .often what has happened has only been a covering over, not a fundamental change." For this reason the Bishops declare that it is their Christian duty to address the injustices of racism in society:

Mindful of its duty to be the advocate for those who hunger and thirst for justice’s sake, the Church cannot remain silent about the racial injustices in society and in its own structures. Our concern over racism follows as well, from our strong commitment to evangelization. Pope John Paul II has defined evangelization as bringing consciences, both individual and social, into conformity with the Gospel. We should betray our commitment to evangelize ourselves and our society were we not to strongly voice our condemnation of attitudes and practices so contrary to the Gospel. Therefore, as the Bishops of the United States, we once again address our pastoral reflections on racism to our brothers and sisters of all races.

The U.S. Bishops make the point that "the Church cannot remain silent" about the injustices of racism. Here the Bishops make it clear that it is an essential part of the Church’s mission to address itself to the problems of social injustices and that the Church’s attention to racial injustices is not ancillary to its mission but very much at the heart of it. However, this concern for racial injustice is very much directed within the Church’s own structures as well as without.

The Bishops call racism a sin and an evil. They offer a theological foundation for their condemnation of racism, thus locating the issue as a theological problem of concern to the Church.

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 race. 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.

The Bishops address racism as a sin that undercut the fundamental claim to human dignity, the fact that we all are made in the image of God. Racism places artificial barriers between segments of the human family and violates human dignity by denying its victims the dignity required all human beings by virtue of the image of God in each human person.

The Bishops note that we must first address ourselves theologically to the evil of racism to overcome it. The strength to overcome racism, that is racism embedded in misguided human hearts, will not be found in the government programs, social movements, public relations campaigns and the like, rather one must look to Christ for the strength and the grace to overcome the evil of racism.

The U.S. Bishops also point out that not only must racism be dealt with on a personal level, it must also be dealt with at a societal level by eradicating the sinful structures that perpetuate racism. Structural racism is described as "subtle," "anonymous," and yet very "real." This sin is social because, in varying degrees, all are responsible for it. Reticence in regard to social injustices is condemned by the Bishops in favor of vigorous action to rectify injustices.

The U.S. Bishops theological reflections on racism echo the response of the universal Catholic Church to the problem of racism. The fact that is a moral evil that must be eradicated from Church and society. And despite changes in the external features of racist societies, the Church is aware of the shift to less apparent forms of racism which often reveal themselves in the sinful racist structures in society.

Next Part 3: Black Catholic Bishops Speak Out

Part 1: Lumen Gentium and the Essential Social Justice Mission of the Church