September 1, 2017


The sin of racism

“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.”

That’s a quotation from the pastoral letter on racism written by the U.S. bishops in 1979. Since that time, many improvements have been made in our society, and many African‑Americans and people of other races and ethnicities have made progress.

Now, however, “Recent events have exposed the extent to which the sin of racism continues to afflict our nation,” said Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

To combat the sin of racism, Cardinal DiNardo announced on Aug. 23 the formation of a new Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism for the conference. We believe that we need such a committee; in fact, it is probably overdue.

We hope that the committee will focus not only on race, but on all discrimination because the bishops’ 1979 letter said, “Every form of discrimination against individuals and groups—whether because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, economic status, or national or cultural origin—is a serious injustice which has severely weakened our social fabric, and deprived our country of the unique contributions of many of our citizens.”

Those white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Va., were chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Such bigotry as that must also be condemned.

St. Paul taught us that we are all equals. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

We must be honest, though, and admit that members of the Catholic Church have not always lived up to what St. Paul taught. Before Augustus Tolton, the first African-American priest, was ordained in 1886, he couldn’t find a seminary in the United States that would admit him. He had to study in Rome. Many Catholic churches continued to be segregated until the Civil Rights Movement.

On April 18 of this year, Georgetown University felt it necessary to apologize to the descendants of 272 enslaved people owned by the Jesuits and sold in 1838 to shore up the finances of the first U.S. Catholic college. Other examples of discrimination of African-Americans by Catholics can also be found.

On the other hand, Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter desegregated Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and later in the Archdiocese of St. Louis long before the U.S. Supreme Court made that the law of the land in its landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision.

New Orleans Archbishop Francis J. Rummel also led the desegregation of churches and schools in his archdiocese, beginning in 1953. It was a bitter fight that eventually required the excommunication, in 1962, of three men who opposed the move, including Judge Leander Perez, who called on Catholics to withhold contributions to their parishes.

And Holy Cross Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, while president of the University of Notre Dame, led the fight against segregation as a member, and ultimately chairman, of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission for 15 years. A famous photo shows him with his arms locked with those of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a civil rights rally in Soldier Field in Chicago while singing “We Shall Overcome” on June 21, 1964. A sculpture of the scene is in South Bend.

Our society is undoubtedly much different since the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964. Segregated restrooms, hotels, restaurants and such no longer exist. But recent events show beyond a doubt that some people want an America just for white people like them.

Therefore, this is the perfect time for the bishops to form the Ad Hoc Committee against Racism. In the words of Cardinal DiNardo, it will “focus on addressing the sin of racism in our society, and even in our Church, and the urgent need to come together as a society to find solutions.”

—John F. Fink

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