January 18, 2019


The sin of racism

The American Declaration of Independence stated that all men are created equal, and the Catholic Church teaches, as the Bible says, that we were all created in the image and likeness of God. But do we really believe that and show it by our actions?

Racism has been a part of our society from the beginning. Although it surely is not as bad today as it used to be, recent events demonstrate clearly that it still exists. That’s why the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter on the subject during their annual meeting last November. That letter hasn’t received much notice because of the Church’s clergy sex-abuse crisis, but it must not go unnoticed.

Called “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” the pastoral says, “Racism arises when—either consciously or unconsciously—a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior, and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and unworthy of equal regard.”

Racism is sinful, the bishops say, “when this conviction or attitude leads individuals or groups to exclude, ridicule, mistreat, or unjustly discriminate against persons on the basis of their race or ethnicity.”

Such acts violate justice and fail to recognize others “as the neighbors Christ calls us to love,” they say.

What are those recent events that prompted this letter? The bishops mention many of them, beginning with the killing of unarmed African‑Americans by law enforcement officials and the disproportionate number of ethnic minorities among prison inmates.

They also mention the reappearance of symbols of hatred, such as nooses and swastikas in public places, and the discrimination that Hispanics and African-Americans face in hiring, housing and educational opportunities. “Racial profiling frequently targets Hispanics for selective immigration enforcement practices, and African‑Americans for suspected criminal activity,” they say.

Anti-Semitism has also reappeared, they note, and, “there is also the growing fear and harassment of persons from majority Muslim countries. Extreme nationalist ideologies are feeding the American public discourse with xenophobic rhetoric that instigates fear against foreigners, immigrants, and refugees.”

It’s hard to deny that all this has been happening in our country. The sad thing, though, is that too many people don’t see it as sinful.

The bishops acknowledge that racism “can often be found in our hearts—in many cases placed there unwillingly or unknowingly by our upbringing and culture. As such, it can lead to thoughts and actions that we do not even see as racist, but nonetheless flow from the same prejudicial root.”

There can be no good reason why a person should feel superior to others simply because he or she was fortunate enough to be born in this country. But that’s precisely the attitude of some Americans intent on restricting immigration to those who are like them. The bishops call such an attitude exactly what it is—sinful.

Fortunately, the bishops are quick to acknowledge that the Church in the United States hasn’t always been innocent of racism, including institutional ties to slavery early in our nation’s history and segregation seating in churches.

The bishops say, “The persistence of the evil of racism is why we are writing this letter now,” and, “We cannot look upon the progress against racism in recent decades and conclude that our current situation meets the standard of justice. In fact, God demands what is right and just.”

They also say, “The Church in the United States has spoken out consistently and forcefully against abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, the death penalty, and other forms of violence that threaten human life. As bishops, we unequivocally state that racism is a life issue. Accordingly, we will not cease to speak forcefully against and work toward ending racism.”

All Catholics, all Americans, all people should back the bishops on this issue. For all of us, it’s time to examine our consciences and see when we might have been guilty of this sin—when we might have, even unconsciously, held a superior attitude toward others.

—John F. Fink

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