September 4, 2020

Evangelization and Catechesis Supplement

The evil of racism is rooted in the seven deadly sins

By Sean Gallagher

The Church’s long tradition of moral teaching has recognized for more than 1,500 years fundamental sins that are traditionally called the seven “deadly” or “capital” sins.

They are the sins of pride, avarice, envy, wrath (or anger), lust, gluttony and sloth (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #1866). Catholic moral teachers over the centuries have seen these sins as lying at the root of more particular sins.

One such particular sin that has caught the attention of society in the U.S. in recent months is racism. How might it be rooted in one or more of the seven deadly sins? And how could virtues that correspond to these sins help promote racial harmony?

The Criterion spoke with three people to explore these questions, and how they can help Catholics address and fight the sin of racism in themselves and in the broader society.

Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, who is Black, was ordained a permanent deacon for the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., in 2002 and is a nationally-known Catholic speaker and writer.

Father Anthony Hollowell, pastor of St. Mark Parish in Perry County and St. Paul Parish in Tell City, earned a doctorate in moral theology from the Alphonsianum Academy in Rome.

Ken Ogorek is the archdiocese’s catechetical director and has been a leading voice in catechesis in the U.S. for many years.

Pride and humility

The deadly sin of pride happens when people have an inordinately high opinion of themselves.

Ogorek sees a close connection between this sin and racism.

“In the same way that pride can lead an individual to feel superior in an inappropriate way, I would say, by extension, a person might feel her or his race is better than another race,” he said. “So, there’s a sinful kind of pride a person can take in her or his race at the expense of other races.”

Pride is traditionally understood to be at the root of the original sin of Adam and Eve, in which they gave in to the temptation of the devil to see themselves as wiser than they truly were, even wiser than God who created them.

Deacon Burke-Sivers spoke about this in seeing a connection between pride and racism.

“To think that your race is superior to another person’s race is clearly not the teaching from our Lord or revealed in the Old Testament. It’s prideful,” he said. “To think that your belief is better or more true than anything that God has revealed—that’s definitely pride and arrogance.”

Father Hollowell said there is a prideful attitude in racism which “finds evil outside of ourselves.” But such a view, he said, is “rooted in pride.”

“Pope Francis has a good line,” Father Hollowell noted, “where he says that the line between good and evil does not pass outside of us but inside of us.

“Racism fits hand in glove with the temptation in man to locate the essence of evil outside of him in groups, in persons, in colors.”

Humility, on the other hand, when truly embraced in one’s daily life, can promote racial harmony, Deacon Burke-Sivers said.

This virtue, he noted, is rooted in a “covenant relationship” which involves “a complete gift of yourself to someone else.”

“It’s moving from self-centeredness where I am the center of being and existence,” he said, “and recognizing that Jesus Christ, who is God, is the center of all being and existence.”

Through the virtue of humility, Deacon Burke-Sivers said, racist attitudes can give way and help people “recognize that it’s better to seek what’s good in and for the other person.”

Anger, forgiveness and mercy

Ogorek said that racism can be an expression of an inordinate anger toward a race of people because of an injustice committed by a person of a particular race against an individual from another race or against a friend or relative of that person.

“One thing anger sometimes goads us toward is generalizing,” Ogorek said. “I had a bad experience with a person in a certain demographic, so now I’m going to vilify and demonize that whole group.”

Father Hollowell said that anger misused in this way “makes it very attractive to weak, fallen human beings to believe a lie, and not see a deeper truth that we have responsibility in our own heart for the evil that goes on in the world.”

Deacon Burke-Sivers knows from personal experience that “a wrong kind of anger is deliberately unkind and hurtful. It seeks to harm another person.”

For 18 years, he was estranged from his father who had, among other things, struggled with alcohol abuse. For a long time, Deacon Burke-Sivers refused to speak with his father.

When they finally began to reconcile, however, Deacon Burke-Sivers didn’t demand an apology from his father. He took a different step.

“One of the first things that I did was to ask him to forgive me for hating him for 18 years,” he said.

Similarly, Deacon Burke-Sivers said, people who harbor racist attitudes need “to be a vehicle of mercy” toward those of other races against whom they feel animosity before seeking any forgiveness from those who might have hurt them.

“In the beautiful image of Divine Mercy from St. Faustina, the rays are going outward from the heart of Jesus,” he said. “We have to be vehicles of mercy toward the people who hurt us. It will hopefully open up that person to receive mercy and forgiveness from God.”

Sloth and being uncomfortable

Deacon Burke-Sivers described the deadly sin of sloth as “spiritual laziness.”

Father Hollowell experienced this sin in himself when he had moved to Mississippi from Indiana and realized that “racism was alive and well in the South” after hearing a resident make a very racist remark.

“I just did nothing,” Father Hollowell recalled. “I was like, ‘This is just Mississippi. It’s just the way they talk.’ It was a moment of inaction on my part.”

Sloth, then, in regard to racism, is a sin of omission, the failure to do something good when it was needed.

“When I look back at that situation, I see sloth and inaction,” Father Hollowell said. “I accuse myself of what I didn’t do.”

He didn’t challenge, even in a charitable way, the person who made the racist comment. Such slothful inaction, Father Hollowell said, can be seen in an indifferent attitude of many people in society when racism is seen both in individual actions and in broader social attitudes regarding race.

Deacon Burke-Sivers says that sloth can take hold in people when “they get very comfortable in their sin.”

“When we get comfortable, we get stuck,” he said. “Look at Jesus on the cross. He was uncomfortable.

“If we want to take our spiritual lives to the next level, we’ve got to get uncomfortable. Have the fortitude to recognize that within yourself and ask God for spiritual courage and strength to pick up your cross and follow Jesus. It will mean working hard to defeat the power of sin in your life.”

No matter what deadly sin might be expressed through racism, Deacon Burke-Sivers said, learning about and reflecting on racism in light of the Church’s teachings and traditions can be helpful because that can lead to conversion.

“In order for things to change, there has to be conversion, a deep acceptance of the spirit of God’s love in our hearts that spurs us on to real change in culture and society,” he said. “It has to start with change in yourself. In order for that kind of change to happen, we have to connect the sins of racism and prejudice with the tenets of our faith.” †

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