Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

US Bishops' Letter Fails to Recognize That Racism Is a White Problem: Sin without SINNERS

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

US Bishops' Letter Fails to Recognize That Racism Is a White Problem: Sin without SINNERS

Article excerpt

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently approved "Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love--A Pastoral Letter Against Racism," the first major text issued by the American bishops on racism in 40 years.

The last one was the abysmally titled "Brothers and Sisters to Us: U.S. Catholic Bishops Pastoral Letter on Racism." Its title reveals the perception of people of color by many in the Catholic Church in the United States, especially by its predominantly white leadership (presumably the "us" of the title). Such language implies that people of color are effectively outside the community, which is understood to be, as a rule, white.

For decades, theologians and pastoral ministers have assessed the 1979 document, highlighting its continued relevance, while also acknowledging its inadequacies.

Fr. Bryan Massingale, professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University, in his 2010 book, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, offers an analysis. While recognizing the importance of episcopal teaching on racism in the United States, he names at least three major deficiencies with the text.

First, unlike other pastoral letters on violence and peace, Massingale writes, "Brothers and Sisters to Us is not informed by sustained social analysis. There is no evidence of a formal investigation of the phenomenon of racism."

Second, he notes that the theological arguments against racism in the document are weak, that "the teaching lacks an extended theological or ethical reflection upon racism."

Third and perhaps most importantly, "the bishops developed no formal plan for implementing the teachings and exhortations" of the document.

It was clear that more work needed to be done.

The rise in explicit racist behavior and hate crimes since the election of President Donald Trump, the overt support of his administration's policies by white supremacists and extremist groups, the anti-migrant rhetoric associated with the building of a southern border wall, and the unabashed refusal to condemn Nazi and white supremacist groups after the 2017 incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia, only heightened the sense of urgency that the American bishops needed to exercise their teaching authority on this topic.

When I first read the new document, I was struck by both what was said and not said; what the bishops did and failed to do. In general, much of what was said is good, if expressed too timidly In a way that builds on the 1979 document, "Open Wide Our Hearts" acknowledges the reality of systemic racism, but only introduces it pages after first identifying racism as primarily "when--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 or unworthy of equal regard."

This is not untrue, but it's far from reflecting the comprehensive nature of systemic racism that precedes and socializes individual prejudice.

While the new document does attempt to expand the horizon of those who are burdened, oppressed or otherwise harmed by racism with three short sections dedicated to Native American, African American and Hispanic experiences, the terms selected and language used here raise some serious questions. In the section on Native Americans, for instance, European colonizers are only referred to as "explorers, then pioneers" and later as "white European immigrants and pioneers." These descriptions recast colonizers as neutral or even heroic figures without sufficient attention to the imperial and ecclesial motivations, practices or legacies once these whites arrived across the Atlantic.

Furthermore, the sentence construction in these sections is notably passive: "African Americans have been branded," "African Americans were disadvantaged," "Hispanics have been referred to by countless derogatory names," and so on. …

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