Race in the Catholic Imagination

A Survey of Recent United States Bishops’ Documents on Racism

Over the past century, the number of Catholics around the globe has increased dramatically. From an estimated 291 million in 1910 to over one billion as of 2010, according to the Pew Research Center. Interestingly, over the same period the world’s overall population also has risen rapidly. As a result, Catholics have made up a remarkably stable share of all people on earth. In 1910, Catholics comprised about half of all Christians and 17 percent of the world’s total population. A century later, Catholics still comprise about half of Christians worldwide and 16 percent of the total global population. However, the geographic distribution of the world’s Catholics has vastly changed. In 1910, Europe was home to about two-thirds of all Catholics, and nearly nine-in-ten lived either in Europe or Latin America. By contrast, in 2010, less than a quarter of all Catholics were in Europe, with only 39 percent residing in Latin America.

Rapid growth has occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, which today is home to about 171 million Catholics, up from an estimated one million in 1910. There also has been an increase of Catholics in the Asia-Pacific region, where 131 million Catholics now live, up from fourteen million a century ago. In North America the Catholic population has increased from about fifteen million in 1910 to eight-nine million as of 2010.

It would appear that the diversity the Church is experiencing today is a direct reflection of Saint Paul’s words to the Galatians, “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” (3:28). We are seeing the emergence of a Christian brotherhood from all corners of the earth. Yet, at the same time, we are seeing a crippled consciousness when it comes to race in the Catholic imagination.

At significant times in the American Church’s history, she has written pastoral letters of concern over the sin of racism. In 1958, the United States bishops wrote Discrimination and Christian Conscience to condemn the blatant forms of racism found in segregation and the “Jim Crow” laws. Ten years later, in the spring of 1968, the bishops again penned a letter entitled National Race Crisis to condemn the scandal of racism and the policies which led to violence that erupted in many major cities across our nation. Then again, in 1979, the bishops wrote Brothers and Sisters to Us, a pastoral letter addressing how racism was still affecting so many, highlighting the institutional forms of racial injustice evident in the economic imbalances found in our society. These three documents directly addressed issues concerning the American Catholic Church and race. It demonstrates that during the turbulent sixties and seventies the Church was aware of the persistent evil of racism. However, along with the strong words of condemnation of racism found among its pages, there were shortcomings.

For example, in Discrimination and Christian Conscience, though the document asserts in a powerful way that enforced segregation could not be reconciled with the Christian view of the human person, the document made no specific recommendations or proposals for action. Though the document called upon all to act “courageously, and prayerfully,” it simultaneously deplored “rash impetuosity” that leads to “ill-timed and ill-considered ventures.” This suggests a “quiet conciliation,” with no concrete or bold call to action. The document was a watershed moment in the history of the Catholic Church in the US, but the document had little secular or ecclesial significance.

If we shift our attention ten years later to The National Race Crisis, we read within the document, “It is evident that we did not do enough; we have much more to do . . . . It became clear that we failed to change the attitudes of many believers.” As this quote indicates, the bishops realized that their previous document did not do what had been intended. In addition, the Church found itself amid a nation trying to recover from the long summer of 1967, when racially motivated rioting and civil disturbances rocked many major urban cities. The civil unrest found in these urban centers stoked the fears of racial insurrection in the nation. Within the Church itself, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus made its first attempt to speak to the Church from the perspective of the black experience. The black clergy called upon the Church to recognize the increasing alienation and estrangement that was taking place between the black community and the Catholic Church due to the Church’s “past complicity with and active support of the prevailing attitudes and institutions of America.”

In 1979, Brothers and Sisters to Us opens with the following words, “Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church. Despite apparent advances and even significant changes in the last two decades, the reality of racism remains.” Despite changes in the nation’s laws, the granting of voting rights, and the elimination of enforced segregation, the bishops were forced to conclude that “too often what has happened has been only a covering over, not a fundamental change.” This document once again forcefully and unequivocally condemns racism. As a result of the words of the document, more black men were ordained to the episcopacy, many dioceses and religious communities increased their efforts to recruit men and women into the priesthood and into religious life, and efforts were made to encourage liturgical adaptions to include the cultural heritage of communities of color among the faithful. However, the publicity given this document was very limited. As a result, the promulgation of this pastoral letter was soon forgotten by all but a few. Ultimately, these three pastoral letters have made little impact on the majority of Catholics in our nation.

At a symposium celebrating the centennial anniversary of modern Catholic social teaching, Joseph Francis, an African American bishop, declared that the lack of attention given Brothers and Sisters to Us made it “the best-kept secret in the church in this country.” He concluded by voicing sentiments very much like those expressed by Cone:

Social justice vis-à-vis the eradication of racism in our church is simply not a priority of social concern commissions, social concern directors and agencies. While I applaud the concern of such individuals and groups for the people of Eastern Europe, China, and Latin America, that same concern is not expressed, is not incarnated for the victims of racism in this country . . . The question is, Is the quality of our mercy strained when black people are concerned?

In 2004, twenty-five years after Brothers and Sisters to Us, the US Catholic Bishops commissioned a study to discern its implementation and reception. The commission’s results paint a disheartening picture of the Church’s relationship with the black community. For example, since the Brothers and Sisters to Us was first promulgated, only 18 percent of the American bishops have issued statements condemning racism, and of those very few address systemic racism found in America; rather, they address personal attitudes of direct racial malice. In addition, the commission notes that many diocesan seminaries and ministry formation programs are inadequate in terms of their incorporation of the history, culture, and traditions of the black community. Most disturbing is the commission’s report that white Catholics over the last twenty-five years “exhibit diminished—rather than increased—support of government policies aimed at curbing racial inequality.” These official statistics detail the significant lack of compliance of the Church with its own recommendation contained in Brothers and Sister to Us.

Recently, the rise in anti-migrant rhetoric, coupled with the increasing visibility of white supremacist groups and explicit racist behavior, has resulted in a national race crisis that is in some ways similar to the racial tensions experienced in previous eras. For Catholic communities of color, this crisis, and the ensuing dialogues regarding race in America, has created an urgent desire for the Church to deliver a pastoral response. In the fall of 2018, the bishops once again penned a pastoral letter to address racism, Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love. At first glance, the document impressively includes both the Native American and Hispanic experiences, alongside the African American experience. In addition, the bishops admit that the Church’s silence in these matters at various points throughout American history was, in a way, giving tacit approval to the practices of racism, and that the Church needs to repent and ask for forgiveness for this lack of response.

One of the major failures of Open Wide Our Hearts is the missed opportunity to acknowledge the reality that racism, while it affects communities of color, is not fundamentally their problem; rather, it is a problem for white Catholics. It is obvious to any Catholic that overt acts of racism are contrary to the Christian tradition; however, what is not as evident is the unwitting complicity in the very structures that are designed to ensure continued oppression of communities of color and to maintain the dominance of whites in America. Ultimately, what was needed was a strong pastoral statement with a clear message to those in positions of social power and privilege that they must discontinue their blissful silence and change. In a sense, one could say that while racism is America’s most persistent sin, it appears that the Church still has a reluctance to demonstrate passion regarding racism. This prompts the question: What is the place of race in the Catholic imagination, particularly here in America?

Most expressions of racism today can be traced directly to our nation’s involvement with the transatlantic slave trade during colonial times. Therefore, it would be prudent for us to begin the investigation at that point in history.

The History of Race and the Roman Catholic Church

The issue of slavery is one that historically has been treated with concern by the Catholic Church. After the recognition of Christianity under the Roman Empire, there was a growing sentiment that many kinds of slavery were not compatible with Christian conceptions of charity and justice; some argued against all forms of slavery while others argued the case for slavery subject to certain restrictions. Initially, Church teaching made a distinction between “just” and “unjust” forms of slavery, with unjust slavery being that which enslaves those who have been baptized.

For example, in 1435, Pope Eugene IV authored a papal bull, Sicut dudum, addressed to Bishop Ferdinand in the Portuguese colonies of the Canary Islands condemning the enslavement of the indigenous people that had converted to the faith. Eugene IV commanded “all and each of the faithful . . . within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, [be restored] to their earlier liberty” with the threat “of excommunication . . . from which [you] cannot be absolved.”

A century later as Europe expanded into the Americas, enslaving the Native Americans of this newly “discovered” land, the Church once again responded to the evilness of slavery. This time it was Pope Paul III with his encyclical Sublimis Deus. However, Sublimis Deus presents a slightly different understanding of slavery. To begin, Paul III addressed this encyclical to “all faithful Christians to whom this writing may come,” thereby not limiting its significance to the clergy alone but universalizing it to all the faithful. Furthermore, Paul III was not concerned about articulating “just” slavery in juxtaposition to “unjust” slavery. Rather, he asserted that whoever is endowed with the capability to receive the faith of Christ and receive his Gospel, baptized or not, should “by no means be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property.” This advancement in the articulation of the Church’s position on slavery clearly indicates that the Church did not hesitate to condemn the forced servitude of others.

In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI issued In supremo, an apostolic letter that condemned the slave trade in the strongest possible terms. By this time, the slave trade and slavery itself were completely abolished in Britain. Both Spain and Portugal continued to operate slave trading and had many enslaved. Gregory XVI had hoped that this apostolic letter might persuade Spain and Portugal to enforce laws against slave trafficking in their domains. In America, Gregory’s pronouncement set off a debate within the Catholic community in the United States.

The Catholic population of the United States, which had been thirty-five thousand in 1790, increased to 195,000 by 1820 and then ballooned to about 1.6 million by the time of Gregory’s apostolic letter, making Catholicism the country’s largest faith tradition. As the Catholic ranks began to swell arguments raged over what Gregory’s letter taught about slavery. While some put forward Gregory’s letter to make the case that the Church opposed slavery, most American Catholic leaders sought to interpret it in a narrow fashion to minimize its significance regarding slavery in general, particularly in the southern Catholic communities. Many bishops in the South were slave owners. Inevitably, some of them did engage in the buying and selling of slaves. For some of the southern bishops, slavery was not simply an institution that had to be endured; many considered themselves as apologists for slavery.

Despite the negative notions that were ever present among the Catholic population concerning black Americans, there was always a remnant of black Catholics that worked diligently to advance the race relations in America. One individual responsible for such efforts among black Catholics was Daniel Rudd. By the end of the nineteenth century, Rudd had made himself known to both clergy and laity as “the leading Catholic representative of the [black] race.”

In his newspaper, American Catholic Tribune, Rudd wrote, “There is an awakening among some people to the fact that the Catholic Church is not only a warm and true friend to the [black] people, but is absolutely impartial in recognizing them as equals of all.” Later, Rudd put the same message more succinctly, when he wrote, “The Catholic Church alone can break the color line. Our people should help her to do it.” With this sentiment, Rudd came up with the idea to call together a national congress of African American Catholics. He felt that black Catholics in America did not realize the extent of the Church among them. Being separated and hidden away from each due to vast distances between them, Rudd thought it would be beneficial to the Church and to faithful black Catholics to come together and simply speak and look upon one another.

From the end of the nineteenth century to 1965, racial segregation was an official legal policy throughout the American South—better known as the Jim Crow Era. On the issue of race, American Catholics, in general, followed the laws of their respective states by maintaining racial segregation just as their Protestant counterparts. There were some actions taken by local bishops and priests against the practice of racial segregation. For example, in 1951 Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans asked followers to end segregation in the Church. Rummel, in a pastoral letter, told New Orleans Catholics to end all vestiges of racial separatism within their churches. He worked toward the gradual integration of all Catholic schools, churches, and hospitals. Two years later, Rummel officially declared the end of racial segregation in all New Orleans Catholic institutions in a pastoral letter entitled “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” However, these clerical denouncements of segregation were regretfully rare, and certainly were not shared universally among the clerical body.

During the Civil Rights Movement, a response from the Catholic Church in Alabama to the civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham highlights how vast the spectrum was on the issue of segregation within American Catholic communities, the most visible being in a letter addressed to Martin Luther King Jr. In “A Call for Unity,” eight white clergymen of Birmingham, Alabama, denounced King’s civil rights organization as outsiders seeking to destroy the racial harmony of the city. Though acknowledging the grievances of blacks, and that everyone deserved basic human respect, the authors asked blacks to accept the racial situation for the time being.

As a result, most Catholic parishes remained segregated along racial lines during the first half of the 20th century. Within these parishes there tended to be no set standard for segregation inside parishes. Some dioceses created separate parishes for blacks but that was not always the case. In many areas, blacks could attend any Catholic Church. Usually there was some degree of racial separation of the parishioners. In New Orleans, blacks had to sit in the rear pews, and were unable to receive communion until every white parishioner had been served. Some parishes also placed screens between the two races.

There were always Catholics who refused to accept segregation. The Southeastern Regional Interracial Commission, founded in 1948 by students of Loyola and Xavier universities, held interracial Masses on college campuses. The Commission on Human Rights, organized in 1949, held integrated Masses and sent petitions to church officials demanding integration in southern parishes. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church’s role during segregation and the Civil Rights Movement was quite ambiguous.

When considering the history of race and the Catholic Church, specifically the black American community and the American Catholic Church, one cannot help but wonder why there was so little social consciousness among everyday Catholics in the United States regarding racism. Despite the bishops’ pastoral letters previously mentioned, and in light of the global Church’s championing for human dignity and equality during this era, or as Pope Paul VI asserts in Populorum progressio, the Church’s obligation to address social inequities by “building a human community where men and women can live truly human lives, free from discrimination on account of race, religion or nationality,” why does it appear that the Church in America was incapable of taking any decisive action or have any ability to enunciate clear-cut principles regarding racism? Along with their Protestant brothers and sisters, American Catholics showed, and continue to show, a lack of moral consciousness on the issue of race. Logically, this leads us to conclude that although at times our faith has had influence on racial attitudes—some positive, most negative—the dialogue concerning racism today must run much deeper in the American landscape.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul tells us that Jesus is our peace. It is by means of his shed blood and broken body that the dividing walls of enmity have been demolished (Eph 2:14). Today, the Catholic Church in America must recognize that Christ wishes to break down the walls created by the evil of racism, whether this evil is displayed publicly for all to see or buried deep in the recesses of our hearts. If not, then we are destined for history to continue to repeat itself, and once again the Church will be perceived as a silent observer in the face of racism. And this would result in a Church appearing to be unwilling to play any vital role in the most tragic social sin our nation has had to face. As we enter deeper into the 21st century, how should the Church in America respond to race in a way that accurately reflects the global tradition of the Church?

What Is Racism?

To effectively address the issue of racism, it is essential that we clearly define what actually makes up racist behavior that is contrary to our faith. To state that Christians are to shun and struggle against racism is intuitively obvious. But to know what is meant by “racism” in American society, is another matter. Part of what makes issues regarding race so difficult to address within the Church is that most Catholics lack an adequate understanding of the depth of racism, its extent, and its true nature.

For example, one of the challenges present in addressing racism is that the terminology used to refer to the various issues that revolve around race is fluid, evolving, contested, and never emotionally neutral. Terms such as “people of color,” “minority,” and even “race” are troublesome terms due to their sometimes varied and ambiguous uses. While these terms make reference to skin color, they refer much more to social groups that find themselves without easy access to the political, economic, or social advantages enjoyed by the majority of the population—in most cases those designated as “white” people. In addition, it is important to note that in regard to the use of the term “minority community” or “minorities,” it is not consistently employed to mean a “numerical” minority, but rather carries the notion of lacking power, privilege, or value.

All of these considerations are important in an attempt to identify racism. To understand our current era of race relations, the persistence of racial inequality, and the actions that need to be taken to address and combat this evil, we must have a deeper understanding of racism and acknowledge the various ways it manifests itself in our society. One of the obvious manifestations of racism is what can be called “conscious” racism. This form of racism focuses on interpersonal behaviors or deliberate actions, performed by either an individual or the collective effort of a relatively small group that intentionally chooses to act in a negative manner towards another of a different race. This form of racism that our society experiences is obviously not a part of God’s plan. In our Sacred Scriptures, we read that the Creator lovingly “created man in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). The human race is rooted in the loving, creative act of God, who made us and called us to be a family, one human family, made in God’s image and likeness. There is no basis to sustain that some are made more in the image of God than others.

Therefore, in whatever form, intolerance of other people because of their race or nationality is the denial of human dignity. One race is not better than another because of the color of their skin or the place of their birth. What makes us equal before God, and what should make us equal in dignity before each other, is that we are all sisters and brothers of one another, because we are all children of the same loving God who brought us into being. Christ Jesus could not have been more direct—if we hope to offer ourselves to God, to live a Christian life in accord with his plan, it cannot be done with disdain or disregard for others in our hearts. Our Lord asserts, “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment . . . and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna” (Matt 5:21–22). The practice of this “conscious” racism denies the basic equality and dignity of all people before God and one another. Although our nation has moved forward in a number of ways against this form of racial discrimination, we are not finished with the work given to us by the Lord to protect and uphold the dignity of each and every person.

In fact, this leads me to move to a more sinister form of racism that I would like to spend the next few minutes identifying. This manifestation of racism is much more complex, difficult to pinpoint, and, unfortunately, has entangled itself into the very fabric of our nation’s social institutions, and in various degrees, crept into some of our beloved Church structures. You see, regardless of how vivid “conscious” racism expresses itself, whether that be blatantly public or concealed in the recesses of one’s heart, it does not explain the persistence of the continuation of our nation’s infatuation with race within our culture. Despite undeniable changes to civil laws and social policies, there remains an underlying dynamic that remains impervious to civil laws, social equity policies, and equal opportunity mandates.

Fr. Bernard Lonergan provides the following definition of culture: “A culture is simply the set of meanings and values that inform the way of life of a community.” Culture, then, denotes a system of meanings and values, communicated in specific forms that conveys and expresses a people’s understanding of life. Stated more succinctly, culture is the set of attitudes toward life, beliefs about reality, and assumptions about the world shared by a community. In this sense, culture is more basic and fundamental than society, social institutions, or social policies and customs. To put this another way, culture provides the ideological foundation for social, political, and economic policies.

Understanding culture as the set of meanings and values that inform a people’s way of life enables us to get beyond individual racism and better understand its insidious tenacity. In the US, racism functions as a culture, that is, a set of shared beliefs and assumptions that undergirds the economic, social, and political disparities experienced by different racial groups. This set of meanings and values provides the ideological foundation for a racialized society, where society’s benefits and burdens are inequitably allotted among the various racial groups. This set of meanings and values not only answers questions about the significance of social patterns, but it also is formative. This racialized culture produces an “unconscious” racism. A society that shapes identity, social consciousness, behavior—and social systems—on the basis of race. Put more simply, because a racialized set of meanings and values permeates all of our socio-cultural products—education, justice systems, health care access, wealth systems, etc.—we learn our cultural “racial code” almost by osmosis. We absorb it tacitly through our everyday process of socialization and learning how to be an “American.”

This occurs so much so that this racial coding functions beneath our conscious awareness. This is why even an institution, like the well-meaning Church, can still appear to be indifferent or silent in the presence of systemic racism. Unconscious racism, then, denotes the influence of a cultural lens by which we have been indoctrinated in unintentional and preconscious ways. This unconscious racism, which results in the social or systemic racism that has permeated our nation, must also be combated and defeated by the works and actions of the Church.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is an excerpt from Motown Evangelization: Sharing the Gospel of Jesus in a Detroit Style (a selection from pages 91-106), courtesy of Wipf and Stock, All Rights Reserved.