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The Catholic Church’s Commitment to Counteracting Racism

August 16, AD2017

unity, race, god's childrenAs an African-American Catholic, I revel in the opportunity to share that my father, a convert to the Catholic faith, was initially drawn to Catholicism through the witness of President John F. Kennedy Jr., our first – and, to date, only – Catholic president, who contributed to the setting of the civil rights legislation that were rolled out between the 1950s and 1960s. As were other mainstream Americans, I was stunned and disturbed by the racially motivated violence that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, August 12, 2017. As a full-time high school theology teacher, I made recourse to viewing this matter through the lens of faith and had to examine the situation based on its implications for our fallen, yet admittedly nuanced, human condition.

Protest in Charlottesville, Virginia

To provide an overview of this fateful day (particularly if you live outside of the United States and may be unfamiliar with this event): on August 12, a raucous protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, by a group of white supremacists turned violent. This scenario culminated with a deadly rampage when a driver directed his vehicle into the crowd of counter-protesters who were benignly convened in opposition to manifestations of racism. The driver was quickly taken into police custody. In order to learn more about this incident from a magisterial outlook, there are two statements from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that are worth reading: President of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Calls for Calm Amid Violent Protests in Charlottesville (August 12) and USCCB President and Domestic Justice Chairman Call for Prayer and Unity in Response to Deadly Charlottesville Attack (August 13). Bishop Francis DiLorenzo of the Diocese of Richmond also released this August 12 Statement on Events Occurring in Charlottesville.

Racism in America

There are various layers to this story, and details surrounding the broader circumstances are still being evaluated. However, what can be confidently ascertained from that tragic day is that there is still racism in American society, as unfortunately there has been for much of our complicated and troubled past. Other nations feature such regrettable circumstances that must likewise be remedied. Yet, this piece is not tantamount to any sort of indictment of any particular figure or political system; rather, it is an effort to note that we have “been here before,” so to speak, and Saint Paul’s words are ever new as they form the rhetorical underpinning of equality, properly understood: “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” (Galatians 3:28).

The Catholic Church has been a leader in opposing racism in the modern era. Too often, citizens of various nations look to political and secular leaders alone when it comes to facilitating harmony, peace, and dialogue between those of different ethnic backgrounds. Of course, this personnel has their role to play, but they cannot be expected to do so alone, nor must there be a compulsion for them to be at the fore of this ultimately spiritual matter. We need but look at how the Civil Rights Movement’s flagship figure, a heroic leader in various categories, was Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose writings and speeches (not to mention his sermons) were laced with scriptural allusions and imagery. The Catholic Church has contributed to this broader Christian effort to foment peaceful resolutions to discord over the last few decades especially. In order to continue this substantive endeavor that can only build up the wider culture, there are a few key considerations that the Church must recall the importance of, as well as continue to implement, as we move forward in the twenty-first century. These include the need to read the writings of the Catholic bishops on facilitating racial harmony, to learn more about the Church’s international and multicultural aspects, and most importantly, to look interiorly and deepen our prayer lives.

Read the Writings of the Catholic Bishops on Facilitating Racial Harmony

The Catholic bishops have justifiably devoted a great deal of time and attention over the course of the last few decades in particular to encouraging, promoting, and teaching about peace throughout their respective dioceses. Frequently, this has come from national episcopal conferences or even from papal documents. This is definitely true of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who have written such documents as their 1979 Brothers and Sisters to Us: A Pastoral Letter on Racism and their 1984 ‘What We Have Seen and Heard’: A Pastoral Letter on Evangelization from the Black Bishops of the United States. You can find a web page of resources from the USCCB’s Subcommittee on African-American Affairs, which is under the USCCB’s Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church. In my new book Our Bishops, Heroes for the New Evangelization: Faithful Shepherds and the Promotion of Lay Doctrinal Literacy (Wipf and Stock, 2017), I devoted an entire chapter to “Racial and Ethnic Harmony: Restoring and Promoting Societal Accord.”

Learn More About the Church’s International and Multicultural Aspects

The Catholic Church has a remarkably beautiful tapestry of ethnic and cultural differences that reflect the Church’s diversity without taking away from its “oneness,” not unlike how different members of a nuclear family further the family’s mission in some way. After all, if the Church is Catholic (i.e., “universal”), then it is likewise inherently global in scope. As an example, we have numerous opportunities to learn more about the lives of saints of all different backgrounds – whether of Middle Eastern (let us remember where Jesus and so many holy biblical figures themselves were overwhelmingly from), European, African, Asian, North American, or Latin American… or any combination thereof. Practically every inhabited area of the globe is represented by at least one saint! The Church has an opportunity to highlight how her ethnic diversity reflects her innate vitality: “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). The Catholic faithful would do well to get to know parishioners of varying backgrounds and to listen to their experiences of faith.

 Deepen Our Prayer Lives

We are all works in progress. We need to know the history of the Church because it can be murky as far as relations between those of differing ethnicities is concerned (this is a point that I address in my book Our Bishops, Heroes of the New Evangelization linked above). Before expecting anything of our neighbors, we need to look inward first. Each of us has struggles and the need for ongoing repentance, conversion, and reconciliation. According to our fallen human natures, there are various spiritual defects that we must individually identify and remedy so that God can do his good work in our hearts (cf. 1 Philippians 1:6).

As we look for methods to heal ethnic division, we need to take the time to remember that racism is unnatural. It is not a normal human condition. As a historian, I can attest to the reality that driving wedges between people according to the color of their skin is a relatively new dilemma within human history. Catholics and everyone of good will would do well to see the other foremost as a creation of the Almighty, and therefore, someone who is irreplaceably precious in his sight. After all, we are made in his “image” and “likeness” (Genesis 1:26-27) and can rejoice that we are subsequently “wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). The Church – both individually and institutionally – can take the lead on this challenge-imbued commitment to counteracting racism, in the enduring interest of the kingdom of God.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

A lifelong resident of the Archdiocese of Washington, Justin has taught theology and Spanish at his alma mater (Class of 2000), Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, since 2006. Justin has written on various aspects of the Catholic faith for Aleteia, Ave Maria Press, the Engaging Faith blog at Ave Maria Press, Catholic365, Catholic Exchange, Catholic Stand, the journal Church Life, EpicPew, the journal Human Life Review, the National Catholic Education Association's blog NCEATalk, Our Sunday Visitor, and Wipf and Stock. His books include "Called to Teach: Daily Inspiration for Catholic Educators" (2016, Ave Maria Press) and "Our Bishops, Heroes for the New Evangelization: Faithful Shepherds and the Promotion of Lay Doctrinal Literacy" (2017, Wipf and Stock). Justin is active in pro-life ministries, and serves on the volunteer board of directors for the Forestville Pregnancy Center. Justin holds a B.A. (2004) in Spanish Language in Literature and a B.A. (2004) in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Maryland - College Park, an M.A. (2008) in Spanish Language and Culture from the Universidad de Salamanca, Spain, and an M.A. in International History (2008) from Staffordshire University, England. Justin has studied philosophy and theology at Seton Hall University, and is pursuing a Certificate in Church History from the University of Notre Dame's Satellite Theological Education Program along with an M.A. in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Justin, his wife Bernadette, and their children live in Bowie, Maryland, where they attend Sacred Heart Catholic Church. You can follow Justin on Twitter (@McClainJustin).

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  • Racism has no color boundaries. The term “white privilege” is also racist, as well as “white supremacy”. People who do violence are the violators of human rights. I see hate and violence coming in all shades.

  • ranger01

    Hmmmm, the other half of the Charlottesville violence was given a pass.
    Of course.
    To mention that would not fit the Catholic bishop’s P/C model. But not to worry. The unmentioned street mob in Charlottesville will come for the bishops’ heads in their own good time.
    Bet on it.

    • Guy McClung

      ranger01, for a full discussion of why many believe that the alt-left’s acts of violence are acts of virtue, google “punch a nazi” morality. Guy McClung (wet) TExas

  • Veritas

    I see Cynthia Millen pulled her strings and got BOTH my comments taken down.
    Pathetic but typical.
    There is no Catholic writing of any depth whatsoever on this site, which is why your reader numbers are so ridiculously low.
    An echo chamber of in substantive air-heads in love with the sound of your own voices. The gate is narrow………… A chastisement is coming soon and you lot are piddling about, oblivious to the real substantive issues.
    Our Lady at Fatima didn’t tell the children to feel aggrieved at their poverty and pull down a few statues, she showed them a terrifying vision of Hell ( how abusive of Her) and told them to pray many Rosaries.
    St. Michael the Archangel, do your job and defend the Church of God against Satan.

    • Cynthia Millen

      Veritas,
      I beg your pardon. I had nothing to do with any posts being removed nor would I ever request that a post be removed.

      Apology accepted.

  • Veritas

    Cynthia Millen, columnist at Catholic Stand.
    What might have the intended purpose been of the ” guns, torches, knives, sticks etc.” of the Antifa protesters at Charlotesville, do you think? To scratch themselves with maybe?
    Hopefully, the Holy Cardinal Sarah will be our next Pope – not because he is black but because he is standing up for the true faith of The Church and is a Holy and intelligent man full of substance and not p.c. bs.
    Ad Orientum and true Catholicism. Enough of this apostasy. Well spoken Cardinals Burke and Brandemuller so very recently -bring on the formal correction to save our children in Catholic schools and Catholic families from the false, cowardly religion of “being Mr. Nice guy.”
    Original sin was man thinking he knew best -just like the sjw’s of today.
    Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us.
    Padre Pio, pray for us.

  • Cynthia Millen

    Mr McClain,
    Thank you for your thoughtful and well-balanced essay. As a Catholic Middle School teacher, I have always taken great pride in our Church’s diversity. My own children, and the children I teach, have always had classmates and friends of all nationalities and ethnicities. We have students who speak Arabic, Spanish, Polish, Tagalog, Hindi, and have beautiful faces of every shade. Our Church is truly universal, instituted by our Lord and His Apostles who established the first “parishes” in Africa, India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. In fact, the first recorded baptism by an apostle occurred when Phillip baptized an Ethiopian man. It is so delightful and important for my students to be able to learn about saints who look like them. Our Church is so rich for this reason, and I look forward to an African pope in my lifetime. (I have one in mind already!)

    Just a comment about Charlottesville: It is clear that the white supremacists came to incite violence with their guns, torches, knives, sticks, etc. The best response to people like that is something Mark Twain said: “Never argue with stupid people. They drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”

    Have a great school year!

  • VERITAS

    The author needs to be TRUTHFUL. 8th Commandment. Antifa and their hangers-on are extremely fascistic, and have been allowed to get away with so much organised violence and suppression of free speech throughout presidential campaign and since election. Look at Berkeley. Also look at attempted murder of Scalise and all Reps there. He was not murdered only by the Grace of God. Some Democrats applauded his shooting. Look at all the plays and comedians and newspaper articles that either portrayed the assassination of President Trump or carried articles suggesting ( encouraging) his assassination.
    All the reporting before the actual attack said exactly what President Trump said i.e. That there were people armed and ready for trouble on BOTH sides.
    The basic deceit of your narrative as the left being there peacefully objecting leaves me with no interest in reading further! Shame on you! To lie is wrong. Period. Also, some people WERE objecting to the removal of History!
    You seem to be one of these who identify as “Black” first and Catholic second. In N. Ireland here I walk streets, attend hospitals and government buildings etc named after anti-Catholic oppressors and bigots. Statues and reminders of the same ilk are everywhere. GROW UP AND GET OVER IT. Stop revelling in victim hood.
    Get your Black people to live Catholic lives by men being monogamous and raising their children. Do not murder each other. Be glad when police try to clean areas of drugs and prostitution. If the police here round up drug dealers I’d be delighted and cheer them on – regardless if they were white, Catholic or Protestants! What is wrong with you that every Black person is innocent. Face facts. If life is going to change for African-Americans then THEY need to change it. Some ways of life / cultural practices are unhealthy, so CHANGE THEM. Tearing down a bl***y statue won’t change anything.

  • Ronky

    “The Catholic Church has been a leader in opposing racism in the modern era.” Why restrict it to that only? The Catholic Church has been THE leader in opposing racism for 2000 years.”In Christ there is no Jew or Greek”.

  • Could we love our enemies? Former neo-Nazi, Joseph Pearce, recently wrote, “I recall three separate occasions when I confronted an enemy with hatred and enmity and received in return love and friendship. In each case, the receiving of love when I was expecting hatred sowed seeds of healing in my hate-battered heart.” http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/charlottesville-through-the-eyes-of-an-ex-white-supremacist

  • Maria A.

    We have a golden chance to use this occasion to help persons to be empowered in The Truth and The Spirit , thus to help ward off what might be worse situations such as this –

    http://www.ncregister.com/blog/tito-edwards/sexual-pollution-is-a-scientific-and-destructive-fact-designer-babies-vival
    on the pollution of impurity , the pervasive effects of pornography , the destructive effects of such , even young persons having serious sequels such as erectile dysfunction ( used to get annoyed at the ads for the remedies plopped in , so often even amidst news broadcasts ;
    now know the reasons .)

    Helping persons to be rid off all the lies that keep one from taking in the awesome truth of
    The Incarnation , that The Lord of the universe becomes as tiny as a mustard seed ,
    for little me ..and for you .. having emptied Himself of the glory of heaven ,

    that by renouncing vocally the spirit of lie , that truth would sink in –
    ‘ In The Name of Jesus , I renounce the spirit of lie that
    deny Jesus as The Truth , the Truth that He became Incarnate , for my sake , for your sake .’
    and thanking Him ..

    and let it sink in , so that no other labels come any where near .. He ever increasing ,
    like the mustard seed planted in the field , soon enough covering everything..
    ..even the mountains .

    The Angelic salutation of the Rosary , its blessing of the Incarnation moment , into our hearts –
    may same do for us all , all that it is meant to .

    God bless !

    • Guy McClung

      Maria A-Thank you, Deo Gratias for your inspiration, and Amen. Guy McClung

    • Maria A.

      God bless and thank you too .

  • Guy McClung

    Justin-In 2014 our bishops told us there are two intrinsic evils-racism and abortion. Please learn and write about the theological silence on black genocide and the democrat RETA policy-racial eugenic targeted abortion.

    It is no accident that about 325 African Americans are killed each day in the USA by Planned Parenthood. …
    Breaking the “Theological Silence” on Racially-Targeted Abortion …
    http://www.catholiclane.com/breaking-the-theological-silence-on-racially-targeted-abortion/

    This means that Planned Parenthood -in about three weeks, every three weeks-kills more African Americans than all those lynched in all US history.

    And please read the thoughts of Martin L.K’s niece, Alveeda King, on these subjects.

    Some writers, scholars, and thinkers have made the point that a Catholic with a well-formed conscience who knowingly voted for HR Clinton, knowing her celebrate-abortion promote-abortion position, sinned mortally.

    Guy McClung, Texas

  • captcrisis

    And yet Catholics voted for Trump, who ran the most racist campaign in years. African-Americans like you voted overwhelmingly for Hillary.

    In light of the Charlottesville incident and Trump’s responses to it, I suppose those anti-racist Catholics are surprised. They really shouldn’t be.

    • Caine

      Where does the author say that he voted for Hillary? Trump did not run a racist campaign. It’s not racist for a country to enforce legal immigration and actual borders. As a Catholic who voted for Trump, I think his response was accurate. In case you haven’t noticed, the media has been in an all out war against Trump. They’ll get caught in one lie and immediately move on to the next when they are discovered. The Antifa in Charlottesville need to be held accountable for their actions just as well as the white supremacists who acted out violently.