As 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.