by Mary T. Yelenick
In November of 2018, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts”. Many had hoped that this long-awaited document 1 would be an improvement over the bishops’ decades-earlier, 1983 pastoral on racism, “Brothers and Sisters To Us,” whose curious title itself reflected the racial chasm existing between Black Catholics and their white counterparts. (For if People of Color were “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” who were the “Us”? White people, presumably.)
Yet while credit is due the bishops for attempting again to address the scourge of racism, the 2018 pastoral letter reflects little improvement over the 1983 letter. It does not acknowledge, address, or seek atonement for the unique role of the Catholic Church in perpetuating and practicing racism. It does not include, overtly, the voices of People of Color. It does not even address the “truth . . . that the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have been complicit in the evil of racism” until two-thirds of the way through the document – with that discussion being only three paragraphs in length.
Nor does the 2018 pastoral letter include any mention of “white privilege”; yet, it is whites who are responsible for the ravages of racism. It is whites who have historically controlled the Catholic Church. And it is whites who are the only racial group in this country who, on a daily basis, are exempted from coping with the consequences of the racial category to which they have been assigned by whites. To pretend to speak of the effects on one group by another group – and yet not to mention that other group – itself bespeaks entrenched white privilege. 2 And it is that reality that we – and the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Bishops – must honestly acknowledge, and work to dismantle. 3
The document reads as though stitched together by multiple factions, each struggling to assert a different view of the meaning, significance, and relevance of racism. It seems a mishmash of disparate strands of theology, selective history, partisan politics, and denial. One particularly jarring paragraph, which opens with a criticism of the “killing of unarmed African Americans by law enforcement officials,” veers suddenly into a “condemn[ation of] violent attacks against the police.”
I was reminded, when reading the pastoral letter, of how we humans often hide behind lofty rhetoric to avoid dealing with uncomfortable truths. Most of the early portion of the document—while acknowledging somewhat off-handedly that “even churches” (p. 4) have engaged in racist practices—focuses on mistreatment of People of Color by other people and institutions. It is heavy with scriptural references (spanning the Old and New Testaments, the story of Cain, the Book of Genesis, Original Sin, Eden, and a Triune God). One might have thought that Jesus’ command to “love one another” might have been sufficient Scriptural basis upon which to construct a pastoral letter against racism. But then one might have had to spend more time filling its pages with an honest discussion of the Catholic Church and racism.
Where the Catholic Church is discussed, it is often in the context of what the bishops believe the Church “did right,” with Catholic missionaries described as having “heroically defended Native Americans as they sought to bring the Good News of Christ to many who had yet to hear it” (id. at 12). While there is an acknowledgment that “[m]any, but certainly not all, Native peoples accepted the Gospel willingly” (id.), there is no telling of the story from the point of view of Native Americans – some of whom, after all, are Catholics, and whose personal and historical viewpoints might have been quite instructive. And while the document acknowledges that “acts done [by the Church] in the power of Christ’s Spirit” were “overshadowed by the devastation caused by policies of expansion and manifest destiny, fueled by racist attitudes, that led to the near eradication of Native American peoples and their cultures” (id.), there is little honest discussion of the multitude of specific doctrines, policies, and practices of the Church itself that contributed to the genocide of native peoples.
Similarly, while the pastoral letter purports to describe the “African American Experience” (id. at 13), the views of African Americans themselves on that issue are not articulated. While acknowledging that “African Americans have been branded by individuals, society, and even, at times, by members of the Church, with the message that they are inferior” (id. at p. 14 (emphasis added)), the drafters hurriedly divert the spotlight to Catholic religious communities and individuals who “worked tirelessly against the prevailing current of racism to share the Catholic faith with persons of African descent” (id. at 14). Such “whitewashing,” in all its connotations, crowds out the realities of history in an effort to pat oneself on the back.
And while the pastoral letter describes discriminatory treatment suffered by “Hispanics” in employment, income, pay, treatment, and through “immigration raids and mass deportation” (id. at. 16), there is no discussion of the experience of Latinx people vis-à-vis the Catholic Church. While there are a number of prominent African-American and Latinx theologians who have done extensive writing on issues of racism in the Catholic Church, it is hard to detect their scholarship, or their voices, in this document. To the extent their voices were not solicited or included, or their insights suppressed, the document will necessarily remain unrepresentative, unfinished, and unhelpful.
A critical section entitled “Acknowledging Sin” is only three paragraphs long – and doesn’t appear until quite late in the document (id. at 21-22). It admits, in abbreviated fashion, that “the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have been complicit in the evil of racism” (p. 21) and that a 1452 Papal Bull “granted apostolic permission for the kings of Spain and Portugal to buy and sell Africans, setting the stage for the slave trade” (id. at 21). While the document does acknowledge other “ways that racism has permeated the life of the Church and persists to a degree event today” (pp. 21-22), it does not identify current manifestations of racism in the Church (such as the continuing segregation of places of worship; the steady abandonment by dioceses of parishes whose congregations comprise largely People of Color, in favor of wealthier, white parishes; the painful formation experiences of Catholic priests and sisters who are People of Color; and other examples of yet- unacknowledged lingering issues of racism). And while the bishops do “ask for forgiveness from all who have been harmed by these sins committed in the past or in the present” (id. at 22), they urge “all” to “take responsibility for correcting the injustices of racism and healing the harms” (id. at 23). They then charge an “Ad Hoc Committee” with the task of “implement[ing] the vision of this pastoral letter” (id. at 24).
My overarching reaction to this disappointing document was a fervent wish that each member of the USCCB – and every Catholic – would read “The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, & Religious Diversity in America” (Orbis Books 2017) by Professor Jeannine Hill Fletcher of Fordham University. That book, and others (including the work of Fr. Bryan Massingale, and “Interrupting White Privilege: Catholic Theologians Break the Silence” (Edited by Cassidy & Mukulich (Orbis 2007)) – far more than does this pastoral letter – courageously explore the unvarnished story of racism and the Catholic Church. And it is only in learning and acknowledging that unsettling history that we as Catholics can begin the process of racial honesty and expiation of our sin of racism.
Mary Yelenick is a member of the Pax Christi USA Anti-Racism Team, as well as a member of Pax Christi International’s NGO team at the United Nations and a new member of their Board.
Article originally published in Kerux, The Newsletter of Pax Christi Metro New York, Fall 2019 Number 121.
1. As Catholic theologian Fr. Bryan Massingale notes in his landmark book, “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church” (Orbis 2010), at p. 43, “[p]erhaps the most remarkable thing to note concerning U.S. Catholic social teaching on racism is how little there is to note.”
2. For an illuminating look at this reality, see “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo (Beacon Press 2018).
3. See the excellent article by Franciscan friar Daniel P. Horan, appearing in NCR on February 20, 2019, at: https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/faith-seeking-understanding/bishops-letter-fails-recognize-racism-white-problem.