While he was growing up in Detroit, Michael Trail’s parish offered him many role models.
His grandfather was a permanent deacon, and the parish where he worshiped, which was predominantly black and Hispanic, had other black people in leadership roles he could look up to. But later, when he left home, he encountered an attitude that said that to be Catholic in the United States means being white.
“It wasn’t until I got older that I realized my experience of church wasn’t universal, and it was a bit of a shock,” he recalled. “But at the same time, I knew that the Catholic Church was my home and that there was nowhere else I was ever going to go.”
When he left home, he encountered an attitude that said that to be Catholic in the United States means being white.
Father Trail, who is now a 27-year-old priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago, said he welcomes voices in the church who condemn racism in the wake of a gathering of white supremacists and members of the “alt-right” movement earlier this month in Charlottesville, Va.
“It’s really important for the church to have a public voice and take a public stand,” he told America. “This affects all of us.”
Part of the church’s response came earlier this week when Catholic bishops announced the formation of a new ad hoc committee to deal with racism in society and in the church, which they said is the highest institutional response available to address current events. They also announced that the first pastoral letter on racism written by U.S. bishops since 1979 will be released next year.
(Just two days before the bishops’ announcement, a priest from the Diocese of Arlington, which covers Charlottesville, announced he had stepped down from ministry after a reporter’s inquiry led him to acknowledge publicly that he had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan before entering the priesthood.)
Of the 70 million or so Catholics living in the United States, about three million are black. Contemporary news stories about the church and race often include photos of white priests and nuns marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But the truth, argues one historian, is that Catholics historically have responded to racism more or less like any other Americans.
“It’s hard to discern a specifically or exclusively Catholic response” to racism, said Andrew Moore, a history professor at Saint Anselm College and author of The South's Tolerable Alien: Roman Catholics in Alabama and Georgia, 1945-1970.
The truth, argues one historian, is that Catholics historically have responded to racism more or less like any other Americans.
Mr. Moore, who is white, told America that Catholics, especially in the South, often mirrored the attitudes of their predominant cultures. This meant that while there were exceptions, Catholic schools and parishes were often just as segregated as public schools and Protestant churches—and that white Catholics often harbored racist attitudes.
“Sometimes bishops were saying truthfully that they were just following the law, that in states like Virginia, it would have been illegal to have integrated schools,” he said. “But overall, a lot of bishops were simply bowing to reality that if they tried to integrate their schools, their white parishioners or parents would send their kids to public school that was white only.”
As American attitudes toward race began evolving following the 1960s, Catholic leaders faced a challenge of what to do with separate black parishes and white parishes. Often, integration was the goal. But sometimes both communities resisted, wanting to preserve their own churches.
And even when parishes were integrated, cordial relationships did not always follow.
“I had people look at me when I reached out my hand in the predominantly white Catholic church I attended growing up who did not want to shake my hand,” recalled Anthea Butler, a professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ms. Butler, who is black, told America that she believes the church’s new anti-racism committee, along with a pastoral letter on racism expected to be published next year, shows that church leaders understand the gravity of the challenge—up to a point.
“There are too many priests who don’t talk about Charlottesville.”
“There are too many priests who don’t talk about Charlottesville, who talk about abortion, same-sex marriage, morality,” she said. “I’d like to see them talk about racism and what’s happening in our country right now with the same fervor they talk about [those] moral issues.”
Clergy and people of faith were on hand in Charlottesville to protest the white supremacists who had marched through the town, but at least one report suggests that Catholic priests were largely absent.
Father Trail finds that troubling. “All clergy have a duty and obligation to stand up for equality, to stand up for the downtrodden,” he said. “We have to reclaim the moral authority to not be afraid to be in the public square and say we’re not going to stand for this. We’re not going to stand for bigotry and hatred and violence, that those go against God’s law.”
As for why there was not a strong Catholic presence in Charlottesville, Mr. Moore, the historian, said that the Catholic clergy marching for civil rights had “joined a movement that was already in progress,” whereas in Charlottesville, “that hasn’t happened yet.”
“We have to reclaim the moral authority to not be afraid to be in the public square and say we’re not going to stand for this."
But, he said, President Trump’s “response to the protests and the reaction to his response may be what is needed to convince many Catholics that there is something to be protested and there is a movement to join.”
And that is where efforts from bishops could play a role in spurring Catholics to action.
Ms. Butler said the coming pastoral letter on racism should be widely distributed, preached on at Masses and taught in Catholic schools.
She praised the bishops for forming the committee, but she said the urgency of the moment could have been better highlighted by putting a cardinal in charge of the committee, which in a hierarchical church sends a strong message.
“On the one hand, having a bishop up there is great, but boy, if we had a cardinal, it’d be even better,” she said.
The anti-racism committee is chaired by George Murry, S.J., one of just a handful of African-American bishops in the United States. Archbishop Wilton Gregory, whose name is sometimes floated by church observers as possibly becoming the first black cardinal from the United States, chaired a working group formed by bishops last year about police-involved shootings that also touched on issues of race. That group’s work wrapped up in November with little fanfare. At the time, Archbishop Gregory urged bishops to expedite its pastoral letter on racism, but it is not expected to be ready until next year.
But Ms. Butler cautioned that people of color cannot be expected to shoulder the entire burden when it comes to facilitating dialogue about racism.
“It seems to be the default, not just with the bishops, that if there’s a problem with race, we should put the person of color, typically a black person, in charge,” she said. “But what they’re doing is exactly the thing that makes the problem in the first place, which is putting the burden on the people of color to do it.”
As for the practical effects following statements and letters, Father Trail said he has been encouraged by the response of some church leaders following Charlottesville, including the one from his own archbishop, Cardinal Blase Cupich.
“For me as a priest to see my own bishop take a very public stand on this, it gives me courage as a priest to take a stand,” he said.
In turn, he hopes Catholics in the pews will consider what role racism plays in their lives.
“Catholics can’t turn a blind eye and act like it’s something that happens over there but not in my small town,” he said. “Racism is an evil, it takes so many different forms. We must continue to be mindful that we’re all part of God’s family and not be afraid to engage and dialogue and enter into someone else’s experience.”