The U.S. Catholic bishops meeting this week in Baltimore voted overwhelmingly today to adopt and promulgate a new pastoral letter on racism, the first since 1979’s “Brothers and Sisters Unto Us.” “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love” describes racism as an “ugly cancer [that] still infects our nation.” The letter also condemns the rise of anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment and xenophobia. Other topics such as police brutality, the water crisis in Flint, Mich., mass incarceration, and housing and educational discrimination are also highlighted in the letter. The vote to accept the letter was 241 to three, with one abstention. It is expected to be released by the bishops’ conference on Nov. 14.
U.S. bishops formed a committee last year to address what church officials have described as a resurgence of racism and bigotry in the United States and in the Catholic Church.
“The church offers much to embrace in its history of being proactive in race relations, as well as some sad and harmful actions from the past to reject,” Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, La., who chairs the committee, told America.
Unlike the 1979 pastoral letter, “Open Wide Our Hearts” is much more explicit about the oppression faced by Native Americans, African-Americans and Hispanics throughout history.
The committee worked with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity to draft the new pastoral letter. Unlike the 1979 pastoral letter, “Open Wide Our Hearts” is much more explicit about the oppression faced by Native Americans, African-Americans and Hispanics throughout history. Each group receives their own section and attention is given to the particular oppression each group has faced, including the effects of colonialism on Native Americans and the role of chattel slavery on black Americans.
Bishop Fabre believes that the anti-racism committee and “Open Wide Our Hearts” can play a crucial role in the fight against racism. The new pastoral letter acknowledges that words will not be enough to root out racism in the United States. It states that Catholics must acknowledge their own sinfulness and the ways they have been complicit in the evil of racism. Catholics, the letter continues, must educate themselves and work toward dismantling systemic forms of oppression because racism goes against human life and dignity. It states that the church must be as outspoken against racism as it is against abortion, assisted suicide and the death penalty.
In a statement following the approval of the pastoral letter, Bishop Fabre stated, “The entire body of bishops felt the need to address the topic of racism, once again, after witnessing the deterioration of the public discourse, and episodes of violence and animosity with racial and xenophobic overtones, that have re-emerged in American society.”
Much of the discussion of the letter before the vote was laudatory, thanking the creators for their work because of what several bishops said is a rise in racist views being expressed in public.
“The church offers much to embrace in its history of being proactive in race relations, as well as some sad and harmful actions from the past to reject."
There was some back-and-forth during the amendment process, particularly around controversial issues such as the Confederate flag and the role of police in society.
Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock proposed adding a condemnation of signs of hatred, a category in which he included nooses, swastikas and the Confederate flag. But the committee rejected the amendment, writing, “Nooses and swastikas are widely recognized signs of hatred. While for many the Confederate flag is also a sign of hatred and segregation, some still claim it as a sign of heritage.”
Another proposed modification involved inserting a line in praise of “the vast majority of law enforcement officers who risk their own lives to protect all Americans of all races and ethnic backgrounds.”
The drafting committee rejected that line but approved the insertion of language that condemns“ rhetoric that belittles and de-humanizes law enforcement personnel who labor to keep our communities safe. We condemn violent attacks against police.”
Bishop John Stowe, who heads the Diocese of Lexington, said before the vote that he appreciated the timeliness of the letter because some Catholic media employ language that is disparaging of diversity.
During the meeting, bishops also voted to advance the sainthood cause of Sister Thea Bowman, the granddaughter of slaves and the first African-American member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who transcended racism in the United States in the late 20th century.
Sister Bowman was the first African-American religious sister from Canton, Miss., the first to head an office of intercultural awareness and the first African-American woman to address the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Speaking before the vote, Cardinal Seán O’Malley said of Sister Bowman, “Her life touched the lives of so many people,” adding that Catholics in the Virgin Islands, where he served as a bishop, “revere” her.
Material from Catholic News Service was used in this report.