Over the past 20 years, Catholic institutions and leaders have made real efforts toward racial reconciliation. Examples include the U.S. bishops’ anti-racism pastoral letter “Open Wide Our Hearts” in 2018; the formation of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism in 2017; individual statements from church leaders, including Bishop Edward K. Braxton’s 2016 pastoral letter on the Black Lives Matter movement; religious men and women acknowledging their history with slavery, including the Jesuits in 2016 and three orders of nuns in Kentucky in 2000; and the U.S. bishops’ 2001 collection of essays Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself.
“Open Wide Our Hearts” acknowledges the need for U.S. Catholics to fully reckon with the sin of slavery: “The generational effects of slavery, segregation, and the systemic use of violence—including the lynching of more than 4,000 black men, women, and children across 800 different counties throughout the United States between 1877 and 1950—are realities that must be fully recognized and addressed in any process that hopes to combat racism.” The pastoral letter was accompanied by resources to educate Catholics about racism and its effects on education, employment, housing and migration; guides for clergy to lead discussions on race; and educational material for students at all levels.
These efforts are helpful, but the church can do more. And this summer, The New York Times provided a template worth considering.
The U.S. church can create an accurate timeline of its history and relationship with slavery—rather than waiting for the secular media to do it.
The 1619 Project was published to commemorate the 400th anniversary of what many historians believe was the first transport of African slaves to the European colonies that would become the United States. That summer, two English privateer ships attacked Portuguese vessels and captured 20 to 30 enslaved Africans. In August of that year, the White Lion arrived in present-day Virginia, and its crew sold several Africans to the colonists as indentured servants. Eventually, more than 12 million Africans were forcibly transported during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, including about 380,000 who were taken directly to North America. By 1860, the slave population in the United States had grown to four million.
The extensive work by Nikole Hannah-Jones, who spearheaded the project, and other writers, historians, sociologists and photographers traces this history. They argue that no part of American life is untouched by the legacy of slavery, from our prison system to our daily traffic jams (the result, in part, of segregationist housing patterns). In an interview about the project, Ms. Hannah-Jones said that it is for “Americans who are not black, so that they could understand this history and ongoing legacy and really reckon with our true identity as a country and who we really are. I wanted to reframe the way that we see this history and the way that we see ourselves.”
The 1619 Project was published to commemorate the 400th anniversary of what many historians believe was the first transport of African slaves to the European colonies that would become the United States.
Black worshipers have always been part of the Catholic Church in the United States and yet, as Tia Noelle Pratt recently wrote in America, there is often “incredulousness that surrounds the very idea that black people are Catholic.” Rather than serve as a safe space for black Catholics, Ms. Pratt writes that the church has become “a place where [racial] segregation is heightened and perpetuated.” She argues, however, that there is still time for the church to show black Catholics—and all black Americans—that it is committed to racial justice.
One way to do this would be by using the 1619 Project as a teaching moment and as a model for the church’s own efforts toward reconciliation. Here are two ways that can happen.
First, the U.S. church can create an accurate timeline of its history and relationship with slavery. While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops provides great resources, as mentioned above, there is a need to clarify which Catholic institutions had connections to slavery; which bishops or other members of the clergy used enslaved persons as free labor; which Vatican documents were used to condemn or support slavery; and what the official church teaching was on slavery.
In my own research, I have come across history I was unfamiliar with, including the 1452 papal bull by Pope Nicholas V, “Dum Diversas,” that granted Afonso V, the king of Portugal, “full and free power, through the Apostolic authority by this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ,” language that was used by Catholics at that time to justify the institution of slavery. I also found “In supremo apostolatus,” a decree by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839 condemning slavery. Creating and making publicly available an accurate timeline that acknowledges such history would be beneficial to Catholics and better than waiting for the secular media to do it.
Second, the church can conduct a nationwide study asking Catholics how well they understand slavery and whether they believe its effects are still being felt today. An example of what such a study would look like was conducted by The Washington Post in July. The poll surveyed 1,025 U.S. adults and found that 67 percent agree that the legacy of slavery still affects U.S. society today a “great deal” or “fair amount.” The study found that younger Americans were more likely to agree, but it did not include data on religious affiliation. The church could conduct a similar study among U.S. Catholics.
Making this kind of research readily available for Catholics would be a concrete way for church leaders to follow up on the call to action they issued in “Open Wide Our Hearts.” By engaging in historical study like this, the church and its leaders can continue to show their commitment to eradicating racism in the United States and, as Ms. Hannah-Jones said, help to “reframe the way that we see this history and the way that we see ourselves.”