In their 1979 statement Brothers and Sisters to Us, the Catholic bishops of the United States did not hesitate to label racism “a sin” and a violation of “the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.”
Racism can be called our nation’s own specific “original sin.” The existence of slavery cast the shadow of hypocrisy over the otherwise noble proclamation of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in our Declaration of Independence. The greatest number of Americans killed in war to this day was during the Civil War, which had the conflict over slavery at its roots. For generations our political life was distorted by the influence of public officials whose foremost goal was to preserve the essence if not the form of slavery in a segregated and discriminatory social system.
Race and the Church in the United States
The bishops who declared racism a sin in 1979 did so in full knowledge that racism was a plague not merely in society at large but had even invaded the church, which too often conformed to the prejudices of society in its own interior life. Happily, in the decades before the statement was issued, numerous Catholics, including clergy and religious, gave witness to their awareness of the evil of racism by participating in the civil rights movement. Through words and actions, these men and women helped focus the nation’s attention on the discrimination and segregation that was allowed to flourish in our midst and on the personal and social devastation which these practices inflicted on so many of our fellow citizens.
In the early 1960’s one bishop, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans, excommunicated outspoken opponents of his plans to desegregate the archdiocesan schools, including a powerful local politician. In this he received the support of the Holy See whose spokesman, as reported by The New York Times, said that “any Catholic unwilling to admit the fundamental equality of all human beings...proclaims that he is not a Catholic.”
All the clergy, religious and laypeople who joined Martin Luther King Jr. and the other leaders of this great movement shared the hope that American society could and would overcome this evil.
As we draw near an election day on which one of the major party candidates for president is for the first time a person of African-American ancestry, we should be able to do so with a sense that whatever the outcome, America has crossed another threshold in healing the wounds that racism has inflicted on our nation’s body politic for our entire history. However, in view of recent media reports regarding race-based voting, this potentially healing moment could turn into the infliction of one more wound if racism appears to determine the outcome. Because of that menacing possibility, it is worth recalling for Catholics and all Americans the central affirmation of Brothers and Sisters to Us: racism is a sin.
A Renewed Commitment
Last November the bishops issued Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the most recent of the documents we issue every four years during the teachable moment of our most important national elections to acquaint Catholics with their responsibilities in the forum of public policy. In that document we spoke of the things we must never do as individuals or a society because they are always incompatible with the love of God and neighbor. We cite the taking of innocent human life as one example of such intrinsically evil actions. Racism is another.
In any election people have many reasons to support one candidate or to oppose another. Some of these reasons may be wise and good, some not so good, and others simply wrong. The promotion neither of abortion nor racism can ever be a motivation for one’s vote. Voting for a candidate solely because of that candidate’s support for abortion or against him or her solely on the basis of his or her race is to promote an intrinsic evil. To do so consciously is indeed sinful. That is behavior incompatible with being a Christian. To allow racism to reign in our hearts and to determine our choice in this solemn moment for our nation is to cooperate with one of the great evils that has afflicted our society. In the words of Brothers and Sisters to Us, “It mocks the words of Jesus, ‘Treat others the way you would have them treat you.’”Blase Cupich