How the Catholic response to Charlottesville moved from pleas for unity to condemnations of racism

White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 11 over a plan to remove the statue of a Confederate general from a city park (CNS photo/Alejandro Alvarez, News2Share via Reuters).  White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 11 over a plan to remove the statue of a Confederate general from a city park (CNS photo/Alejandro Alvarez, News2Share via Reuters). 

The first photos from the Charlottesville white supremacist rally began to appear on social media late on Friday night, surreal images of young white men marching by torchlight to kick off what became a violent weekend of hate culminating in the death of a counterprotester allegedly at the hands of a Nazi sympathizer.

Responses from Catholic leaders began to appear late Saturday afternoon, with many of them initially calling for unity, peace and for both sides to come together. But by Sunday evening, the statements were unequivocal in denouncing white supremacy and neo-Nazism, the ideologies that drove the events in Charlottesville.

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Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo of the Diocese of Richmond, which includes Charlottesville, wrote in a statement on Saturday afternoon: “I pray that those men and women on both sides can talk and seek solutions to their differences respectfully.”

As for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, it released its first statement on Saturday afternoon.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the conference, said he condemned the “violence and hatred” on display in Charlottesville, which he called “an attack on the unity of our nation” and urged “fervent prayer and peaceful action.”

“We also stand ready to work with all people of goodwill for an end to racial violence and for the building of peace in our communities,” he continued, announcing that a working group focused on race and unity would continue its work.

Sentiments like that led to some backlash on social media, with some people pointing out that such statements failed to condemn racism and white supremacy, both considered sins by the Catholic Church. Some Catholics pointed to a 1979 document written by U.S. bishops that begins, “Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church.” (Catholic bishops are currently writing a new pastoral letter on racism that is set to be published later this year.)

On Sunday morning, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia released a statement, which began, “Racism is a poison of the soul.”

By Saturday night, messages from some church leaders became more pointed. Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, for example, tweeted, “When it comes to racism, there is only one side: to stand against it,” seemingly a reference to President Trump’s initial comments on the violence, which have been widely criticized. He condemned the violence “on many sides,” without explicitly condemning the message of white supremacy that animated the rally.

On Sunday morning, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia released a statement, which began, “Racism is a poison of the soul.”

“It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed,” he continued. “Blending it with the Nazi salute, the relic of a regime that murdered millions, compounds the obscenity. Thus the wave of public anger about white nationalist events in Charlottesville this weekend is well warranted. We especially need to pray for those injured in the violence.”

But he also said “we need more than pious public statements.”

“If our anger today is just another mental virus displaced tomorrow by the next distraction or outrage we find in the media, nothing will change,” he continued. “We need to keep the images of Charlottesville alive in our memories. If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others.”

The following day, Sunday, U.S. bishops took the unusual step of releasing a second statement about the same event.

Whereas the first statement did not name the ideology driving the protests in Charlottesville, the second statement was more direct: “We stand against the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazism.”

 

A spokesperson for the U.S.C.C.B. told America that the second statement was released as church leaders learned more about the Charlottesville rally and its aftermath, noting that it was promulgated on a Sunday, a day of prayer. Indeed, the statement continued, “At Mass, let us offer a special prayer of gratitude for the brave souls who sought to protect us from the violent ideology displayed yesterday,” in reference to local clergy and people of faith who demonstrated against the white supremacists.

Come Sunday, priests and deacons had to decide if and how to address the issue.

Audrey Gyolai, a student at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., told America that the priest where she attended Mass preached about Charlottesville during a homily about institutional sin. In addition to the rally, the priest also talked about deportations, highlighting a local case where a woman had been deported by federal agents.

“He did a really good job of tying Charlottesville in and explaining that this is wrong and we as Christians need to reject this,” she said. “It made the homily relevant to real life.”

The Rev. Paul Holmes, a professor at Seton Hall University who teaches preaching and the editor of A Pastor’s Toolbox: Management Skills for Parish Leadership, told America that the topical nature of homilies will vary from priest to priest. But he said that understanding life beyond church walls is essential to delivering effective homilies.

“When people come to Mass, whatever they’re looking for in terms of spiritual comfort and the desire to be in contact with their Lord, they also bring with them their everyday lives,” he said. “If something has happened that every single person is going to be thinking about when they walk into church, it would be odd not to have their priest bring it up.”

For his part, it was not until Mr. Trump addressed the press on Monday afternoon that the president, who has been accused of courting white nationalists during his campaign, said: “Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

Statements and reflections from church leaders continued to be published during the day Monday and U.S. bishops said in an email to America, “You will see communications regarding the response of the Church and ongoing need for prayer, dialogue and reflection in the coming days.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Randal Agostini
3 months 1 week ago

There is something odd, dishonest, about the backlash against the President. We continue to see, at every opportunity, criticism for the sake of criticism. Not once have I heard the President support Neo Nazis, or white supremacists and I have often heard him say that it is our responsibility to provide safety and jobs for black communities.
There is no doubt that differences of opinion were hijacked for violent purposes and yes hatred and racism still exists in America, but that is not a "them" problem, it is an "us" problem. Perpetrating division at the expense of building bridges simply maintains or exacerbates the wound.

Vincent Gaglione
3 months 1 week ago

What is it that you do not recognize in the rather specific and IMMEDIATE criticisms of individuals and certain of the press in which the president engages against those who offend his personal sensibilities? He has no problem calling out people and newspapers and media outlets by NAME.

Yet you do not find it odd that he waited TWO days to DENOUNCE SPECIFICALLY the people who carried Nazi flags, signs proclaiming themselves the KKK, along with signs that were used as part of his election campaign? He is the President of all the people of the United States and his words and reactions are supposed to represent all of us, not solely his own personal sensibilities, which apparently were not so offended until justifiable criticisms of him increased to a crescendo!

J Cosgrove
3 months 1 week ago

Do you want him to call out the Anti fa and Black Lives Matter too to be fair in namining those from all sides? That would have caused a massive reaction by the left.

Vincent Gaglione
3 months 1 week ago

The revised condemnations from the USCCB are welcome.

However, I want to hear from pulpits and bishops that racism is a serious sin, that any support for “Nazi” protesters is a serious sin. We have some Catholics even on this site who find it hard to condemn these hatemongers and the president who winks at their evil with sleight of rhetoric, a mixed metaphor indeed but you know what I mean!

J Cosgrove
3 months 1 week ago

I would hope the condemnation from bishops and the pulpit would point to Democratic Party policies as the cause of the problems in the black community. It is easy to document this where it is impossible to point to Republican or Trump policies for such dysfunction.

So is it the white liberals who are the real racists? Blacks have mostly lived in Democratic Party areas for over 60 years, long enough one would think to see positive results. Something the bishops and America the magazine should explore.

Lisa Weber
3 months 1 week ago

Trump has been blatantly racist and sexist ever since he was campaigning. The Catholic Church failed to condemn that in him then, so the statements of the bishops now are too little, too late. Nice of the bishops to say something, but there is little doubt that they lost a lot of credibility in providing support to this totally unfit, repugnant man during the campaign - when it might have made a difference.

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