In the wake of Charlottesville, U.S. Catholic bishops form new anti-racism task force

Counterprotesters hold signs and chant at the Statehouse before a planned "Free Speech" rally by conservative organizers begin on the adjacent Boston Common, Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer) Counterprotesters hold signs and chant at the Statehouse before a planned "Free Speech" rally by conservative organizers begin on the adjacent Boston Common, Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

In the wake of a rally led by white supremacists that rocked Charlottesville and engulfed President Trump in a race-related controversy, Catholic bishops in the United States announced the creation of a new task force to address racism—in both the nation and in the church.

“Recent events have exposed the extent to which the sin of racism continues to inflict our nation,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement released Wednesday morning.

During a call with reporters on Wednesday morning, George Murry, S.J., the chair of the new committee and the bishop of Youngstown, Ohio, said: “For too long, the sin of racism has lived and thrived in our communities and even in some of our churches. For those who have been watching, even with passing interest, it should be plain to see why we need a concerted effort at this moment.”

“For too long, the sin of racism has lived and thrived in our communities and even in some of our churches.”

Bishop Murry, one of a handful of African-American bishops in the United States, said he hopes to hold national and regional meetings about racism and he noted that an ad hoc committee is the “highest structural response possible” from U.S. bishops. Other ad hoc committees in recent years have addressed religious liberty and marriage.

“Recent events in Charlottesville are yet another reminder of what can be traced back to the original sin of the United States: racism,” Bishop Murry told reporters. “In recent years, our divisions have worsened, hatred is more evident and becoming more mainstream.”

“It has targeted African-Americans other people of color, Jewish people, immigrants and others,” and bishops will seek to collaborate with leaders from other faith communities as part of their work, he said.

“Recent events in Charlottesville are yet another reminder of what can be traced back to the original sin of the United States: racism.”

In the press release, Cardinal DiNardo said the committee will be “wholly dedicated to engaging the Church and our society to work together in unity to challenge the sin of racism, to listen to persons who are suffering under this sin, and to come together in the love of Christ to know one another as brothers and sisters.”

“I look forward to working with my brother bishops as well as communities across the United States to listen to the needs of individuals who have suffered under the sin of racism and together find solutions to this epidemic of hate that has plagued our nation for far too long,” Bishop Murry said in the statement.  

On Aug. 12, a group of neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville, Va., for a rally that turned violent when a driver allegedly with white supremacist leanings drove a car into a group of counterprotesters and killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer. President Trump responded to the violence by blaming “many sides,” a comment that drew criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike. (Mr. Trump defended his response to the Charlottesville rally during a speech in Phoenix on Tuesday night that lasted well over an hour.)

For their part, Catholic bishops took the unusual step of issuing two statements in response to Charlottesville in the hours after the rally took place.

The first statement, released the day of the protest, condemned “racial violence” and called for unity. On Sunday, bishops released a second statement, which was more direct: “We stand against the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazism.”

Many individual bishops released statements of their own condemning racism following the rally, with the latest coming from Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago by way of a column published on Monday by Chicago Catholic.

“Racism is our country’s original sin, a wound that forever requires tending,” wrote the cardinal, who had urged priests in the archdiocese to preach about racism during Masses last weekend. “There can be no equivocating. Racism is a sin. White supremacy is a sin. Neo-Nazism is a sin.”

The ad hoc committee, whose first meeting is expected “very shortly,” is the latest attempt by bishops to address race-related issues in the United States.

“There can be no equivocating. Racism is a sin. White supremacy is a sin. Neo-Nazism is a sin.”

Following Charlottesville, a debate emerged about whether statues honoring figures from the Confederacy should remain in public spaces. Bishop Murry said he believed the decision should be left to local governments and instead of weighing in on statues specifically, he said the committee would examine “the underlying issues of what the statues represent and the message that the various statues send.”

Wilton D. Gregory, the first African-American bishop to serve as president of the conference, chaired a special task force last year to address an outburst of violence throughout the country, including various police shootings of unarmed black men as well as lethal attacks on police officers.

The group led a national day of prayer, held on Sept. 9, and it presented a report to bishops in November, shortly after Donald J. Trump’s election as president. Archbishop Gregory urged his fellow bishops during their fall meeting to move quickly on addressing racism, saying, “The church is uniquely situated to bring people together in honest dialogue to foster healing.”

“As bishops we must recognize the significance of this moment and work with the faithful and affected communities for lasting peace,” he said on Nov. 15.

The Catholic Church teaches that racism is a sin.

“Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church,” reads a 1979 pastoral letter written by U.S. bishops, and Pope Francis tweeted about racism just last month:

Last year, bishops announced that they were drafting a new pastoral letter on racism, which Wednesday’s press release said is expected to be released in 2018.

For his part, Bishop Murry said Americans “are called to be a better people than what we have witnessed over the past weeks and months as a nation.”

“Through listening, prayer and meaningful collaboration,” he continued, “I’m hopeful we can find lasting solutions and common ground where racism will no longer find a place in our hearts or in our society.”

As for how the task force will promulgate its message, Bishop Murry said it will work with parishes, Catholic schools and charities to preach against racism and advocate against civil policies that perpetuate racism.

“Statements and acts of solidarity continue to be very important, but they must be accompanied by action, especially now,” he said.

This story was updated on Aug. 23 at 11:48 a.m. following a news conference with Bishop Murry.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
1 month ago

Will the bishops and America the magazine try to examine the dysfunction in the Black community and the real causes of the problems?

I doubt it. The answers would be too uncomfortable and point the sin of racism at the accusers instead of those they want to accuse. It certainly is not Republicans and it certainly is not a minuscule number of malevolent souls no matter how hateful their beliefs, actions and rhetoric are. It certainly is not statues or the names on plaques and it certainly is not police activity.

There will be no solution till the truth is addressed. Everything we are seeing is virtue signalling in order to look good not really do anything and just score political points.

Is this hypocrisy the real sin of racism?

Hanna Sarah
1 month ago

You may notice in the prompt before the comment section a request that commenters "be charitable." Your sweeping claim of "dysfunction in the Black community" strikes me as deeply uncharitable. It sounds like you are making the claim that systemic injustice doesn't exist, and I wish you would be charitable enough to heed the arguments of people who say they are suffering from it.

J Cosgrove
1 month ago

It sounds like you are making the claim that systemic injustice doesn't exist, and I wish you would be charitable enough to heed the arguments of people who say they are suffering from it

Just the opposite of what you imply. A high percentage of blacks suffer a substantial disadvantage because of their social and economic environment. I've said this for years. This has led to a myriad of problems in the Black community.

The question is what is the cause of these disadvantages? No one wants to address it. That is the real racism not some small group of Neo Nazis who have almost no affect on the black community. If one does not address the actual problems, one will never solve the problems.

We have a large community with severe problems and the authors and editors here address completely irrelevant issues. Why?

Charlottesville is a diversion for political purposes not because those hyping it care for blacks and want to make their life better. It is all about getting Trump. And it is reckless and dangerous for.country.

James Haraldson
4 weeks 1 day ago

The editors will never address it because they've been embracing the sort of false Christianity that idolizes government as savior and all the left wing groups that promote government as savior for decades, even if it means being in league with mass murdering pro-aborts. For left-wing Catholics economic opportunity is not within their concept of "social justice," only continuous enslavement to government dependency so they can feel good about themselves for caring without even having to get off the couch. They would sooner link arms with the pro-aborts who spit on Catholics giving real Christian aid to women in crisis pregnancies at abortuaries than join Catholics making sacrifices for these troubled women.

Michael Barberi
1 month ago

In this article the bishops call racism "a sin" and it can traced back to the "original sin of the U.S.".

If the bishops are calling "the sin of racism" things like bigotry, violence and groups that promote hatred like the KKK, White Supremacists and the Neo-Nazis, then I would say the bishops are preaching to the Catholic choir. In fact, most Christians, Jews and other Americans condemn racism and all of its forms.

However, if the bishops are defining the sin of racism differently, from the occasional inappropriateness of language and thoughts as well as some voluntary exterior actions with a bad intention that can be interpreted as 'racist', then they need to give us details and examples. After all, how can Catholics examine their consciences if they don't have explicit and understandable guidelines and that includes some form of criteria to help us categorize our so-called sin as either mortal or venial. These questions are obvious to me, but maybe I am missing the point of this article.

As to the comment that racism can be traced back to the 'original sin of America', this may be true but it does not give us any context. Is such a comment referring to slavery and its aftermath in the U.S? If so, then the bishops know full well that slavery existed in ancient times and was pronounced as licit by Popes and Councils for centuries. In fact as recent as 1866 the Holy Office (now the CDF) clearly stated that it was morally permissible to buy, hold and sell slaves. It can be argued that the Catholic Church in some ways cleared a moral path for the continuation of various forms of slavery up to about 1891.

If we dismiss Catholic history, I will agree that racism exists in the U.S. in 2017. However, what is the prevalence in the U.S. and among the Catholic and Christian population? Even if racism exist in 1% of the U.S. population it should be condemned. I get it. However, this article and the USCCB ad hoc committee on racism needs to make this problem clearer to Catholics.

One last point. The bishops must recognize that in the U.S. most of our ancestors immigrated to the U.S. many years after 1865. For my family who were Italian, they immigrated between 1887 and 1903. During this time, Italian-Americans were hated and discriminated against. Some of my family had to change their surname from Barbieri to Barber to fit in. This discrimination also impacted the Irish, Jews and Chinese during the period 1850-1900. However, let's face it, we have come a very long way from the mid to late 1800s. My point is this: most of our ancestors were not part of this so-called 'original sin of racism' that the bishops seem to be referring to. They may not have suffered from the ills of slavery as most African-Americans did, but they were not supporters of it and in many ways they were victims themselves of hatred and discrimination based on their race and ethnicity.

If the Bishops what Catholics, and all Americans, to condemn racism in all its forms, I wholeheartedly agree. However, I ask the bishops for a more precise definition and context for the 'sin of racism' and how they expect us all to resolve this problem other than a call to love God with all our heart, soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Chuck Kotlarz
1 month ago

Government is the problem, media is the enemy, climate science is unproven, regulation is bad, etc. Is the Catholic church next on the list? Yes, perhaps, based on posts above.

Vincent Gaglione
1 month ago

During the period of time of the Charlottesville encounters, I heard no comments about racism, hate speech, and virulent nationalism in any of the homilies at the Masses that I attended. I was dumbfounded at the lack of moral clarity coming from my parish church.

My disappointment and cynicism was somewhat assuaged by a friend. At her parish church, after the homily, the priest challenged the congregation about racism. He told them that if anyone harbored racist thoughts, beliefs, and actions, that they did not belong as a member of the parish and the Church. And that they should leave now if those were their attitudes.

Some of the comments here I find to be extremely provocative, yet very instructive. The issues of racism, hate speech, and virulent nationalism are not issues that I learned about as moral issues in my catechism lessons, in my Catholic school religion classes, or in most homilies that I’ve heard weekly in my 65 years of regularly attending Masses. Apparently some of the folks here never heard those issues posited as sins either.

We need the “anti-racism” commission set up by the nation’s bishops less than we need the nation’s bishops, from their “ex cathedra” pulpits, proclaim clearly to their dioceses that racism, hate speech, and virulent nationalism are serious sins, deserving of confessing. And we need them to instruct their priests to do likewise. And we need them to instruct their religion teachers to do likewise.

And, now, to be provocative as well, let me suggest that the USA flag be removed from the altars and interiors of Catholic churches in the United States. We do not worship in a USA church. We worship in a Roman Catholic church which proclaims its catholicity in the Creed every Sunday, not allegiance to any nation. It seems to me the prominently displayed USA flags blur the issues for too many of our attendees.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

A group of lay theologians and clergy opposed “Amoris Laetitia” have released a letter “correcting” Pope Francis, part of an ongoing effort directed against the pope’s focus on pastoral outreach to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
America StaffSeptember 23, 2017

The martyrdom of Blessed Stanley Francis Rother "fills us with sadness but also gives us joy to see the kindness, generosity and courage of a great man of faith," Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints' Causes, said Sept. 23 in Oklahoma City.

Catholic News ServiceSeptember 23, 2017
Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, the archbishop of Dhaka, has described the recent attack on the Rohingya community in Myanmar, as “a crime against humanity.”
Gerard O'ConnellSeptember 23, 2017
This year the Grand Bargain on refugees seems increasingly fragile.
Kevin ClarkeSeptember 22, 2017