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.”
Let us especially remember those who lost their lives in Charlottesville and join them in standing against every form of oppression. pic.twitter.com/bE2jWcwjxR— US Catholic Bishops (@USCCB) August 13, 2017
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:
We must overcome all forms of racism, of intolerance and of the instrumentalization of the human person.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) July 18, 2017
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.