Cardinal Donald Wuerl issued a new pastoral letter on Wednesday, condemning “the persistent evil of racism” and writing that “the divisive force of this sin continues to be felt across our land and in our society” and remains an obstacle to “the harmony to which we are called as a human family.”
“The mission of reconciliation takes on fresh emphasis today as racism continues to manifest itself in our country, requiring us to strengthen our efforts,” the Washington, D.C., archbishop wrote, citing “incidents both national and closer to home that call attention to the continuing racial tensions in our society.”
The letter, entitled “The Challenge of Racism Today,” is among the most high-profile responses from a Catholic leader to the continued racial unrest affecting the United States. Earlier this summer, a group of right-wing protesters and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, clashing with police and counter-protesters. One person died in the violence. But that was just the latest in a years-long string of race-related violence, which has included a rash of deaths of unarmed African-American man at the hands of white police officers. Earlier this summer, a priest from Virginia even acknowledged that he had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan before he was ordained.
In response to some of those events, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is drafting a new pastoral letter on racism. In August, bishops launched a new ad hoc committee that will consider issues of race, which will be headed by George V. Murry, S.J., the bishop of Youngstown, Ohio, one of a handful of African-American bishops in the United States.
In an interview with America, Cardinal Wuerl said he wrote the letter, in part, as a response to concerns he heard from some Catholics in the archdiocese, including African Americans and Hispanics, that there still exists “subtle racism” and sometimes a "not so subtle" racism in the nation.
He said that he expects “something far more significant” when U.S. bishops publish their collective pastoral letter on race sometime next year, but he said the point of his letter is that everybody must do something to combat the sin of racism.
“We’re asking everybody in this archdiocese to take some responsibility for any marginalization that you see of anybody. Take some personal responsibility for that,” he said. “The only way we could really do that was to step forward ourselves, rather than say, ‘We don’t have to worry about this, somebody else will take care of it.’”
He said the letter is intended to offer spiritual and pastoral guidance and is not meant to be political.
“This is a pastoral letter, an effort to bring spiritual guidance. This is not a response to political issues, not to give some direction politically,” he said. “We have a pastoral problem and there’s a spiritual solution to it.”
In his letter, Cardinal Wuerl writes that Catholics must first admit that racism exists “in a variety of forms” and then agree that there are steps everyone can take to help stop it. He said racism is contrary to God’s plan for humanity.
“The divisions we face today that are based on the color of one’s skin or ethnic background are obviously not a part of God’s plan,” he wrote.
Further, “intolerance of other people because of their race, religion or national origin is ultimately a denial of human dignity. No one is better than another person because of the color of their skin or the place of their birth.”
The cardinal said that racism has affected many groups in the United States, but, he wrote, African Americans have especially been hurt by the lingering effects of “the sin of centuries of human trafficking, enslavement [and] segregation.”
To fight racism, drafting “politically correct statements” is not enough, he wrote, and instead individuals must consider how to “move towards a Church and society where the wounds of racism are healed.”
Racism offends God, he wrote, and it is a “sin against our neighbor, particularly when it is manifested in support of systemic social, economic and political structures of sin.”
Individuals must consider how racism affects their own communities and not assume that it is inevitable.
“We also must be alert to addressing racism wherever we meet it in our communities,” he wrote, noting that people must acknowledge how racism infiltrates housing, the workplace, public education and the criminal justice system.
When it comes to Catholic parishes, he said, Sunday Masses present an opportunity to challenge racism, offering several examples.
“The prayers of the faithful can promote social justice and urge the elimination of racism,” he wrote. “Homilies can deal with the implications of the Christian faith for prejudice and racist behavior. Parishes can provide opportunities and catechetical material for adults to begin a dialogue about how to address the issues raised here. Parish efforts at evangelization ought to welcome and reach out to people of every race, culture and nationality.”
“The elimination of racism may seem too great a task for any one of us or even for the whole Church,” the cardinal writes. “Yet we place our confidence in the Lord.”
“On the journey to that ‘new heaven and new earth,’” he concludes, “we make our way with faith in God’s grace, with hope in our own determination, and above all with love for each other as children of God.”
This article has been updated with an interview with Cardinal Wuerl.
Correction Nov. 7, 2017, 11:57 a.m.: A sentence was rewritten to correct an editing error.