Fifty years since the U.S. civil rights movement, racism, sexism, discrimination based on sexual orientation and a host of other societal challenges “continue to hold us captive,” Archbishop Wilton Gregory told a group of U.S. priests gathered in Chicago on April 26.
The Atlanta archbishop, who is a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that “many collective social injustices have not greatly improved over the past half-century and in some situations, a few may have even grown worse.”
Among the persistent ills that must be addressed, he said, is racism, which he described as “more subtle perhaps” today than in generations past but “no less degrading,” as well as “unabashed economic injustice from which certain classes can never fully escape.” He said criminal justice challenges remain, noting that U.S. prisons are “overflowing with inmates disproportionately representing people of color” and said body cameras worn by some police officers reveal occasional “violence against unarmed people much like that which others suffered in 1968.”
“Many collective social injustices have not greatly improved over the past half-century and in some situations, a few may have even grown worse.”
Compounding those challenges, he said, over the past 50 years people have developed new ways to discriminate, including “wage discrimination” based on gender and “the brutality that an individual’s sexual orientation often fosters and justifies.” He also lamented “the current wave of nativism that throughout U.S. history has constantly managed to change its attire but not its vitriol.”
Though he focused on many forms of discrimination during his talk, Archbishop Gregory, perhaps the most high-profile member of a small group of U.S. Catholic bishops who are African-American (none has ever been made a cardinal), spent much of his talk condemning racism and lauding those who stood against recent white supremacy rallies that went largely unnoticed in the national media.
“The names and the voices of yesterday’s racists have changed, but not their message,” he said.
He highlighted a neo-Nazi rally near Atlanta last weekend, during which about two dozen white supremacists gathered to protest illegal immigration and the removal of confederate monuments. Following that rally, another took place in a nearby town, where demonstrators burned a swastika and raised their arms in a Nazi salute.
A number of Catholic bishops have highlighted racism as a societal ill in need of attention in recent years.
“Hatred and bigotry always seem to manage to transition into a new environment with their venom undiluted,” the archbishop said. “Fortunately, there are still people of faith and courage who confront such hatred,” he said, lauding counter-protesters who “stood strong together” against “racial animosity and fanaticism.”
A number of Catholic bishops have highlighted racism as a societal ill in need of attention in recent years. Following the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Va., last summer, the U.S.C.C.B. formed an ad hoc committee meant to address racism. A pastoral letter on racism, the first since 1979, is expected to be voted on by the full body of bishops in November.
Archbishop Gregory was speaking in his native Chicago—he was made a bishop under the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin—at a meeting of the National Federation of Priests Councils, an organization formed to foster collegiality among U.S. priests that is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Addressing the 100 or so priests present, Archbishop Gregory said priests ministering in the United States today must strive both to welcome international clergy who may not share their culture and collaborate effectively with lay people, particularly women, who “energize parish life.” He also called on seminaries to “better prepare our candidates to witness to the Gospel mandates of charity and justice.”
In an interview with America following his talk, the archbishop said racism and nativism has managed to “metastasize” in every generation and that they must be confronted anew—no matter how much progress was seemingly made by “giants” in other eras.
“We may have fooled ourselves to think we have solved this sin 50 years ago, but every generation has to confront it,” he said. “It’s never completely conquered no matter how great the figures who rise up in a certain society.”
He said social media is something of a mixed blessing, allowing injustices to come to light but also inundating people with information and “giving us the impression that no progress has ever been made because we’re constantly being exposed” to continued challenges.
During this talk, he said priests must not fear acting boldly when it comes to fighting injustice, noting that Catholic leaders active in previous struggles were seen “as mavericks and rebels because they were brave enough to speak up and challenge the prevailing systems and structures.” He added that they “often stood alone or felt isolated in their courageous witness against social injustices.”
Church leaders must “stand behind” social justice activists today, he said, who “should never doubt our support and admiration.”