The murder of yet another black American at the hands of a police officer haunts the hearts and minds of the country. The protests across the nation make clear the injustice of George Floyd’s killing and its roots in a long national history of racism, including contemporary patterns of police brutality. The violence that has broken out around some of these protests underscores the depth of anger and resentment in our communities. Such violence must be opposed and rejected. At a minimum, such acts detract from the important truth at the heart of these otherwise peaceful protests: Our country has not yet found—or built—the spiritual and practical resources necessary for overcoming racism.
Catholics cannot be content to stand on the sidelines of this struggle. In the face of racism, Catholics must hunger for justice as we hunger for the Eucharist. The Gospel calls us, as we prepare for Communion, to “go first and be reconciled” (Mt 5:24) with our sisters and brothers. At this moment, when the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us the depth of our need for the sacraments and for community, this national outcry should lead Catholics, white Catholics especially, to conversion, repentance and reconciliation.
In the face of racism, Catholics must hunger for justice as we hunger for the Eucharist. The Gospel calls us, as we prepare for Communion, to “go first and be reconciled” (Mt 5:24) with our sisters and brothers.
Catholics are capable of mobilizing and forming consciences on issues of national concern. Examples of such efforts include the Fortnight for Freedom and other campaigns focused on religious liberty, the Catholic Day of Action for Immigrant Children protesting family separation policies at the border and the many ways the church organizes Catholics to work for the protection of the unborn. The resources devoted and public attention given to those efforts should be a yardstick for how far Catholics have to go in committing themselves to working against racism.
We must also ask what will make this moment—responding to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among so many others—different from 2017 or 2015 or 2014 or 1992 or 1968. The need for racial justice is not new, nor are the cries of our black brothers and sisters, tired and angry. But perhaps the Holy Spirit is moving, in these days of Pentecost, to give us the strength to stay the course and work for lasting change. Catholics should be held to account six months from now and a year from now—and for our part at America, we ask to be—for what actions we have taken in response.
Here are five ways to begin.
Perhaps the Holy Spirit is moving, in these days of Pentecost, to give us the strength to stay the course and work for lasting change.
Repentance: The church in the United States has been sadly complicit in the systemic injustices of white racism. (As a Jesuit publication, we must acknowledge our own part in this history: American Jesuits and their institutions owned and sometimes sold enslaved people until 1838.) White Catholics have often ignored and marginalized the voices of Catholics of color calling for the church to listen and respond to the needs of their communities. Catholic institutions have only just begun to acknowledge our part in the history of American racism, from slavery to Jim Crow, from housing segregation to police brutality. This work of memory must continue, it must be public and it must not shrink from hard truths. In order to be the Body of Christ, the church must share in both the suffering and the repentance of all its members.
Solidarity: Catholics do not need to invent new ways to fight racism. There is plenty of work already being done for racial justice. Yet many Catholics seem too timid to listen and collaborate with new movements, such as Black Lives Matter, that are leading today’s charge for justice. Bishops, pastors and lay leaders ought to make overtures to anti-racist activist groups present in their communities. In addition to showing solidarity in the work of organizing, Catholics can also show economic solidarity by supporting black-owned businesses in their own communities and through giving alms to organizations working for racial justice and ministries directly serving black Catholics.
Presence: A previous generation of clergy and religious left us with iconic images of Catholics marching hand in hand with prominent civil rights leaders. Today, when images and videos of protests are shared more quickly and widely than ever, collars and habits have been sparse. Catholics, especially those whose presence and dress visibly symbolizes the church, ought to attend protests in order to demonstrate the church’s commitment.
Formation: To ensure deep, lasting change, Catholics will need to examine the ways we form consciences, especially in the work of education. Those in charge of institutions of formation, from seminaries to grammar schools, should examine curricula to see how the history and present reality of racism are addressed. Students formed by Catholic education should recognize racism both as an intrinsic evil and as a primary manifestation of social sin. The ability both to assess curricula and to educate students regarding these issues necessarily involves the presence of people of color in positions of responsibility and authority.
Catholic groups, starting with the bishops and national organizing networks, down to the local parish, should promote a campaign of prayer for healing from the sins of racism.
Prayer: Prayer is one of the most effective modes of public witness Catholics possess. Catholics are united for various causes by novenas, processions, rosary campaigns and holy hours. It is no accident that these spiritual means, depending more on the grace of God than our own strength, bind us together and announce the Gospel of mercy and justice more effectively than proclamations of moral principles can alone. Catholic groups, starting with the bishops and national organizing networks, and continuing down to the local parish, should promote a campaign of prayer for healing from the sins of racism.
So let us pray: God of justice, give us the courage to admit our sins and failings. Give us the freedom to seek your mercy and reconciliation with our brothers and sisters. And give us the strength to continue crying out to you for the healing of our nation until it fulfills its commitment to recognize that you have created all people equal.