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Alessandra HarrisJune 17, 2022
A woman prays during a Black History Month Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in the Jamaica Estates section of Queens, New York City, on Feb. 20, 2022. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)A woman prays during a Black History Month Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in the Jamaica Estates section of Queens, New York City, on Feb. 20, 2022. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)  

This article is part of The Conversation with America Media, offering diverse perspectives on important issues in the life of the church. Read other perspectives on racial and social justice movements here and here.

Anti-Black racism is not a historical phenomenon that ended 60 or 70 years ago. This was made clear by the horrific murder of 10 African-Americans by a white supremacist in Buffalo, N.Y., but Black people are also dying every day because of social and structural racism that has resulted in de facto segregation, second-class citizenship, and continued inequities in wealth and income, the criminal-justice system and health care.

The church’s pro-life advocacy has been widely discussed recently, so it is worth remembering that Pope Francis directly linked anti-racism efforts and pro-life principles two years ago in a reflection during a general audience on the protests in the United States shortly after the murder of George Floyd. “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life,” he declared.

Many Catholics are indeed trying to open the eyes of the American people to the persistence of anti-Black racism. But there are mixed messages from church leaders like José H. Gomez, the archbishop of Los Angeles and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who last year described social justice movements as “pseudo-religions” and “rivals to traditional Christian beliefs.”

Many Catholics are indeed trying to open the eyes of the American people to the persistence of anti-Black racism. But there are mixed messages from church leaders.

Over the past half-century, not only has the church hierarchy failed to prioritize issues affecting the Black community, but it has also taken actions contrary to racial justice. For example, in its opposition to the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the U.S.C.C.B. prioritized its opposition to abortion over the pressing issues facing communities of color, and especially the Black community, which has seen its uninsured population decline by 40 percent since the law was implemented.

It is disillusioning to be a member of a church that does not proclaim loudly that my life as a Black person is as important as that of an unborn baby. Any discussion of abortion should take into account that Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than are white women, and that Black infants have 2.3 times the infant mortality rates of their white counterparts.

The U.S.C.C.B. has only written two pastoral letters on the topic of racism in the last 50 years: “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” in 1979, and “Open Wide Our Hearts,” in 2018. I consider “Open Wide Our Hearts” to be lukewarm; it condemns “violent attacks against police,” but it is not as forceful in naming police violence against citizens or hate crimes committed against communities of color. It is time for the U.S.C.C.B. to write a new pastoral letter on racism that directly confronts white supremacy and Christian nationalism, and tackles head-on the increase in violence and discrimination directed toward Black, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and Latino people.

What else can the church and the faithful do to combat anti-Black racism?

1. Fund evangelization to Black communities

Note that after the 2020 racial reckoning, American corporations pledged $50 billion to aid Black communities, organizations, businesses, banks and schools (though the corporate world may need to be pressured to follow through on these promises). The U.S. Catholic Church, which is planning to spend $28 million on a eucharistic revival, must also commit to evangelize African-Americans by investing in Black Catholic churches and schools—and in particular the only Black Catholic university in the country, Xavier University of Louisiana, which hosts the Institute for Black Catholic Studies.

The U.S. Catholic Church, which is planning to spend $28 million on a eucharistic revival, must also commit to evangelize African-Americans by investing in Black Catholic churches and schools.

2. Make Catholic education affordable for all

Catholic education, which has been shown to be very effective, should not be a prize for the wealthy. Research has shown that Black students in Catholic elementary schools perform better academically than their peers in public schools and are more likely to attend college, but they have also been disproportionately hurt by recent closures of Catholic schools. According to The National Catholic Reporter, Black students made up 7 percent of the total enrollment in Catholic elementary and high schools in 2020 but accounted for 18 percent of the enrollment in schools that were permanently closed that year, the first year of the Covid pandemic. Of the 147 closed schools tracked by the National Catholic Education Association, 34 had “majority-minority” student bodies. And last month, the website Black Catholic Messenger reported that another 10 Catholic schools with significant numbers of Black students have closed since the beginning of 2021.

These numbers are a reminder that financial aid and scholarships must be increased to allow Black students to attend Catholic schools from kindergarten through graduate school. Public schools in predominantly Black communities are often underfunded, and investing in Catholic schools in these communities can have a ripple effect that helps reduce unemployment and underemployment, high school dropout rates, and mass incarceration. Investing in Black people is not charity; it's a form of justice and reparation after generations of racism and unequal treatment of African-Americans by the U.S. church.

Investing in Black people is not charity; it's a form of justice and reparation after generations of racism and unequal treatment of African-Americans by the U.S. church.

3. Restore ministries for Catholic communities of Color

It is also time to restore other important resources for Catholic communities of color. As Ansel Augustine, a Black Catholic with over two decades of ministry experience, wrote in his book, Leveling the Praying Field: Can the Church We Love, Love Us Back: “Over the past several decades we have seen…ministries that served as beacons of hope and evangelization in Black communities being closed. We have seen Offices of Black Catholics around the country being closed or often merged into Offices of Multicultural Ministries…with the Black Catholic needs being merely symbolic or an afterthought.”

Every diocese should re-establish an Office for Black Catholics or Office of Black Ministry. All dioceses, schools and Catholic institutions should also employ a diversity, equity and inclusion officer to ensure all Catholics are represented at the table.

For lay Catholics, there are many ways to support Black Catholic parishes and schools, such as by tithing monthly and supporting Black Catholic organizations like Knights of Peter Claver, Catholics United for Black Lives, Black Catholic Messenger, the National Black Catholic Congress, the National Black Sisters Conference and St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart (also known as the Josephites).

Until the U.S. Catholic Church actively works to end racism and exclusion in all forms, it will continue to lose credibility among its members of color and abdicate its role as a prophetic voice spreading the Gospel message throughout the country and the world.

[Also by Alessandra Harris: “Are racial justice movements straying from Catholic tradition—or are Catholic leaders out of touch?”]

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