Home Diocesan News Church needs to confront racism, Bishop tells 1st Friday Club
Church needs to confront racism, Bishop tells 1st Friday Club Print E-mail
Written by Pete Sheehan   
Friday, 23 February 2018 15:27

BOARDMAN – Though “the challenge is overwhelming,” Bishop George V. Murry, S.J., told a gathering here Feb. 1, he is hopeful that an initiative he is leading can help “the Church become a consistent and productive voice in eradicating racism.”

Speaking at the monthly First Friday Club luncheon at the Georgetown catering hall here, Bishop Murry, who last year became chairman of the U.S. bishops Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, expressed that hope while detailing the scope of the problem and the Church’s “anemic response” in the past.

The committee will pursue a comprehensive effort to engage the people, parishes, and schools and other institutions of the Church in the United States to work to raise awareness, heal divisions, and to foster unity and communion in Christ.

“We don’t want to issue statements,” Bishop Murry emphasized. “We want to change hearts.”

In discussing the prominence of racism’s role in U.S. history, Bishop Murry noted that through slavery, racism became entrenched in the U.S. society. He also discussed at length the Catholic Church’s complex relationship with the slavery issue.

As Christianity rose in the Roman Empire, the bishop explained, the Church began to see how slavery posed problems “with the Christian concepts of charity and justice.”

Some opposed all slavery but generally there was tolerance for “just” forms of slavery, which were subject to restriction. Slavery over time diminished in Christian Europe, Bishop Murry said, but “with the rise of European imperialism into the African continent, slavery once again came to the fore.”

In 1435 Pope Eugene IV condemned enslavement of indigenous people “who had converted to the faith.” A century later, Pope Paul III raised the standard against slavery by proclaiming that “whoever is endowed with the capability to receive the faith of Christ” should not be “deprived of their liberty.”

In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI “condemned the slave trade in the strongest possible terms.” Though Pope Gregory had hoped that this condemnation would persuade Spain and Portugal to abolish slavery, it was not initially successful.

In the United States, Pope Gregory’s condemnation “at least initiated a debate with the Catholic community,” which had been growing rapidly. Still, in the South, Catholics, including bishops who owned slaves, tended to defend the institution of slavery based on a perception of black inferiority.

“Here it is important to point out that this negative attitude toward blacks in the Catholic community was not unique to the South,” but was predominant among the various immigrant groups in the North.

“Even after the destruction of institutional slavery following the Civil War, there were few white Catholics,” or white Protestants, Bishop Murry pointed out, “who really believed that blacks were equal to whites.”

For the next century such negative attitudes persisted, with some exceptions, such as Daniel Rudd, a black Catholic who published a newspaper and organized the first lay black Catholic Congress, he explained. Most Catholic parishes maintained some form of segregation.

With the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, “there were many Catholic leaders, including bishops, pastors, religious women, and university presidents, who risked their lives to support the cause of racial justice,” but historians see them as the exception.

“For the most part, the Catholic Church and its rank and file members remained on the sideline,” Bishop Murry said, and subsequent decades have seen little change.

“When considering the history of race and the Catholic Church, one cannot help but wonder why in the United States there is so little social consciousness among Catholics regarding racism.”

Globally, the Church has championed human dignity and equality, such as Pope Paul VI calling for “building a human community where men and women can live truly human lives, free from discrimination on account of race, religion or nationality,” the bishop noted.

Though the U.S. bishops issued a pastoral letter against racism in 1979, studies and reviews of the Church’s efforts since then have revealed only scattered efforts to address systematic racism in individual dioceses, Bishop Murry said.

Many diocesan seminaries and ministry formation programs have not adequately addressed the history, culture or tradition of the black community.

“Most disturbing,” Bishop Murry said, white Catholics seem to have “exhibited diminished – rather than increased – support of government policies aimed at curbing racial inequality.”

Against that history, the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism seeks to address “the sin of racism in our society and even in our Church and the urgent need to come together as a nation to find solutions.”

Toward that end, the committee plans an ecumenical gathering of religious leaders this year “to frankly talk about the problem,” Bishop Murry said.

“We likewise will organize a national conversation on race in our parishes, schools, college, universities, seminaries, Catholic Charites organizations, Catholic health organizations, and social service organizations,” he noted.

“That goal will be to listen, educate and change hearts,” Bishop Murry explained, “in the context of the theological concept of shared commitment to community.”

“In imitation of Christ, the Church’s actions and teachings must unite us in an indivisible way, by means of fostering a ‘beloved community,’” Bishop Murry said.

“In imitation of Jesus, we, the Church, must be willing to give over our total lives to the liberation of men and women by defending the dignity and fundamental rights of every human person.”

“Only when the American Catholic Church speaks and lives in truth can she become a Church whose pattern of relationships becomes a sacrament of radical unity in diversity,” the bishop continued.

“To get to that truth we must break the silent complicity with the social evil of racism that has marred the past and continues to mar the present reality.”

“Therefore,” the bishop concluded, “with trust in the Holy Spirit and rooted in the courage of the saints, let us begin to see every human being as created in the image and likeness of God and leave behind attitudes of superiority and fear.”


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