“As bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States, we want to address one particularly destructive and persistent form of evil. Despite many promising strides made in our country, racism still infects our nation.” These are the opening lines of the directive: “Open wide our hearts: the enduring call to love. A pastoral letter against racism”, approved by the Bishops’ Conference during their fall general meeting with 241 votes in favour, 3 against and 1 abstention.
The 32-page document features a biblical and social analysis on racism, highlighting a number of episodes of racism against communities present in the Country since its foundation and against others that arrived and settled down in the recent past. Some paragraphs are devoted to Native Americans who were forced to leave their lands and were forcibly relocated to reservations. Several pages are dedicated to African Americans, to their experience of slavery and the progress of the civil right movement led by Martin Luther King, including the many charisms and Blessed born in these situations of marginalization. A special section focuses on the experience of the Hispanics “who have experienced discrimination in housing, employment, healthcare, and education.”
The document underlines that there have been over 550 documented cases of Hispanics being lynched, and that they are the major target of mass deportation.
“These examples – the bishops remark in their letter – demonstrate how, as a nation, we have not spent the necessary time to examine where the racist attitudes of yesterday
have become a permanent part of our perceptions, practices, and policies of today.”
In presenting the document, Mons. Shelton J. Fabre, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, Cultural Diversity’s African American Affairs Chair, declared: “after witnessing the deterioration of the public discourse, and episodes of violence and animosity with racial and xenophobic overtones, that have re-emerged in American society in the last few years”, the bishops could not remain silent.
“Pastoral letters from the full body of bishops are rare, few and far between – he went on -. But at key moments in history, the bishops have come together for important pronouncements, offering a Christian response, full of hope, to the problems of our time.
This is such a time.”
In the letter the bishops affirm: “Racism arises when—either consciously or unconsciously—a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior, and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and unworthy of equal regard.” The letter specifies that “when this conviction or attitude leads individuals or groups to exclude, ridicule, mistreat, or unjustly discriminate against persons on the basis of their race or ethnicity, it is sinful. Racist acts are sinful because they violate justice.”
The document was welcomed by other Christian Churches that share the same concerns of the Catholic bishops – clearly expressed in a passage of the letter, which goes on to examine the situation in the Country.
“Extreme nationalist ideologies are feeding the American public discourse with xenophobic rhetoric that instigates fear against foreigners, immigrants, and refugees. When the common origin of all humans is ignored, the consequence is prejudice and fear of the other, hatred along with the re-appearance of nooses and swastikas.”
The letter rebukes individuals, communities, and even churches that “remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered. Here racism comes in the form of the sin of omission. Every racist act—every such comment, every joke, every disparaging look as a reaction to the colour of skin, ethnicity, or place of origin—is a failure to acknowledge another person as a brother or sister, created in the image of God. In these and in many other such acts, the sin of racism persists in our lives, in our country.”
The bishops plead forgiveness for sins of racism committed inside the Church by members of the clergy and by lay officials and representatives, calling for a radical change of course through the transformation of church structures requiring determined investments in education, with the renewal of parish groups, of assignments, with homilies that must highlight the commitment to justice and the struggle for the dignity of all persons.
The bishops encourage to be open to encounter and to new relationships, especially where society “perpetuates inequity.” They call for stronger commitment in practising social justice; to promote the knowledge of the blessed and saints of the different cultural groups and nationalities present in our midst, to make formal visits to institutions of
culture and learning that deepen our education.
Finally, the bishops call for a genuine conversion of heart, for prayer, and to live out the Gospel in full, “to speak forcefully against and work toward ending racism. Racism is a life issue.” “It can be said to draw inspiration from the Pauline letters – commented Msgr. Fabre – in that the teaching of the Church is illuminated, but at the same time it offers ideas and practical suggestions, because conversion and action are equivalent.”