2019 marked a banner year for the US Church in terms of race relations, or so I had thought.
Washington, DC, the nation’s capital and a long-time bastion of African American heritage, received its first ever black archbishop through the appointment of Wilton Gregory, the long-time leader of Atlanta, Georgia. To punctuate the appointment, it was announced on the very anniversary of the civil rights crusader Martin Luther King Jr’s tragic assassination.
Just a few weeks before that, when Bishop David Talley was installed as the new Bishop of Memphis, Tennessee, the day after that Mass in his first public outing, he toured the city’s National Civil Rights Museum.
“It was an extraordinary two-hour immersion in the evil of slavery, its institutional character, the disastrous effects seen through the generations, and the children and teens and adults that affected great change in our nation in their suffering,” he tweeted after leaving the museum, which is on the site of the Lorraine Hotel where Rev. King was killed.
A few months prior to all of this, the US bishops had adopted the first collective pastoral letter on racism in nearly 40 years, titled ‘Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love’, and at that same meeting voted to put forward the cause for canonisation of Sr Thea Bowman, a trailblazing African American religious who was the first black woman ever to address the US bishops before her death in 1990, famously leading them in a collective singing of the spiritual We Shall Overcome.
Yet on May 25, when George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed by a police officer who pressed his knee on Mr Floyd’s neck while other officers looked on as he pleaded “I can’t breathe” – and as the scene was filmed in a now viral nine-minute video painfully capturing the life drain out of his body – it made abundantly clear just how much work remains in the cause for racial justice, for all people, but one that should be championed by Catholics in the US with a particular vigour.
‘We shall overcome’ indeed, we hope, but we should be under no illusions that we have. America’s original sin of racism plagues the nation and our churches have rarely proven to be an exception.
In the aftermath of Mr Floyd’s death, some Catholic media outlets in the US couldn’t bring themselves to even mention that Mr Floyd was a black man and simply noted that he was an individual killed by police.
There are 37,302 active priests in the US, with only 250 identified as African American”
Naming the sin of racism is an initial first step on the road to justice but even that seems to be a challenge for some Catholics — hence the reticence of so many to join the chorus of those saying, unequivocally, that ‘Black Lives Matter’. Their reasonings, they say, is that the institutional Black Lives Matter movement is not in full agreement with the Church on issues of sexuality or they point to fringe voices within the movement.
“Let me introduce you to some of the fringe voices in the pro-life movement,” quipped one conservative black Catholic on Twitter in response to such a remark, noting that some pro-lifers advocate for violence against abortion facilities but they are not allowed to define the movement as a whole.
Our Catholic churches seldomly prove to be different and in too many places foster a narrative of white superiority and prominence. When black Catholics show up for Mass, they are greeted with art that seldomly resembles them and congregations led by white priests who rarely speak to the experience of black Catholics in this country out of fear of making their congregations uncomfortable.
According to official data, there are 37,302 active priests in the US, with only 250 identified as African American, or 0.7% of the total number. Only two dioceses in the country are led by black Catholic bishops.
This underrepresentation can’t change overnight, but it should at least be made a priority. Until then, it’s all the more important that US Church leaders follow the example of individuals like Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas.
If we are honest, racism is really about advancing, shoring up and failing to oppose a system of white privilege”
Bishop Seitz, whose ministry is on the Mexican border, has become a leading champion of migrants in this country, but his witness for the cause of life and justice is no less vociferous when it comes to unborn human life. Yet as a white Catholic whose flock is mostly brown, he understands the need to confront our sins by first honestly naming them and he knows this is a moment that calls for such a witness.
“If we are honest, racism is really about advancing, shoring up and failing to oppose a system of white privilege and advantage based on skin colour,” he wrote last autumn. “When this system begins to shape our public choices, structure our common life together and becomes a tool of class, this is rightly called institutionalised racism.”
That sort of moral consistency led him to become the first Catholic bishop to join with protestors after Floyd’s death, taking a knee in prayer while holding up a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign.
Days later, he would reflect on his experience, writing: “Look at the witness of those who are bravely taking up their parts in the drama of salvation unfolding in front of us…they are showing us what the reign of God looks like and what our country can look like when we all have a place at the table. Let’s encourage them. And pray with them. And thank them.
“With grace,” he continued, “they are joining the living ranks of a long faith tradition of labourers for greater justice, like Moses, Jesus of Nazareth, Joan of Arc, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James Earl Chaney, Oscar Romero, Thea Bowman and so many others. Thank God. Thank God.”
Christopher White is the national correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @CWWhite212.