Church leaders urged to be trailblazers in addressing systemic racism

WASHINGTON (CNS) — When deadly, racially motivated violence erupted in a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, a Pittsburgh synagogue, a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and most recently in Buffalo, New York, Catholic Church leaders have responded.

Such high-profile reminders of the tragic carnage of racism prompts women religious, deacons, priests and bishops to condemn the violence and gather people in prayer — not only to plead for God’s mercy, but to bring awareness to a culture of hate.

But racially inspired mass shootings — such as the May 14 killing of 10 Black people at a Buffalo grocery store — are only the most visible aspect of racism and many Catholics believe church leadership has a responsibility to help society find a way to eradicate the scourge of bigotry.

“This is an evolving process,” said Charisse Smith, chair of the diversity committee of Lawrenceville, New Jersey’s Notre Dame Catholic High School’s school board, who pointed out there are many approaches to leading on this issue that may help in one area, but not in others.

“It’s strategic, it’s planning, things come up and things need to be handled with care,” Smith told Catholic News Service. “Sometimes things need immediate action and we’re not always going to get it right.”

Many see that systemic racism is woven into just about all systems and institutions in American society, some of it is blatant, but much of it is subtle. There also are many white Americans who don’t believe systemic racism exists.

“I don’t think any institution in the United States is adequately engaged in addressing racism,” said Bishop John E. Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, who gave a speech in 2021 called “Why Black Lives Matter: A Catholic Perspective on Racism.”

“I don’t think the church in the United States has given it priority enough, nor do I think we have convincingly taught our members what our catechism teaches, that racism is sin,” Bishop Stowe said in an interview with CNS.

“And I don’t think we understand the concept of systemic racism yet,” he added. “Both how we operate from it and — God forbid — you use a phrase like ‘white privilege,’ because that is even more contentious than to talk about systemic racism.”

Bringing awareness to racism and white privilege and how to discuss it without further alienating people may be one of the areas where church leaders can be most effective, said Robin Lenhardt, a law professor at Georgetown University and one of the founding faculty of Georgetown’s new Racial Justice Institute.

The enormous megaphone the church has in parishes, service groups, diocesan schools, the diocesan centers, universities, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and even the Vatican can be used in multiple ways to help more people understand white privilege, systemic racism, and how to really embrace racial harmony and equality, Lenhardt told CNS.

Following the 2020 killing of George Floyd — a 46-year-old Black man who died in the custody of a white Minneapolis police officer — and the subsequent nationwide protests that followed, prompted Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez to establish an archdiocesan Commission for Racial Healing to address systemic racism within the church and society at large.

“Just being uncomfortable with the uncomfortable is what I’d like to see from the church,” said Azzeiza Beadle, a 2017 graduate of Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, who was a leader in that school’s Shades Club, a group that helped address racism on campus.

“Being aware that there are people in your (church) community, there are things that they see they may not like, and it’s OK for them to not like those things,” she said, referring to pastors and bishops in the U.S. hearing from people of color in their dioceses.

“Listen to them, try to get where they are coming from and try to see how you can maybe shift a little bit to make sure that the community that you have is a good one for everyone who is in it,” Beadle added.

This is something Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, has been trying to do within his diocese in recent years.

Bishop Burbidge has held listening sessions throughout his diocese to hear the experiences in the lives of the people in his region, especially those of racial minorities.

He said this has been especially important for him, acknowledging that as a white man he isn’t subjected to discrimination or systemic racism and the signs of it aren’t organic to him in nature.

“You have to listen to the experience of those you serve, with those of whom you work, or colleagues,” Bishop Burbidge told CNS in a 2020 interview. “You could in good faith think that, ‘no, this is not the reality in my diocese. This is not the reality in my parish, or in my company.’ Until you begin to listen to some stories … and maybe you were not aware of that.”

He said this is why the bishop’s 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” encourages the U.S. bishops to conduct these listening sessions so that they can better understand how racism impacts their diocese and all of society.

“You are hearing directly from people whose experience might be very different than yours,” Bishop Burbidge said, “or even very different than what you perceive is the reality.”

It’s also important for church leaders to allow facts, research and statistics to guide them as they address racism, he said.

Ongoing racism in the U.S. appears to be on Vatican’s radar and several recent episcopal appointments by Pope Francis has placed more Black bishops to lead dioceses in regions with historically notable race tensions, particularly in the South.

“I think Pope Francis is sending a very strong intended message,” said Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington, the only Black cardinal in the U.S. “That if we as the United States, are a community of immigrants …  the episcopate should reflect that diversity. I think Pope Francis is being very intentional about these appointments.”

“He wants men who are pastors, compassionate, generous, approachable servants of the church,” Cardinal Gregory told CNS in a May interview. “I think he wants them to reflect the face of the church in the United States.”

Church leaders can be champions in helping society at large confront systemic racism in the systems of criminal justice, education, housing, health care, seminaries and parishes, but most importantly, they can help people understand what white privilege is and how it impacts society, Bishop Stowe said.

The topic of white privilege is delicate, frequently misunderstood, and it often puts white Americans on the defensive, especially when they don’t identify any kind of privilege in their own lives.

“The reality is there’s a social structure in place that privileges white people over people of color and the church has benefited from that — not always wittingly — but the church certainly has benefited from that,” Bishop Stowe said.

“If we want to promote unity, if we want to promote reconciliation,” he said, “if we don’t want to have to march in the streets and see the kind of violence that comes from when people are oppressed, then we need to pay attention to what’s being said.”

“We have a significant Catholic African American population that we always refer to in the church as ‘those people,’ as ‘other,’” Bishop Stowe said. “We don’t even acknowledge them as members of the church. We do it subconsciously, but it’s the ‘Black church’ as though it’s different than the Blacks who are part of our church.”

To that point, Oblate Sister Marcia Hall suggests that church leaders begin teaching in U.S. seminaries how systemic racism reaches all levels of society, including the church, to better prepare the priests of the future.

Sister Hall told CNS a story about Black friends who attended a 2020 Mass in Richmond, Virginia, and when it came time for the sign of peace, the three white seminarians in the pew in front of them turned around, looked at them and then turned back facing the front of the church without ever extending a sign of peace.

“This is not something that happened in 1960, 1970, 1980, this was 2020,” she said. “So, I think that church leaders have got to be more forceful with the people they are ordaining — or bringing into religious life — about race, being more forthright and being more honest about the impact it’s had on the church and the impact it continues to have on the church and that we — all of us — have to address it.”

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