U.S. church urged to turn attention to racism before fractures widen

IMAGE: CNS photo/Carlo Allegri, Reuters

By Dennis Sadowski

(CNS) — Father Bryan
Massingale, a priest of the Milwaukee Archdiocese and well-known
theologian, knows what it’s like to be watched by police.

said that as a black man there have been times he has been followed by police officers
on the campus of Marquette University, where he taught for 12 years, as he
walked on campus when he wasn’t wearing his priestly garb.

a sign, Father Massingale told Catholic News Service, of the widespread racism
that is entrenched in American culture.

takes many forms: unequal access to housing, economic segregation, differences
in the quality of schools between poor and well-to-do communities, and how
police approach someone at a traffic stop or a street-side altercation.

why we need to understand that racism is more than negative speaking,” said
the priest, who will join the theology faculty at Fordham University Aug. 1.
“It’s really a cult of white supremacy. (Saying) that makes us feel
uncomfortable because most people feel it’s related to the Ku Klux Klan. It’s
not that. It’s a subtle culture of white belonging, that somehow public spaces
belong to ‘us’ in a way (that) for others they are not.”

time, Father Massingale said, for the U.S. Catholic Church, led by the bishops,
to hold up racial injustice as an “intrinsic evil,” just as it has prioritized
abortion and same-sex marriage.

indeed is a life issue,” he said.

Massingale is not alone in his call nor in using strong language when
discussing what has been described as systemic racism. Other Catholic
theologians and social justice leaders urged the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops to openly and honestly confront the “original sin” of racism
and acknowledge that a sense of white privilege is widespread and continues to
harm communities of color.

church teaching about racism has been clear, they told CNS, church practice has
not always been forthright.

initiated a call for the bishops to develop a new pastoral letter on racism to
address 21st-century concerns. The last, “Brother and Sisters to Us,”
was issued in 1979. In it the bishops called racism a sin. A report commissioned by the USCCB for the 25th anniversary
of the document in 2004 found that while some progress in addressing racism had
been made within the church, results had fallen short of expectations.

ongoing efforts to address race relations, the USCCB established the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in
the Church in 2008 to coordinate the bishops’ outreach to
African-Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, Native Americans
and migrants, refugees and travelers.

Donna Grimes, assistant director,
African American affairs, in the secretariat has led “intercultural
competency” training sessions around the country for three years. The
programs, lasting up to three days, focus on helping parishes to become
welcoming places to newcomers in an increasingly diverse church.

and seminarians in particular, Grimes said, are interested in learning how to
guide parishes to be more welcoming communities. Still, there are concerns, she

seminarians seem to be out of touch with some of the communities I’m familiar
with,” said Grimes, an African-American. “I get a sense that they
expect to be ordained and to go to perhaps a suburban parish like the one they
grew up in. But with the shortage of priests and the need for priests to be
flexible, it’s very important that they pick up the skill, knowledge and
attitudes, I would say, to be interculturally competent.”

among parish participants during the sessions — and afterward — have revealed
a desire for the church to more aggressively confront racism, Grimes said.

would really like to hear more from the bishops. This is what I keep hearing.
They say, ‘Do they (the bishops) care? Is it really a church home for me?'”
Grimes said.

got a lot of challenges out in the community that people are frustrated about,
black and white and other races as well,” she explained. “They are
very frustrated about things happening in the community, from one city after
another — tension, video recording, violence. It’s very upsetting and

church is not immune to that. People, I find, they want this resolved … and
they want to raise the issue, their concerns, in the church. They want them to
be discussed. They want them to be heard,” Grimes said.

such as M. Shawn Copeland
at Boston College, Kathleen
Grimes (no relation to Donna Grimes) at Villanova University, Karen Teel at the University
of San Diego and Jon Nilson
of Loyola University admitted that whites become alarmed when terms such as
white supremacy and white privilege are used to explain why racism persists. Copeland is black; the other three theologians are white.

such terms is a way of raising awareness of the struggles within herself and within
her students to better understand people of different backgrounds, Teel told

find that many white people don’t know what’s going on (economically and
socially). Given the nature of white supremacy, it’s our nature not to
understand it,” Teel explained.

of what I’m trying to do is break down how whiteness works and how white people
think and explain and talk about the history (within the context of church
teaching),” she added.

answer to racism rests in understanding that human dignity is foremost in
church teaching, Copeland said.

very simple answer is love of God and love of neighbor. And it’s also the most
complex answer because it requires the most profound conversion of mind and
heart,” she said.

the bishops, parishioners must take charge in the fight against racism,
Copeland added.

are all responsible. It’s not about guilt. It’s about responsibility. Whether
you came to the United States last week or came 300 years ago, we’re all
responsible for the condition of our country.”

suggested that parishes assemble groups of people to “sit together … and
be quiet enough to surface what is happening in our country. That’s not asking
people to spend money. It’s asking people to set aside some time. It’s asking
people to think deeply and prayerfully about what’s happening to us.”

reflection and discussion are major parts of a year-old effort by Pax Christi
USA to build interracial understanding and promote peace. Sister Patricia
Chappell, executive director, said the Communities of Color workshops, offered
six times thus far, are meant to bring people together to talk and reflect on
the gifts they bring to the church as well as the wider community.

reality of the Catholic Church and, of course, our country is that Sunday morning
services still continue to be the most segregated times in America,”
said Sister Patricia, who is black and a member of the Sister of Notre Dame de Namur.

Christi USA leaders decided to develop the workshops because they saw that true
peace would never be realized until people better understood each other. In
many cases, the discussions are the first that participants have ever had about
race relations.

providing an opportunity for people to build community and to be in right relationships
with each other,” Sister Patricia said, “and to continue this discussion
of how do we build this community valuing the cultural and ethnic gifts that
each person brings.”

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Note: Information about USCCB’s cultural diversity secretariat intercultural program is available online at https://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/cultural-diversity/index.cfm.

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Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

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