Released in November 2017, “The Challenge of Racism Today,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s timely, welcome, and important pastoral letter to Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington urges them to confront “the persistent evil of racism,” with renewed energy and dedication.
The Cardinal asserts today’s divisions are “not part of God’s plan.” He reminds believers all men and women were born in God’s image, and as such, possess an indispensable human dignity. Equal in dignity in God’s sight, we’re called to live as brothers and sisters in the same human family.
Racism is a sin because, as the US Bishops’ 1979 pastoral letter “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” says, it “divides the human family,” and “blots out the image of God among specific members of that family.”
More than fracturing the solidarity that ought to exist among people, racism is also a sin because, Wuerl says, it supports sinful “systemic social, economic, and political structures.”
The pastoral correctly asserts, racism manifests itself in several guises: personal, institutional, and social. And working to overcome racism requires we change the “attitudes that nurture” it in our own hearts and in our neighbors’ hearts and “the actions that express it.”
Working to overcome racism, Wuerl believes, should lead to greater human unity, which nonetheless acknowledges “each person should be seen in his or her uniqueness as a reflection of the glory of God and a full, complete member of the human family.”
To promote the unity, which disavows racism, Wuerl urges the faithful to “move to the level of Christian solidarity,” a fundamental and ancient Catholic principle, which reflects our persistent “commitment to oneness at work.”
To manifest their renewed dedication to oneness, the Cardinal wants Catholics to embrace Pope Francis’ challenge to promote a “culture of encounter, respect, understanding, and mutual forgiveness.”
Beyond our own hearts and homes, creating this culture will happen first, Wuerl correctly believes, in our parishes. We come to our parish home each Sunday to be restored in our faith.
And, sustained by the Eucharist and God’s words, we are then sent out into the world to live what we have heard in our encounters with our brothers and sisters.
We should also experience this when attempting to live what our Church teaches about racism. As Wuerl says, “the Sunday Eucharist offers a wealth of opportunities to reflect on this issue” for priests to urge parishioners to confront “racist behavior and prejudice.”
Parishes, he says, should also encourage dialogue on racism. Studying the pastoral would be a good way to begin that discussion.
These good suggestions will invigorate parishioners’ work to challenge racism, but more should be done. Acknowledging most parishes aren’t as diverse as they could be, pre-dominantly white parishes should enter into formal relationships with pre-dominantly African American, Latino, or Asian parishes.
These parishes could worship and socialize together and dialogue about finding ways to work together to address racism. Going through an Undoing Racism workshop together will challenge them to move further out of their comfort zones and enrich their relationships and their anti-racism work.
These partnerships will fortify Catholics for the work, which, as Wuerl correctly suggests, must be in done in the community to address racism in housing, the workforce, education, and the criminal justice system among other arenas.
When confronting racism, it’s especially important for Catholics to make the connection between poverty and racism. For instance, African Americans and Latinos are twice as likely to live in poverty as whites. As a consequence, persons of color are much more likely to suffer poor health, and experience shorter life spans.
A lethal combination, poverty and racism kill, which is precisely why the Church, which stands for life, should combat poverty and racism together. Our commitment to end poverty is unmatched, but in the past, our Church’s response to racism was often acquiescent, and inadequate.
Our religious orders owned slaves, our parishes and schools weren’t always fully integrated, and only this year did the USCCB establish its Ad Hoc Committee on Racism. While a welcome development, it should be a standing committee, and should have been established a long time ago.
“The Challenge of Racism Today” presents Washington Catholics an opportunity to demonstrate our Church can do better when fighting racism.
To capitalize on this moment, the Archdiocese should coordinate a campaign, which promulgates the pastoral fully to all parishioners, encouraging them to study and discuss it and reflect and act upon it.
This campaign could become a model, which inspires others to work for “a more perfect union.” This campaign won’t flourish, however, as Wuerl suggests, without God’s help.
And while prefect unity may elude us, we shouldn’t worry about that. As TS Eliot reminds us: “Ours in the trying. The rest is not our business.”