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The U.S. Catholic Church’s last major effort on racism was in 1979. Charlottesville woke it up.

A young boy clasps hands while demonstrators and sympathizers hear a prayer as they continued to stand at a rope barricade at Selma, Ala., March 12, 1965. Three priests and a nun stand at the rope which was taken down later by the police chief. (AP Photo)

The modern-day American Catholic church seems to be finally waking up to racial issues.

On Wednesday, the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops – the leadership arm of the U.S. church – announced the formation of a special committee on racism. The category of the committee is the conference’s highest; it alone holds the same top-priority rank as committees on religious liberty and the protection of (traditional) marriage.

The committee will have its work cut out for it, as the USCCB’s last major effort on racism in America was in 1979.

The committee will be led by African-American Bishop George Murray, of Ohio, who was born in Camden, N.J., and graduated Georgetown University.

USCCB leaders said the committee was formed in the wake of Charlottesville, so between that deadly day and President Trump’s speech in Phoenix Tuesday night, the move is an important one for the church. In recent years, the USCCB has operated more like an arm of the conservative evangelical movement, for its issues.

Former KKK member who became a Catholic priest never apologized for cross-burning, victims say

In recent years the USCCB has prioritized: religious freedom, remained in steadfast opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, and has promoted events such as the “Fortnight for Freedom” and the amorphous “Convocation of Catholic Leaders” in July 2017.

By acknowledging the crisis of racism, and the open animus of white supremacists, the UCCSB is turning more towards an alignment with Pope Francis, who has spoken often of racial division and said: “We must overcome all forms of racism.”

In announcing the committee Wednesday, USCCB President Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, of the Houston archdiocese, said: “Recent events have exposed the extent to which the sin of racism continues to inflict our nation.”

To many the natural response to DiNardo was: Ya think?

For the American church, however, it’s a clarion call in the midst of the silence of many priests who did not mention the Charlottesville white supremacist march or the murder of protester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville to their parishioners.

This is the church where Robert E. Lee declared himself a sinner. Should it keep its name?

While the U.S. bishops have made various statements denouncing the recent events in Charlottesville and the rise of Nazism and white supremacist groups, the history of the USCCB on racial matters has been mixed.

There are many photos of Catholic priests and nuns marching in the Civil Rights movement, most notably at the March on Selma, Ala. in 1965. However the history of Catholicism in this country tells a different story. Many Catholic parishes were segregated prior to the Civil Rights movement, and the first large contingent of African-American Catholic priests would enter into the seminary in the 1920’s . The American Catholic Church made statements on racism as far back as the 1940’s and 50’s. “Colored” Catholic Girls could not live in the dorms at Catholic University – the bishops’ university – up into the 1940’s.

The last major statement on racism in the church and America was “Brothers and Sisters Among Us,” a pastoral letter from 1979, 38 years ago. Black Catholic bishops answered that letter in 1984 with a response: “What We Have Seen and Heard.” Since then, while various groups within the church have dealt with issues of race, the establishment of the new committee, and the promise of a pastoral letter on racism from the bishops in 2018 are important first steps for the Catholic Church in America. The bigger question is how will that translate into practical steps to counter racism?

The real vs. the ideal has always been a problem for the Catholic church regarding race.

Pastoral letters and statements are good, but without real confrontation, racism will always be an issue within the church. Consider that a Catholic priest just this week stepped away temporarily from his position after admitting he had been a violent KKK member who burned a cross in the front yard of a black couple’s home. He went on to attend seminary in Rome and was ordained as a priest. While that is a radical story, it is not surprising. Catholicism and race in America have always been fraught. Georgetown University, the nation’s foremost Jesuit University, is continuing to deal with the fallout from selling slaves, recently hosting a “day of repentance” with the decedents of slaves who were sold to finance the university. And right now, many parishioners of color are sitting in Mass besides Trump voters, 45 percent of whom voted for Trump (the majority of white Catholic voters went for the president).

The fact that 6,300 U.S. Catholic parishes serve distinct ethnic and cultural groups, and are the fastest-growing congregations in the country, makes the new committee even more imperative. The Catholic Church can ill afford to lose members over racial violence and immigration policies. Hispanic Catholic numbers have steadily dropped within the American Church. Nearly 1 in 4 Hispanic Adults (24%) are former Catholics, according to The Pew Forum, despite the fact that 55 percent of U.S. Hispanics – 19.2 million people — identify as Catholic. Black Catholics number just over 3 million.

What’s sometimes called the “browning” of the American Catholic church is very much on the minds of many U.S. bishops – and the pope. Unlike evangelicals who have stayed strong in their support of President Trump, the USCCB knows that it cannot afford to lose their Hispanic and African American population because of a weak stance on racism. The USCCB will have to find a way to convince conservative white Catholics, many descended from immigrants, that the church should not only speak on culture war issues but also fight racism.

These changes, plus the pressures of increasing racial animus and violence, present a challenge to the USCCB. Bishop Murray told reporters in a conference call Wednesday that they would be working on a local and national level with Protestants, Jews, and Muslims, to combat racism both locally and at the national level. The major challenge may actually be to those in the Catholic community who voted for President Trump and continue to support his policies on immigration and race. Appointing Bishop Murray, who presides a diocese in the heart of Trump voter country, is a good first step. The USCCB will need to do more than just a pastoral letter, however, to stem the tide of racial animus that is gripping not only the nation but the pews of churches around the country.

Anthea Butler is graduate chair and an associate professor of Religion and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania


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