(November 8, 2020)
Does the Church define the sin of racism to be a mortal sin?
Catholic moral theology denotes a mortal sin as having three components:
- Grave matter (e.g. murder, adultery, theft)
- Presupposes full knowledge of the sinful nature of the act and its opposition to God
- Complete consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. “Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin” (CCC 1859)
Racism therefore can be a mortal sin when the specific matter satisfies those three conditions.
On August 12, 2017, James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a group of counterprotestors at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one person and injuring several others.
Looking at this event, the act was one of 1) grave matter, since Mr. Fields violated the Fifth Commandment, ‘Thou Shall Not Kill’, and could have killed many others; 2) deliberate personal choice, since Mr. Fields chose to drive into the counterprotestors on his own will (but it is difficult to determine if Mr. Fields believed what he was about to do was a sinful act and a violation of God’s law).
If one’s “religion” were white supremacy, then the god of white supremacy would condone Mr. Fields’ action. However, the God of Christianity does not condone such a deadly action.
While determining if this instance of racism is a mortal sin can be a complicated manner, the sinful act towards the counterprotestors at Charlottesville clearly had mortal repercussions.
Racism begins with inequitable beliefs regarding a specific or multiple races, or in conjunction, a belief in one’s own racial superiority. This inequitable belief alone, I would argue, has an effect on mortality because it could lead to the death of Black persons as well as peaceful counterprotestors, both of which I have described above.
Hence, I argue that racism is a sin that can be mortal when its trajectory results in the potential or actual loss of life.
Whether a particular racist act is a mortal sin is for moral theologians to opine on.
However, the mortal repercussions of the sin of racism, as demonstrated in the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, signifies the seriousness of this sin and the inherent need for the Catholic Church to emphatically, unanimously and unambiguously denounce racism.
Embedded in this condemnation, the Church in the US needs to clearly condemn white supremacy, white nationalism and white privilege.
Fr. Bryan Massingale, author of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, gave a lecture at Emory University enttitled “The Catholic Church and the Struggle against White Nationalism: Missing in Action?”
Fr. Massingale “gave an uncompromising perspective on how white nationalism erodes the integrity of the church… As Father Massingale said, efforts of denouncing racism often fail to intentionally condemn and attack root causes and the perspectives that fuel it.
“These include nationalist ideals based on the perceived supremacy of one race over all others, privilege associated with not having to understand the lived experiences of others outside the prevailing culture and the preservation of the social relationships and comfort of the prevailing culture over what is right and just as outlined by the Gospels.”
While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (“USCCB”) issued pastoral letters on racism, including “Brothers and Sisters to Us” (1979) which I quoted from, as well as more recently “Open Wide Our Hearts” (2018), I believe, and Fr. Massingale alluded to this, that the Church has not done enough.
In “Open Wide Our Hearts,” for instance, the USCCB had the opportunity to denounce within the document swastikas, Confederate flags and nooses, however the US bishops voted to reject including this language.
The Church in the US cannot emulate Jesus’ Greatest Commandment, love of God and love of neighbor (Mt 22:36-40), without actively working to dismantle the racist undercurrents in American society, including but not limited to white supremacy, as well as its own undercurrents of racism exhibited by the USCCB’s unwillingness to denounce swastikas, Confederate flags and nooses within its own document on racism.
However, as Ashley Morris astutely noted, “We readily champion the humanity in the lives of the unborn and the dignity of the sacred union between one man and one woman, but remain conspicuously passive in our respect of the human dignity and sacredness of all people regardless of skin color…
“We cannot remain comfortable and complacent in our Catholic Christianity if members of our human family—the same members Christ commissioned us to make disciples of—continue to suffer from degradation, discrimination and death because a 21st century society view still holds us as less than human because of skin color.
“When we aggressively fight for the human dignity of the unborn while passively or haphazardly acknowledging the human dignity of the living, what suffers and dies within each of us?”
The Church must seek justice not only for the unborn, but for those already born, particularly Black lives that are in danger due to the sin of racism.
To abort is to bring to a premature end because of a problem or fault.
Black persons are being aborted, and not just in the womb. When that officer’s knee was on George Floyd’s neck, resulting in murder, George became aborted. When the police broke into Breonna Taylor’s residence and shot her, Breonna’s life became aborted.
Black lives are being ended prematurely. These lives are treated as if they do not have value, and that they do not matter. The message inherent in these sinful acts is it would have better had these people never been born.
The mortal effects of racism not only include murder but the diminishment of the quality of life for those of a marginalized ethnicity, thereby having psychological effects.
Racism is also linked to social inequality, which the Church denounces as sinful (CCC 1938). Structural inequity that results in disproportionate criminalization of Black people, underfunding of schools in Black neighborhoods, and economic injustices for this population further promote the notion that Black lives do not matter in society and they might else well have never been born.
Pope John Paul II defined these sinful inequalities, based in structural inequalities, as “structures of sin.” In doing so, he echoes the catechism. “There exist also sinful inequalities that affect millions of me and women. These are in open contradiction of the Gospel: Their equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions.”
Another example of the mortal effects of the sin of racism with regard to the psychological realm is the false imprisonment based on the color of one’s skin.
In Central Park, New York, five young boys were falsely accused of the rape and murder of a white woman and sentenced to prison. The imprisonment crushed their spirits in those important formative years and diminished their prospects in society following their release from prison, thereby having mortal effects.
This false imprisonment irrevocably damaged these five young men, depriving them of their high school years and being with their loving families while subjecting them to the horrors of prison life. As Korey Wise, one of the five falsely accused who had been tried as an adult stated, “You can forgive but you won’t forget. You won’t forget what you lost.”
The sin of racism is mortal indeed.
Parallel to this, the sin of omission, or complicity by silence, as it relates to racism can also result in mortal effects.
Staying silent when it comes to racial injustice is a sin of omission. Silence is complicity with the sinful act and furthers its occurrence rather than prevents it.
Fr. Bryan Massingale discusses the racial impact of the sin of omission in his analogy of the bystander.
He explains the bystanders are “the people who see what’s going on, know what’s going on, but who take no action to intervene… Bystanders teach onlookers a very important message: doing racist things is okay because white people will let you get away with it.
“We create safe spaces for racism to fester and to brew, and it’s out of that toxic atmosphere in our country that more heinous actions take place—the murder of George Floyd or the brutal killing of Ahmaud Arbery simply because he was jogging in a neighborhood. We create the atmosphere that says when white people do terrible things, other white people have your back. Other white people won’t call you out.”
The Church in the US acts as a bystander when it fails to denounce swastikas, Confederate flags and nooses, thereby being complicit in white supremacy and white nationalism.
Therefore, the Catholic Church in the US has a duty to comprehensively and unambiguously condemn the sin of racism as it does with abortion, and as it would with any serious or mortal sin.
Omitting a clearly defined condemnation that includes a denouncement of white nationalism, white supremacy and white privilege constitutes a sin of racism since omission is complicity. Moreover, this condemnation of racism from the US Church would not be sufficient without a clear affirmation that Black lives are sacred, and that Black lives matter to the US Church.