A house of divided bishops cannot stand against racism

USA: A house of divided bishops cannot stand against racism

(July 16, 2020)

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have incited long-overdue discussion and action regarding racism, particularly among the Black community. However, the US bishops as a whole have been lukewarm and largely divided in their response to these evil acts. 

Prior to these sad events, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a pastoral letter against racism entitled “Open Wide Our Hearts,” which appeared to be more of an intellectual and superficial response to racism. 

Daniel Horan notes in the National Catholic Reporter that this letter has proven to be a “worthless statement.” Certain bishops such as Robert Barron and Timothy Dolan authored articles that seemed to evade addressing racism, whereas courageous bishops including Wilton Gregory and Mark Seitz have unequivocally demonstrated support of antiracism and Black Lives Matter movements.

I am calling on the US bishops, both individually and collectively, to publicly condemn racism, especially the recent and tragic deaths of Black people, as well as the systems in place that are structurally unjust toward minorities and Black communities.

Additionally I urge the bishops to name the presence of White privilege and embark on the work that needs to be done within the Church and in society to promote an equitable framework.

In this article, I wish to provide concrete examples of what the US bishops ought to be doing in response to racism, as well as highlight the examples of certain US bishops who are waging war against this social sin.

Practical means the US bishops could better respond to the problem of racism is to learn from the Laity and become involved in initiatives led by the Laity.

The Laity have been leading bold movements throughout the world following the tragic murder of George Floyd. Many have also taken this opportunity to perform an Examen of racial bias and White privilege. 

Intergenerational conversations among family have challenged unconscious views and biases and promoted long-overdue dialogue that may lead to conversion.

The US Bishops ought to be taking a cue from the Laity and be commending them for leading effective antiracism movements. Concurrently, the bishops should be asking, what more can we be doing in consultation with and collaboration with the Laity to more fervently address the problem of racism.

This is a moment when the bishops can exercise humility and allow themselves to be taught by the Laity, in particular to learn about the racial struggles being experienced, to enter into the pain and loss of the people they are called to serve, and to allow these exchanges to shake these prelates to their core so that they can respond with the passion of the Christ who stands with the marginalized, suffers with His People, and spares no effort to challenge the status quo and social structures of sin that are presently harming and destroying our communities and the lives of people of color.

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Two US prelates prominently followed both within and outside the Catholic Church, Robert Barron and Timothy Dolan, could have utilized their respective platforms to forcefully address the problem of racism.

However, both recently published articles that disappointedly fell short of this and appeared to look the other way.

Bishop Robert Barron recently published an article on his site Word on Fire responding to the question “What are the bishops doing?” with respect to racism.

Bishop Barron’s response turned the question around to ask, “What are the Laity doing?” Drawing insights from the Second Vatican Council, he emphasizes the importance of the Laity to the Church, the baptismal inheritance of priest, prophet and king, and the call for the Laity to take action.

However, Bishop Barron conveniently sidesteps the question by calling out the Laity while not taking ownership of the bishops’ responsibility to address the issue of racism in the US (and in the Church).

I wrote a direct critique of Bishop Barron’s letter in the hope of exercising the sensus fidelium resulting from my Baptism to hold this bishop accountable.

Weeks after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, Cardinal Dolan published a tone-deaf article in support of the NYPD.

While he acknowledges the death of George Floyd was “vicious” and the police officers involved warranted criticism, it is sad to see that he was more quickly willing to write in support of his city’s police department than to write an unequivocal statement denouncing racism and the social structures that promote it, including but not limited to the justice system. 

In fact, only 41 words were dedicated to George Floyd in an article of approximately 730 words.

This article both literally and symbolically denotes the Cardinal does not stand with the Black community and those active in antiracism.

Additionally, both of these prelates are acting from a place of not only clerical privilege but White privilege, unable to properly relate and minister to the direct pain and suffering of Black persons and minorities who daily experience racial injustice.

Therefore, for God’s sake Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Barron, please start appropriately demonizing racism as the diabolical act that it is. 

Thankfully, there are other US bishops who have been in the forefront of doing the right thing and engaging in direct and fierce combat against racism.

Positive examples of these prelates include the following:

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of the Archdiocese of Washington DC

Archbishop Wilton Gregory, one of the few Black bishops in the US, properly chided President Trump’s political stunt at the John Paul II Shrine in Washington DC, which the President elected to visit a day after he had peaceful protesters decrying the death of George Floyd violently removed for a photo-op holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

The Archbishop states “like all acts of racism, (the death of George Floyd) hurts all of us in the Body of Christ since we are each made in the image and likeness of God, and deserve the dignity that comes with that existence.”

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Bishop Mark Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso

Bishop Mark Seitz in El Paso took a knee publicly to support the Black Lives Matter movement. This witness led Pope Francis to call Bishop Seitz and acknowledge his efforts.

I would argue that the Supreme Pontiff is indirectly signaling to the US bishops that Bishop Seitz’s witness to social justice is the type of witness and action he would like to see from other bishops.

Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston

Following the death of George Floyd, Cardinal O’Malley wrote to his Archdiocese, “Like COVID-19, racism can infect any person, without regard to region, religion, race or ethnicity. It is highly contagious, easily transmitted to others, and too often unseen and disguised in those seemingly healthy.  Racism is a social and spiritual disease that kills people.”

The Cardinal acknowledges both the Church’s historical complicity in racism as well as the continuation of this social ill following the abolishment of slavery.

“Racism and slavery find a common nexus in this country, the denial of the humanity and dignity of other persons. As a nation we abolished slavery legally, but we have not dealt with its enduring legacy. If we reject slavery then we must reject and denounce the dehumanizing attitudes that foster discrimination, inequality and violence.”

Cardinal O’Malley highlights the “antidote to the poison racism is community and solidarity” and cites the protests following the murder of George Floyd as examples of this, noting that these have been “predominantly peaceful and focused on the urgent need to address racism as a systemic, cultural, and legal reality.”

Herein lies a thoughtful and comprehensive response from a senior US prelate on the sin of racism, in which O’Malley closes the letter to state “that Black Lives Matter,” making this Cardinal’s stance clear and unambiguous.

Bishop Timothy Doherty of the Diocese of Lafayette, Indiana

Bishop Timothy Doherty suspended one of his diocese’ pastors, Theodore Rothrock, for comments that the priest wrote in his parish’s Sunday bulletin likening members of the Black Lives Matter movement to being “maggots and parasites.”

The bishop thereby sent a message that racist words and attitudes will not be tolerated in the diocese, and the swift and public action may deter priests from promulgating similar racist undertones. 

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor of the Diocese of Little Rock

Bishop Anthony Taylor authored a statement to his diocese specifically to address Black Lives Matter. “All lives matter, of course, but as a society we don’t act that way — and that’s the point. There are injustices embedded in the way our society is structured to which we are often blind.”

This is a concise and clear explanation that debunks views expressed by certain pastors from the pulpit.

The bishop subsequently lists and explains the structural injustices in 1) law enforcement, 2) employment, 3) health care, and 4) education; and insists that his diocese view the Black Lives Matter Movement “through the pro-life lens of our Christian belief in the God-given intrinsic dignity of every person, in this case Black people, rather than the more secular Marxist-inspired class struggle lens that some would propose and which sometimes gets disproportionate coverage in the news.”

In like manner to what this bishop has done, I urge every US bishop to issue a strongly clear, Christian, and unambiguous statement condemning racism in all of its forms, including but not limited to racism experience by the Black community.

During this period of a monumental challenge to society to confront racism and promote structural reform and personal conversion, the Church is being called on to be a prophetic witness.

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Members of the Laity have responded in droves as prophets marching together and calling on politicians and law enforcement to enact change.

At least five US bishops have provided strong public words and actions against racism and in support of anti-racist movements. However, the bishops’ response overall has lacked this prophetic zeal.

Each and every US bishop needs to write to his respective diocese to unequivocally call out racism for the evil that it is, particularly as experienced by the Black community, and not only name the social structures and White privilege that are impediments to this process but actively work to exorcise these social sins.

Therefore, the US bishops individually and collectively need to send a strong message both in word and in deed with regard to racism: that it should have no place in the Church and in society, and that the bishops will work with the Laity and with social institutions to promote radical, structural change in this regard.

More on Novena on the Catholic fight against racism:

Italian nun accuses Viganò of “throwing pearls before swine” by providing Catholic cover for Trump

In midst of statue iconoclasm, semi-official Vatican journal extols virtues of “national repentance”

No justice, no peace: Why Catholics fight against institutionalised violence

“The president doesn’t quite understand it”: German bishop schools Trump on Bible

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Matt Kappadakunnel

Matt Kappadakunnel

Matt Kappadakunnel has a background in investment management and investment banking. Additionally, Matt spent multiple years studying to be a Catholic priest. He is a graduate of Creighton University and is a CFA Charterholder. Matt lives in Los Angeles with his wife and toddler, and they are expecting a newborn in November.