America’s Catholic Bishops Need to Treat Non-Whites as Moral Adults

The U.S. Catholic bishops deny that blacks, Latinos, Asians are capable of racism.

By Christopher Manion Published on September 18, 2016

Back in July, Catholic News Service reported: “Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, Georgia, who was the first African-American president of the US bishops’ conference, has been appointed as chair of a new task force of the U.S. bishops to deal with racial issues brought into public consciousness following a series of summertime shootings that left both citizens and police officers among those dead.”

A racism task force. This could be very good news indeed — if Catholic bishops are willing to confront the issue squarely and theologically. They’ll have to do better than their last major statement on the subject, issued 37 years ago. Their 1979 Pastoral Letter on Racism had a stark, if simplistic message: “racism” is a “terrible sin”; moreover, while “most” whites are racists (whether they know it or not), nobody else is.

According to the pastoral letter, the “racism that permeates our society’s structures and resides in the hearts of many among the majority” is a sin so “subtle” that that most of us don’t even know that we’re sinning!

In their letter, the 1979 bishops both beat their breasts and threw some stones, asserting: “Each of us [in the racial majority], in varying degrees, is responsible. All of us in some measure are accomplices,” they alleged, though they inserted a curious caveat. “Perhaps no single individual is to blame,” they wrote. “The sinfulness is often anonymous but nonetheless real. The sin is social in nature. …” Anonymous sin that floats out in the ether, which we’re not even conscious of committing — that doesn’t sound like traditional moral theology so much as fuzzy, late-70s sociology with a dash of cultural Marxism. Perhaps anonymous sin can only be repented of by anonymous Christians.

The old pastoral letter’s assertion that most in the “majority” are somehow guilty of a deadly but “subtle” sin was ahead of its time. Social justice warriors today echo the bishops’ charges, as conservative columnist Denise McAllister notes:

To believe the GOP is inherently racist, you have to believe in some degree of covert racism, which is — as described by Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza in The Scar of Race — “a racism that is disguised and subtle but real all the same.” Because racial prejudice is now socially unacceptable, “People therefore favor disguised, indirect ways to express their bigotry.”

If Anything Can Be Labeled “Racist,” Doesn’t the Term Lose Any Meaning?

This charge has thrived in the political arena. In a statement issued after a black terrorist motivated by Black Lives Matter killed five policemen in Dallas, Hillary Clinton blamed “systemic racism” in police departments: “Federal policing guidelines are needed because “we have 18,000 police departments… [some of which need more training to] go after systemic racism, which is a reality, and to go after systemic bias,” she claimed.

A day later, at a memorial service for the murdered Dallas policemen, President Obama echoed Mrs. Clinton’s statement, saying, “We have all seen this bigotry in our lives at some point. None of us is entirely innocent. No institution is entirely immune. And that includes our police departments. We know this.”

When Donald Trump pledged to enforce immigration laws already on the books, historian Josh Zeitz told USA Today that “the term law and order in modern American politics is, ipso facto, a racially tinged term.”

As it stands, those politicians charging Republicans, Trump supporters, and policemen with “bigotry” and “systemic racism” could legitimately assert that the most recent (1979) American Catholic statement on the issue supplies more than enough moral authority for their attacks.

Is this scenario really what those bishops had in mind? In reviewing that document, Archbishop Gregory’s task force might consider reflecting on two salient questions:

  • Might the pastoral’s broad-brush tarring of whites be lacking in charity, implicitly defaming millions of Americans? And
  • Is it really impossible for members of racial minorities to be racists?

A layman might wonder why America’s current bishops didn’t address these questions years ago. The easy answer is that perhaps those bishops agree with the pastoral letter’s sweeping charges.

U.S. Catholic Bishops Still Treat Racism as a One-Way Street

Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the bishops’ point man on immigration issues, often condemns the “nativism,” “racism,” and “xenophobic attitudes” that allegedly motivate white opponents of amnesty for illegal aliens.

When Dylann Roof, an avowed white racist, massacred Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney and eight members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, Archbishop Gomez wrote, “We need to pray harder and work harder to put an end to racism in our country and gun violence in our communities.” No one should argue with him there. USCCB President Archbishop Kurtz of Louisville also responded to the Charleston murders. “Our efforts must address racism and the violence so visible today,” he said.

However, when the tables are turned, our bishops’ statements are more circumspect.

After blacks murdered policemen in Dallas and Baton Rouge, various bishops condemned “senseless violence” (Bishop Farrell of Dallas), “tragic events” (Bishop Muench of Baton Rouge), the “cycle of violence” (Archbishop Cupich of Chicago), and “pervasive gun violence” (Archbishop Kurtz, who also called for “dialogue”).

“No racism here, move along,” they seem to say.

Federal Funding is the Opiate of the Bishops

Yes, the errant message of the 1979 pastoral letter lingers on, introducing a troubling contradiction in the pastoral approach of U.S. Catholic bishops today.

“We bishops are pastors, we’re not politicians,” said Archbishop Kurtz’s predecessor at the USCC, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, in February 2012. Nonetheless, the USCC has long supported and lobbied for the welfare-state agenda of the Democratic Party, and the bishops and their NGOs receive over a billion dollars a year in federal taxpayer funding as part of that agenda.

In December 2012, Cardinal Dolan told the president on Meet the Press that America’s Catholic bishops were “some of your greatest supporters,” and went on to say that the bishops want to be Obama’s “cheerleaders.” The subject at hand was Obamacare, but their support for Obama’s social agenda goes much further. In spite of the administration’s relentless attacks on religious liberty, and advocacy of abortion, the bishops’ lobbyists continue consistently to support the administration’s policies on such issues as immigration, welfare spending, and foreign aid.

Shortly after Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, Cardinal Dolan attacked his “virulent strain” of “nativism.” On the other side of the ledger, however, we find no record of the bishops’ conference or its leaders condemning the prolific race-baiters inside and outside of the Obama Administration and the Clinton campaign — and only a few statements about abortion or attacks on marriage.

Admittedly, our bishops are in a very precarious position. Legal challenges abound regarding the independence of Catholic institutions, especially those receiving government funding. If the bishops publicly confront the reality that whites might not be the only racists on the planet, they will undoubtedly provoke the Democrats, who will not be slow in seeking retribution.

Moreover, in the short term, such an admission would undoubtedly be interpreted as a tacit endorsement, however tentative, of Donald Trump — who has promised to end the government programs for harboring illegal aliens, programs from which the bishops, their dioceses, and their NGOs receive tens of millions of dollars a year in taxpayer funding.

So answering the simple question, “Can only whites be racists?” might not be so easy as it sounds. Like many church documents, the 1979 pastoral letter on racism was several years in the making. Those were tumultuous years for Catholics, as historian James Hitchcock has ably recounted. But instead of correcting the pastoral’s profound errors in these more sensible times, America’s next generation of bishops actually commemorated the pastoral letter 25 years later without changing a word.

According to the July 21 news release, “The task force’s work will conclude with the USCCB’s fall general meeting in November, at which time it will report on its activities and recommendations for future work.”

The task force’s first order of business must be to confront and correct the errors of their 1979 pastoral letter. It is past time that our bishops abandon their simplistic and politicized position that racism is a “whites only” privilege.


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