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U.S. church urged to fight racism with same zeal waged for pro-life cause

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Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, La., speaks Sept. 17 in providence, R.I., during an evening program about racism in the church and society titled "Where Do We Go From Here?" (CNS photo/Brian Fraga, Rhode Island Catholic)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Catholic Church in the United States has a strong pro-life identity and is well-known for being passionately against abortion. But the nation’s Catholic community overall does not show the same determination to stamp out racism in society, said Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana.

“Even in our own beloved church, standing against racism is not considered an essential character of Catholic identity,” Bishop Fabre, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad-Hoc Committee Against Racism, told a Providence audience.

In an evening program titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” and hosted by several New England dioceses and Dominican-run Providence College, Bishop Fabre presented a historical overview of how the nation’s Catholic bishops in the 20th century spoke out against racism and tried to urge the faithful to take action.

Bishop Fabre also described the work of the bishops’ conference’s ad-hoc committee, which has been meeting over the past year with communities of color in listening sessions across the nation, hearing from Catholics who have been harmed by bigotry in society and in the church.

“Racism is still felt in our land, in our society, and in church structures,” said Bishop Fabre said in his remarks Sept. 17. He added that his committee is drafting a pastoral letter that will be introduced at the USCCB’s general assembly meeting in November.

In the pastoral, the Ad-Hoc Committee Against Racism will be urging an implementation of a new curriculum in seminaries, houses of formation and Catholic educational institutions to find innovative ways to raise awareness and to provide adequate incorporation of the history, cultures and traditions of all people, including Catholics from communities of color.

Bishop Fabre also said parish priests, deacons and bishops will be encouraged to preach about racism and its effects on people, and to implement new ministries and programs on the local level to address an issue that harms too many people of color in the pews.

Black Lives Matter demonstrators are seen near Lafayette Square in Washington Aug. 12 during the start of the white nationalists’ rally “Unite the Right 2.” (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, La., and other prelates process into Mass Sept. 23 during the Fifth National Encuentro in Grapevine, Texas. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

“In church, we feel like we are not at home. When we come to church it should be our home, somewhere where you feel accepted and welcome,” said Gary Jean-Louis, a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier in East Providence, who is of Haitian descent.

The USCCB formed its Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism last summer amid rising racial tensions that included several violent street confrontations across the country, most notably in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists marched in the streets, clashed with counter-protesters and killed one person.

In their 1979 pastoral letter on racism — “Brothers and Sisters to Us” — the nation’s Catholic bishops wrote: “Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.”

That pastoral letter followed on two earlier documents the bishops wrote to condemn racism. Bishop Fabre said those documents included many good points — including the need to recruit more people of color into the priesthood and religious life — but ultimately made little impact on the majority of Catholics in the United States.

In fact, a 2004 study commissioned by the USCCB found that black Catholics were still underrepresented in the priesthood and in positions of leadership, and also discovered that 64 percent of U.S. Catholics had not heard a homily on racism or racial justice in the previous three years.

The study also documented that white Catholics in the United States overall had shown a diminished level of support for government policies aimed at curbing racial inequality.

“This prompts the question, ‘Why is this the case?’… Why does it appear that there is a lack of consciousness among the faithful on racism?” said Bishop Fabre, who suggested that the answer was rooted in a lack of consistency by church leaders to speak out and demand action.

In addition, the bishop suggested that the church’s teachings and statements on race in America have in some ways been uninformed by contemporary social science and humanities, and that the Church has also neglected or slighted the voices of victims in failing to examine the issue from their perspective.

“American Catholic teaching often assumes that racism can be overcome only by education, dialogue and moral persuasion,” Bishop Fabre said. “This approach fails to take into account that racism is not only or primarily a sin of ignorance, but also involves aspects of advantage and privilege.”

The ad-hoc committee’s pastoral letter will affirm the church’s long-standing position that racism cannot be reconciled with a Christian understanding of the dignity of each human person. But unlike prior documents, Bishop Fabre said his committee will be conducting further listening sessions and giving tools and resources to parishes and dioceses to help them begin the important conversation about race and to explore needed policy initiatives.

“Racism will not end overnight. The elimination of racism may seem too great a task,” Bishop Fabre said.

“The church must move forward and fulfill its call to transform and proclaim Christ to the world.”

The program was hosted by the Diocese of Providence Office of Black Catholic Ministry; the Archdiocese of Boston; the Archdiocese of Hartford and the Diocese of Bridgeport, in Connecticut; the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts; and Providence College.

— By Brain Fraga

Fraga is a correspondent for the Rhode Island Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Providence.

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