The global protests over the long-standing plague of white supremacy, most recently manifested in the police and vigilante murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, have put our nation and church on the precipice of monumental change or devastating setback.
What comes next will depend on how policymakers, elected officials and institutional leaders, including religious men and women, respond to the ever-growing cries of the people in the streets declaring that “Black Lives Matter” and “Enough is enough.”
Recent statements and demonstrations by Catholic leaders condemning the sin of racism and in a few instances calling for change have been encouraging.
However, Catholic statements that fail to acknowledge and confront the church’s direct complicity and agency in the contemporary crisis and its sin histories of colonialism, slavery and segregation ring painfully hollow. This is especially true for black Catholics who have long shouted with their actions and words that “Black Lives Matter” in the face of church opposition.
Indeed, for black Catholics, racism became a pro-life issue in the 15th century when the issuance of several papal bulls including “Dum Diversas” (1452) and “Inter Caetera” (1493) not only authorized the perpetual enslavement of Africans and Native Americans, but also morally sanctioned the seizure of “non-Christian” lands and the development of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Contrary to popular belief, African slavery did not begin in the land area that became the United States in 1619. Instead, the Catholic Church introduced slavery in present-day South Carolina and then Florida in the 1500s. Moreover, the church served as the largest corporate slaveholder in the Americas, including Louisiana, Saint Domingue (later Haiti) and Brazil.
U.S. Catholics must also never forget that it was Roger Taney, the nation’s first Catholic Supreme Court justice and a descendant of prominent Maryland slaveholders, who infamously declared that black people had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect” in 1857.
After slavery, most white Catholic religious orders of men and women and seminaries continued systematically excluding African-descended people, especially U.S.-born black people, from admission on the basis of race well into the 20th century.
The archival, oral history and written record is also littered with heart-wrenching examples of white Catholics subjecting black and brown Catholics to humiliating segregation and exclusion in white-led parishes, schools, hospitals, convents, seminaries and neighborhoods.
Because so much of the church’s history of racial discrimination is excluded from curriculums in Catholic institutions, this moment calls upon us engage in some long overdue historical truth-telling through education and reparation.
For Catholics seeking to do the hard work of racial justice, here are five ways to get started:
— Education. Learn about the long history of anti-black racism within church boundaries. While this history is not widely known or taught, it is well-documented. The testimonies and lived experiences of black Catholics, religious and lay, are especially powerful sources.
— Action. Challenge racism in Catholic spaces and call for a change. Make black and brown Catholic history mandatory in Catholic school curriculums, religious formation and seminary training. End discriminatory and anti-black hair policies in Catholic schools. Hire black and brown Catholics in leadership positions in church institutions. Adopt an anti-racist praxis in your Catholic organization.
— Support. Donate to organizations fighting for racial justice, especially those working to end mass incarceration, cash bail, racial disparities in health care, the school-to-prison pipeline and police violence.
— Reconciliation. Call upon the Catholic Church to formally acknowledge and apologize for its histories of slavery and segregation. Reconciliation is not possible without justice, and justice does not come without the acknowledging the truth.
— Pray. Pray for all victims of racism and state violence. Pray also for those in positions of power. Pray that they hear the cries of those calling for an end to white supremacy in every institution where it exists.
While the road ahead might seem difficult, black Catholic history is filled with examples of faithful who fought for racial justice in the face of resistance and unholy discrimination.
Take, for example, the witnesses of Mothers Mary Lange and Henriette Delille. Barred from joining white sisterhoods due to racism, these women established the modern world’s first Roman Catholic sisterhoods open to African-descended women and girls in the United States.
Through their congregations, which founded many of the nation’s earliest Catholic schools, orphanages and nursing homes open to black people, these holy women powerfully declared to the church’s slaveholding leaders, male and female, that black lives mattered.
In wake of the police murder of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, I am also reminded of the example of Daniel Arthur Rudd. Born into Catholic slavery in Bardstown, Kentucky, Rudd was a pioneer black journalist, tireless advocate for racial justice and the founder the Colored (now Black) Catholic Congress.
Despite the church’s egregious failures during slavery, Rudd fiercely believed that his church could transform itself into a vessel of racial justice and unyielding love. As he once put it, “The Catholic Church alone can break the color line. Our people should help her to do it.”
Black Catholics have long known what all Catholics must come to know: If racial justice and peace will ever be attained, it must begin in the church.
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Shannen Dee Williams is the Albert Lepage assistant professor of history at Villanova University. In 2018, Williams received the inaugural Sister Christine Schenk Award for Young Catholic Leadership from FutureChurch for using history to foster racial justice and reconciliation in religious congregations of women.