Last November the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a new pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.” Black History Month presents Catholics with a prime opportunity to reflect on how racial injustice has affected American society and still permeates it today.
The new pastoral letter continues the church’s long series of anti-racist interventions. During desegregation in the 1950s, the bishops declared that political and legal equality could not be the sole measure of racial justice. They argued that the welfare of all must also be upheld to reflect God’s unconditional love and to answer Christ’s command to love our neighbor.
Informed by the voices of newly installed African American bishops, a pastoral letter titled “Brothers and Sisters to Us” (1979) expressed fear that hard-won civil rights victories might lead Catholics, especially white Catholics, to become complacent against racism. Adopting a more strident tone, this letter urged Catholics to hold fast to the Gospel: “Let all know that racism is a terrible sin that mocks the cross of Christ and ridicules the Incarnation. For the brother and sister of our Brother Jesus Christ are brother and sister to us.” The Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace would later affirm these teachings as models for the Universal Church.
In 1984, the country’s ten black bishops published a pastoral letter on evangelization, “What We Have Seen and Heard,” to share their experiences of black racial identity within the Catholic Church. Crucially, they identified a lack of concern for racial justice in the country’s predominantly white Catholic schools. “The stain of racism on the American Church,” they warned, “continues to be a source of pain and disappointment to all, both Black and White, who love her and desire her to be the Bride of Christ ‘without stain or wrinkle.’ ”
Over time, official teachings on anti-black racism appeared alongside reflections on racism of all kinds. This shift marked an effort to express the universal evil of racism while acknowledging its unique manifestations in American history. “Open Wide Our Hearts” follows this new approach.
The letter returns to the theme of complacency by noting that “racism comes in the form of the sin of omission, when individuals, communities, and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered.” Too often, white Catholics do not perceive how racism destroys the human family and damages our relationship with Christ, because they do not experience racism firsthand.
The letter then offers nine steps for walking humbly with God in the battle against racism:
1. Acknowledging our own sins and seeking forgiveness.
2. Engaging others — “to see, maybe for the first time, those who are on the peripheries of our own limited view.”
3. Resolving to work for justice by providing necessary support to victims.
4. Educating ourselves by reading Church documents, studying primary historical sources in school, and listening openly to the experiences of others — “to make it clear that God dwells in the equal dignity of each person.”
5. Working in churches, especially with renewed commitments of priests and deacons to preach homilies “directed to the issue of racism and its impact on our homes, families, and neighborhoods.”
6. Working together to dismantle the racist structures of society.
7. Sharing the good news of the Gospels everywhere.
8. Respecting life.
9. Continuing the journey with prayer.
All Catholics can follow these teachings in response to God’s invitation to conversion and should commit fully to eradicating this grave injustice in Christ’s name.
Douglas Shadle is a professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in the history of African American musicians. He is a parishioner of St. Agnes Church.