On Friday, June 19, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and we desperately need His divine love. These days our hearts are pulled so hard. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken more than 100,000 lives in the United States and many more globally, but we have begun to return to the Holy Eucharist, safely and slowly. Just as we begin to rejoice, our consciousness is raised yet again about the deadly consequences of the sin of racism and the need to confront this sin with our Catholic faith. Complicating the peaceful and legitimate protests in the streets of Louisville are acts of violence and destruction that risk doing harm, not only to lives and property, but also to the attention that must remain on eradicating racism.
Last week, in his Wednesday audience from Rome, Pope Francis summarized it well: “My friends, we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life. At the same time, we have to recognize that the violence of recent nights is self-destructive and self-defeating. Nothing is gained by violence, and so much is lost … let us implore the national reconciliation and peace for which we yearn.”
I wrote to Mayor Fischer at the beginning of the protests that began in Louisville and shared my letter on my blog: “Please know of my prayers and support as you lead our community through the recent tragedy of Breonna Taylor’s death and as you seek justice in the circumstances that led to her death. With you, I support legitimate peaceful protests that give voice to the pain of the community and to the desire for truth and justice to be served. With you, I also greatly lament the senseless violence that took place last evening during an initially peaceful protest related to this tragedy.”
Over the last two months in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have focused on the common good as the foundation of Catholic social teaching. Thus, we have embraced social distancing and good hygiene to protect the lives of others, so that even those of us not showing symptoms will mitigate passing on the deadly virus.
Our Catholic social teaching also must guide our response to racism. A central understanding is the dignity of the individual created in the image and likeness of God. The protests have been calling for justice with a frequent theme: without justice, there can be no peace. When The Courier Journal interviewed me, I mentioned both short-term and long-term actions that need to take place within our communities. In the short term, of course, we all urge our public officials to bring about a just resolution to the recent tragic deaths of African Americans in our nation.
Much needed and even more difficult is the long-term process of changing hearts, beginning with ourselves. Among the many quotes for which Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered, certainly high on the list is his call — now 50 years old — for persons to be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. He called forth the dignity of every human being, which is a dignity that we must uphold.
In November 2018, I joined with the Catholic Bishops of the United States in issuing a letter on the sin of racism entitled “Open Wide Our Hearts.” Paragraph 20 states: “Racism is a moral problem that requires a moral remedy — a transformation of the human heart —that impels us to act.” Each one of us is called to join with our neighbor in opening wide our hearts to a conversion that rejects racism, aware that in that very act, we are claiming our own dignity.
When I was growing up and did something wrong, on many occasions my dear mother would say something that brought me to my senses. She would say, “What you just did was beneath your dignity.” Together as one body of Christ, we defend the dignity of every human being and most especially in this tragic time, we decry the sin of racism in which people are judged by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character.
We must remember that Church teaching supports peaceful and legitimate protests — protests that need to be heard if we are to grow as a healthy community. Sadly, these legitimate efforts to raise voices for justice and for peace have been co-opted, even in our own city of Louisville, by destructive acts of violence. Rioters are taking advantage of the unrest and threatening to confuse the legitimate message for justice and peace. Walking through the downtown area that surrounds the Cathedral, I witnessed firsthand the results of the destruction and even the remnants of looting. These actions have no place in a community that seeks the dignity of every person, and they risk distracting our minds and hearts away from the central theme of addressing the sins of racism and seeking justice and lasting peace for all.
Even now, we need to turn to a horizon of hope. One of my favorite events each year occurs usually in early March. This is the annual African American Catholic Leadership Banquet that recognizes adults and youth for their leadership and that honors these individuals as examples. This year was the 33rd such banquet, and I was not disappointed, especially as I heard young people stand up and speak of the contributions of their faith and family as well as the desire to live up to the dignity that is theirs. These words were spoken with confidence in opportunities for a future filled with hope and promise. We need their voices and our resolve to make their dreams come alive.
I cannot easily walk in the footsteps of an African American man or woman who has experienced the hatred of racism and the closed-door of defeat. Humbly, I can only find ways to encourage all of us, regardless of the color of our skin, to see the dignity of each human being and to seek the step that God calls us to take in fostering respect for the dignity of every human being. Rejecting the sin of racism and seeking a better path, we pray: “Sacred Heart of Jesus, make our hearts like unto Thine.”