Bishops overwhelmingly approve pastoral letter against racism

Bishop Tobin says diocese will continue to explore productive ways of addressing issue of racism

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BALTIMORE (CNS) — The U.S. bishops overwhelmingly approved a pastoral letter against racism Nov. 14 during their fall general meeting at Baltimore.

The document, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love — A Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” passed 241-3 with one abstention. It required a two-thirds vote by all bishops, or 183 votes, for passage.

“Despite many promising strides made in our country, racism still infects our nation,” the pastoral letter says. “Racist acts are sinful because they violate justice. They reveal a failure to acknowledge the human dignity of the persons offended, to recognize them as the neighbors Christ calls us to love,” it adds.

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin shared that the new pastoral letter on racism is an extremely important statement and will be a very useful resource for the Church in the days to come.

“The Diocese of Providence hosted a regional meeting about racism several weeks ago where this topic was discussed, and going forward we will continue to explore productive ways of addressing this critical issue,” the bishop said. “The Church’s firm commitment to battle racism, in all its forms, is another expression of our belief in the sanctity and dignity of human life.”

The meeting held on September 17 at McVinney Auditorium was hosted by several New England dioceses, Providence College at the diocesan Office of Black Catholics. During the program, Bishop Shelton T. Fabre, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad-Hoc Committee Against Racism, 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.

Patty January, coordinator of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry for the Diocese of Providence said that she hopes this pastoral letter will be an opportunity to continue the discussion of racism.

“It is my hope that this pastoral letter on racism will be used in dioceses and parishes throughout the nation to continue the discussion of how we as a nation can move forward to confront the facts that racism is real and is a tactic used for dismantling of the dignity,” she said.

Bishops speaking on the pastoral gave clear consent to the letter’s message.

“This statement is very important and very timely,” said Bishop John E. Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky. He appreciated that the letter took note of the racism suffered by African-Americans and Native Americans, “two pieces of our national history that we have not reconciled.”

“This will be a great, fruitful document for discussion,” said Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond, Virginia, in whose diocese the violence-laden “Unite the Right” rally was held last year. Bishop Knestout added the diocese has already conducted listening sessions on racism.

Bishop Robert J. Baker of Birmingham, Alabama, what he called “ground zero for the civil rights movement,” said the pastoral’s message is needed, as the civil rights movement “began 60 years ago and we’re still working on achieving the goals in this document.”

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, said he was grateful for the pastoral’s declaration that “an attack against the dignity of the human person is an attack the dignity of life itself.”

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix said the letter will be welcome among Native Americans, who populate 11 missions in the diocese, African-Americans in Arizona — “I think we were the last of the 50 states to be part of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday,” he noted — and Hispanics, who make up 80 percent of all diocesan Catholics under age 20.

“This is very important for our people and our youth to know the history of racism,” he added.

Bishop Fabre said an electronic copy of “Open Wide Our Hearts” would be posted “somewhat immediately,” with a print version available around Thanksgiving.

“Also, there will be resources available immediately” now that the pastoral letter has been approved, including Catholic school resources for kindergarten through 12th grade, added the bishop, who also is chair of the bishops’ Subcommittee on African American Affairs.

“’Open Wide Our Hearts’ conveys the bishops’ grave concern about the rise of racist attitudes in society,” Bishop Fabre said Nov. 13, when the pastoral was put on the floor of the bishops’ meeting. It also “offers practical suggestions for individuals, families and communities,” he said.

“Every racist act — every such comment, every joke, every disparaging look as a reaction to the color of skin, ethnicity or place of origin — is a failure to acknowledge another person as a brother or sister, created in the image of God,” it adds.

“Racial profiling frequently targets Hispanics for selective immigration enforcement practices, and African-Americans, for suspected criminal activity. There is also the growing fear and harassment of persons from majority Muslim countries. Extreme nationalist ideologies are feeding the American public discourse with xenophobic rhetoric that instigates fear against foreigners, immigrants and refugees.”

“Personal sin is freely chosen,” a notion that would seem to include racism, said retired Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, New Mexico, Nov. 13, but “social sin is collective blindness. There is sin as deed and sin as illness. It’s a pervasive illness that runs through a culture.” Bishop Fabre responded that the proposed letter refers to institutional and structural racism.

An amendment from Bishop Ramirez to include this language in the pastoral was accepted by the bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church, which guided the document’s preparation.

Bishop Curtis J. Guillory of Beaumont, Texas, said Nov. 13 the pastoral “gives us a wonderful opportunity to educate, to convert,” adding that, given recent incidents, the document should give “consideration to our Jewish brothers and sisters.”

With reports from Laura Kilgus, Rhode Island Catholic