NEW ORLEANS, La. (Catholic Online) – Racism is present in the hearts of some Catholics and institutionally in the Catholic Church which the faithful must work to purge in thought and in action, said a U.S. archbishop in a comprehensive pastoral letter.
In the document, “’Made in the Image and Likeness of God’: A Pastoral Letter on Racial Harmony,” released Dec. 15, New Orleans Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes begged forgiveness for acts the church committed that were racially insensitive or did not promote racial harmony, and committed the church to action.
The pastoral was made available in its entirety in the Dec. 16 issue of the Clarion Herald (www.clarionherald.org).
“I want to express an apology for the way in which I or other members of the church have acted or failed to act,” he said. “I want to acknowledge the past in truth, seek forgiveness and recommit myself and our church in New Orleans to realizing the gospel message in our relations with one another.”
It was released on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the issuance by New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Rummel of the landmark and controversial pastoral, “The Morality of Racial Segregation.”
“In this 1956 ground-breaking message,” Archbishop Hughes said of his predecessor, “he announced that racial segregation was to be gradually dismantled in all Catholic schools in the Archdiocese. He stated unequivocally: ‘Racial segregation as such is morally wrong and sinful because it is a denial of the unity-solidarity of the human race as conceived by God in the creation of Adam and Eve.’”
The archdiocese celebrates “this courageous pioneer of racial integration,” Archbishop Hughes said, “even as we try to make a realistic assessment of the progress and the challenges that are ours today.”
About a quarter of the 41,000 students in archdiocesan Catholic schools represent ethnic minorities, with more than 7,000 are African-Americans, almost 1,500 are Hispanic, more than 1,000 are Asian-American and about 200 are multi-racial, he noted.
He cited the Ursuline Sisters welcoming of children of different races and religious backgrounds going back to 1727 and St. Katharine Drexel’s establishing of 40 schools for African-Americans in south Louisiana, including the formation of Xavier University in New Orleans, as examples of the church’s role in the city’s three centuries of “multi-racial and multi-cultural” history.
But he pointed to the presence of racism in the church in the past and its existence today that it must work to purge.
While acknowledging his own reluctance to use “the emotionally charged” term “racism,” Archbishop Hughes said that the Catholic Church “is not of hesitant to define racism as both a personal sin and a social disorder rooted in the belief that one race is superior to another.”
“Racism can be both personal and institutional,” he stressed. “Hence, it involves not only individual prejudice but also the use of religious, social, political, economic or historical power to keep one race privileged.”
Institutions, he noted, can “foster attitudes or practices that leads to unjust discrimination” in political life, in education, in housing and in establishing blockages to equal economic opportunities.
Institutional racism is also present in the Catholic Church, he said.
“When members, whether in leadership or not, treat other racial or cultural expressions as inferior or unwelcome, they contribute to an institutional form of racism within the church – for which we must continually repent and ask forgiveness,” the archbishop said.
“Unfortunately, today as in the past,” he added, “we in the church have been slow to appreciate the full depth and breadth of the meaning of divine revelation that each human person is made in the image and likeness of God.”
The archbishop admitted that the church’s response “to this unjust situation has been uneven and often half-hearted.” He pointed to the church not working hard enough to make its teaching against racism known to the Catholic community and the public at large, in not giving racism “a high priority,” and not reacting quickly enough to deal with the issue of “white flight” from parishes.
He pointed to the painful suffering in post-Katrina New Orleans, noting that “the devastating flood water has brought home the still unaddressed issues which weigh heavily upon us: the unacceptably high rate of poverty among African Americans; the limited choices in education because of the failing public schools; the disproportionate percentages without health insurance; the difficulty in finding adequate affordable housing.”
He offered the hope that “the waters of Katrina (which means cleansing) were not only to wreak devastation, but also to wash away the stain of racial prejudice and division, and enable us to rise to a new life of racial justice and harmony.”
The impact of Hurricane Katrina, the archbishop said, reinforced for him the need to address “the racial undercurrent to so many issues we face in our community.”
“The housing crunch, economic barriers, the failures in public education, the two-tier health-care delivery system in New Orleans, the shortcomings of civic, governmental and church leadership have impacted us all, but the poor to a disproportionate extent,” he said.
He pointed to difficulties faced in returning from Katrina by African-Americans, the experience of prejudice and unjust treatment by Latinos working in recovery jobs and the “community resolve of the Vietnamese community to rebuild despite finding itself “outside the civic decision-making structure.”
“If Katrina should enable us to develop public schools which truly teach the mind and form children in virtue; if Katrina should make it possible for us to provide health care for all our citizens including the most vulnerable; if Katrina should goad us into truly working together for flood protection, public transportation, economic development and housing communities which are mixed-income, interracial and culturally uplifting; if Katrina should give rise to more citizens and public officials who truly want to serve the common good, then God will have enabled us to transform tragedy into victory,” the archbishop said.
The archbishop addressed candidly “white privilege,” which he defined as “those with lighter skin color have certain advantages, privileges and benefits that persons of darker color do not enjoy.”
Noting that an African-American family in Louisiana is more than three times as likely than a white family to live in poverty (36 percent to 11 percent), Archbishop Hughes said that “white people often do not see the advantages that are inherent simply in being born into society with physical characteristics valued by that society.”
“People of color,” he said, “have certain systemic disadvantages, burdens and stigmas that they have to overcome.”
He said that, while a white person may not espouse racial superiority, “anyone who has accepted social privilege at the expense of people of another race is complicit in the fostering of attitudes and behavior that unfortunately can feed racial disharmony.”
The archbishop outlined an “action plan” outlining “a strategy for moving forward as a church and as a post-Katrina community.”
The church needs to examine and respond to the “significance of white exodus from the inner city and the toleration of poverty resulting in inferior schools, housing and healthcare for those who are racially and culturally different,” the bishop said, as well as encouraging and finding ways to support “responsible marriages, good parenting and wholesome family life.”
Immigration reform is another area which requires the church to speak out, he said. The archbishop noted that, while “every country has a responsibility to defend its citizens, to protect its borders and to develop responsible control over immigration,” policies should not penalize legitimate refugees or workers needed in the United States or prevent reunification between spouses and families.
He further pledged the archdiocese to work to strengthen interfaith ties with the Jewish community. “Moreover, our efforts to address racial justice today should also have a significant impact on the way we, in this age of increased terrorism, address ethnic and religious prejudice against Muslims.”
The archbishop offered 27 specific pastoral “commitments of the archdiocese” to meet the challenge of racism. Included in them are:
- Promotion of liturgies that reflect the religious and cultural diversity of the archdiocese.
- Development of programs of racial and cultural education for clergy, staff, teachers and catechists.
- Creation of policies promoting minority vendor consideration in the archdiocese, especially having to do with the post-Katrina rebuilding effort.
- Development of initiatives to promote “strengthening of marriages and families in the lives of the poor.”
- Advocacy of initiatives in the state and nation on immigration reform, fair wages, housing, education and employment practices.
- Promotion of Christian and non-Christian collaborative efforts to fight racial and cultural discrimination.
- Development of parish efforts to nurture vocations to the priesthood, dioconate and religious life from African- , Asian- and Native-American and Hispanic peoples.
The archbishop, in a section of seven “recommendations for all Catholics,” urged “that we confront and reject any racial stereotypes, remarks and prejudices,” “refrain from membership in clubs or organizations which are not open to a racially or culturally diverse membership” and “vote for public officials who are committed to human life, human dignity and racial, cultural and systemic justice.”
“It is important for us to be able to say,” the archbishop stressed, “there is only one community in our new New Orleans.”
He offered a prayer that the Catholic community “become a place welcoming to linguistically, racially and culturally diverse people, a place of beauty, a place of safety, a place of peace, a place for spiritual enrichment and renewal. God grant us the grace, the wisdom and the courage to realize this vision.”
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Respect for Women:
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