A Catholic response to racism Deacon by Harold Burke-Sivers 

Racism is learned behavior, and Catholics can play a significant role in breaking down the walls of racism by taking a “hands on” approach to creating pillars of mutual respect and understanding built on the firm foundation of covenant relationship.


People in Tulsa, Okla., talk during a racial injustice protest June 20, 2020. (CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters)

“Sooner or later, all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.”  The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke these eloquent words almost fifty-six years ago when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He went on to say that if peace and racial equality are to be achieved, “man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” Dr. King is speaking of a love rooted in faith, a faith that acknowledges that “God is love, and he who lives in love, lives in God and God lives in him” (Jn 4:16). Racial injustice and prejudice are antithetical to love, truth, freedom, and peace.

In order to adequately address issues of race, it is important to define our terms. Prejudice, with regard to race, is a preconceived notion about someone that is not based on any factual or objective experience, and often leads to stereotyping. Racism is prejudice or discrimination directed toward someone of a different race rooted in the belief that one race is superior to another. For example, during the course of a conversation I was having with an acquaintance, they learned that I am from the Newark, NJ area. The person assumed, therefore, that I grew up poor and surrounded by gangs. This individual clearly expressed a prejudicial opinion based in ignorance, but the sentiment itself is not necessarily racist. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, however, would most certainly be racist.

All of us, to some extent, harbor some level of prejudice. If I am speaking to someone from the South, for example, I often assume they like to eat shrimp and grits. This assumption is not based in fact but simply anecdotal on my part. Since I know lots of Southerners who enjoy shrimp and grits, I ignorantly assumed that all Southerners like it as well. Many of our prejudices or ideas of racial superiority are learned. We consume images and soundbites from television, movies, and social media that inundate us with caricatures of various races that are often belittling and derisive and, even if only subliminally, plant seeds of half-truths in the minds and hearts of the viewer or listener. When you see, for example, images of black people as slaves, domestics, and gang members day after day and year after year, these portrayals work their way into our psyche and unintentionally become, to some extent, “true” or “the way it is.”

Prejudiced and racist attitudes of individuals also infiltrate institutional structures and organizations, thus forming the foundation for systemic racism. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, apartheid, and the Dred Scott v. John F. Sanford Supreme Court decision are clear examples of this. Even in the history of the Church, Catholic leaders and organizations chose to follow civil law rather than the law of God by owning slaves, implementing segregation in the churches, and excluding minorities from participation in the life of the Church. The residual effects of these attitudes are still felt by many Catholics of color today.

That said, we must be careful with the term “institutional racism.” In order to factually claim that an institution is racist, you must show that the institution actively promotes racism through official or unofficial policies, procedures, directives, etc. that enshrine the belief that one race is superior to another. Institutional racism must be distinguished from individuals within institutions who continue to hold prejudiced and racist attitudes. The Church herself, founded by Jesus Christ, is not racist, but there are undoubtedly individuals within the Church (both clergy and laity) who are racists. Likewise, law enforcement agencies, in and of themselves, are not racist, but there are unquestionably individuals within those agencies who exhibit prejudice or are blatantly racist. We must recognize the fact that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy and that we are still dealing with the effects of original sin.

If we are honest, it must acknowledged that the Church in the United States has been slow to respond to racism. It has only been in the last sixty years that racism has been addressed in any significant way. In their pastoral letter Brothers and Sisters to Uspublished in 1979, the bishops stated:

Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church. Despite apparent advances and even significant changes in the last two decades, the reality of racism remains. In large part, it is only external appearances which have changed. In 1958, we spoke out against the blatant forms of racism that divided people through discriminatory laws and enforced segregation. We pointed out the moral evil that denied human persons their dignity as children of God and their God-given rights. A decade later in a second pastoral letter we again underscored the continuing scandal of racism and called for decisive action to eradicate it from our society. We recognize and applaud the readiness of many Americans to make new strides forward in reducing and eliminating prejudice against minorities. We are convinced that the majority of Americans realize that racial discrimination is both unjust and unworthy of this nation.

Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race. It is the sin that makes racial characteristics the determining factor for the exercise of human rights. It mocks the words of Jesus: “Treat the others the way you would have them treat you.” Indeed, racism is more than a disregard for these words of Jesus; it is a denial of the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation. 

On September 9, 1984, the feast of St. Peter Claver, the ten black bishops of the United States at that time issued a ground-breaking document on evangelization and the black Catholic community called What We Have Seen and Heard. In that letter, the bishops wrote:

Black people know what freedom is because we remember the dehumanizing force of slavery, racist prejudice, and oppression. No one can understand so well the meaning of the proclamation that Christ has set us free than those who have experienced the denial of freedom. For us, therefore, freedom is a cherished gift. For its preservation, no sacrifice is too great. Hence, freedom brings responsibility. It must never be abused, equated with license, nor taken for granted. Freedom is God’s gift, and we are accountable to Him for our loss of it. And we are accountable for the gift of freedom in the lives of others. We oppose all oppression and all injustice, for unless all are free none are free.

In recent years, individual bishops have also spoken openly about the issue of race. In 2015, in a response to a series of incidents involving African American men and law enforcement officials that sparked national outcry and protests, Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz said:

We mourn those tragic events in which African Americans and others have lost their lives in altercations with law enforcement officials. . . . In every in-stance, our prayer for every community is that of our Lord in St. John’s Gospel, “that they all may be one.” . . . We join our voices with civic and religious leaders in pledging to work for healing and reconciliation. Our efforts must address root causes of these conflicts. A violent, sorrowful history of racial injustice, accompanied by a lack of educational, employment and housing opportunities, has destroyed communities and broken down families, especially those who live in distressed urban communities. 

Bishop Edward K. Braxton, shepherd of the Diocese of Bellville and an outspoken prelate on racism, stated in a lecture given at the Catholic University of America in 2017:

We Catholics, like other Christians, sometimes have only a superficial cultural commitment to our faith. We do not experience our faith in Jesus Christ and his command to love at the deepest levels of our being. Only this deep existential commitment to follow Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life, will impel us to truly live the Catholic faith we profess in all of the complex and difficult situations of our lives, including those which will require us to oppose anyone and anything that serves to maintain the racial divide.

Most recently, in 2018, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter against racism called Open Wide our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.  The document focuses on the sin of racism in society and the Church, and the urgent need for all of us to come together to find solutions.

The cumulative effects of personal sins of racism have led to social structures of injustice and violence that makes us all accomplices in racism.

We read the headlines that report the killing of unarmed African Americans by law enforcement officials. In our prisons, the number of inmates of color, notably those who are brown and black, is grossly disproportionate. Despite the great blessings of liberty that this country offers, we must admit the plain truth that for many of our fellow citizens, who have done nothing wrong, interactions with the police are often fraught with fear and even danger. At the same time, we reject harsh rhetoric that belittles and dehumanizes law enforcement personnel who labor to keep our communities safe. We also condemn violent attacks against police.

Conversion is a long road to travel for the individual. Moving our nation to a full realization of the promise of liberty, equality, and justice for all is even more challenging. However, in Christ we can find the strength and the grace necessary to make that journey.

Love compels each of us to resist racism courageously. It requires us to reach out generously to the victims of this evil, to assist the conversion needed in those who still harbor racism, and to begin to change policies and structures that allow racism to persist. Overcoming racism is a demand of justice, but because Christian love transcends justice, the end of racism will mean that our community will bear fruit beyond simply the fair treatment of all.

Like all of you, I am sickened by the events of the past weeks, months, and years. The solution to what we are seeing and experiencing in this country is not rioting, looting, and vandalism.  Racism is learned behavior, and Catholics can play a significant role in breaking down the walls of racism by taking a “hands on” approach to creating pillars of mutual respect and understanding built on the firm foundation of covenant relationship.

We need to see past stereotypes and see people. Racist ideologies create images that leave negative impressions on susceptible and vulnerable minds and hearts, especially those of children. We need to recognize our own prejudices and racist attitudes, acknowledge them, then work hard to crucify this way of thinking and, instead, see the image and likeness of God in each other. We should stop supporting media outlets, individuals, and organizations that create, encourage, and perpetuate racist stereotypes, or who propose violence and anarchy as solutions.

Appreciate the gift of cultural diversity. Host and attend cultural events in the parish or diocese where the customs and traditions of other races can be appreciated and celebrated, not feared and caricatured. This includes cross-pollination within parishes where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass includes authentic and reverent cultural expressions that acknowledge the unique gifts we all bring to the Body of Christ.

Make a serious effort to promote conversation and dialogue. Back in 2016, rappers Snoop Dogg (Calvin Broadus) and The Game (Jayceon Terrell Taylor) organized a summit where they met with the Los Angeles police chief and mayor. The purpose was to facilitate effective change through dialogue and understanding. Efforts like this need to be applauded and multiplied, where communication barriers are shattered and respectful dialogue is opened between those in power and the disenfranchised. Deep-seeded commitments to building integrity, sharing wisdom, and imparting knowledge can lead to reciprocity of love and change. Reaching out with compassion to those of different races and hearing their stories, responding with empathy, and working through differences with humble, contrite hearts can create a harmonic of love that will reverberate in our hearts and throughout our land. 

Law enforcement use-of-force practices need to be reevaluated. During my twenty-three-year public safety career, I served in various leadership positions in a number of organizations, including the Western Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals, and the Protection Specialist Association. I’ve received training through the National School Safety Center, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the Crisis Prevention Institute, and the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers.

From 2002-2008, I had the honor and privilege of serving on the Board of the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training for the State of Oregon. This agency provides the training and resources public safety officers and agencies need to maintain the highest level of skill, and facilitate excellent service to Oregon’s communities and citizens. I am very familiar with how law enforcement officers are trained and I will be the first to admit that, given the frequent incidents of police brutality over the last several years, there needs to be reform. This sentiment is shared by many front-line officers, including members of the Minneapolis Police Department who have condemned the actions of Officer Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, and “stand ready to listen and embrace the calls for change, reform and rebuilding.”

Reform and rebuilding, yes. Defunding, no. The idea of defunding police departments is a far-reaching overreaction, short-sighted, and irresponsible. In this regard, I wholeheartedly agree with former Officer Brandon Tatum who observes that

[t]here are dangerous, evil people in this world, and when that person comes to your front door and endangers your family who are you going to call? Politicians? Activists? No. You’re going to call a man or woman who took an oath to uphold the law and give their life, if necessary, to protect you and your family. The police officer is not going to turn away from you because of your race, your religion, or your past mistakes.

And what, exactly, are you going to cut? Homicide investigations? Sex crimes and human trafficking? Identity theft? Elder abuse? Drugs and gang intervention? Policing is a vocation, a calling from God. Jesus himself says, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Most police are excellent, and work hard every day to serve and protect—and to give their lives, if necessary, for—the people in their care.

If serial arsonists kill dozens of people and it is discovered that they are firefighters, no one would think to defund fire departments because of the actions of a few rogue fireman. No one is calling for defunding physicians because some doctors perform abortions and euthanize their patients. Police are not trained to kneel on people’s necks or shoot people in the back. No one is more angry about what’s been going on than good cops, just like good priests are angry about those few priests who abuse children. So what can be done?

    • Go on a ride-a-long. See what police officers do on a daily basis, then make an informed decision on how to move forward.
    • Implement better psychological testing/screening to identify bias and prejudice.
    • Implement more effective scenario-based training.
    • Have police departments follow the recommendation of the Police Executive Research Forum to assist officers recognizing the inherent dignity of every human person. This should be part of the required curriculum at every police academy.
    • On-going, mandatory cultural diversity training for all officers. 
    • Work with police unions to toughen accountability regarding moral turpitude and officer discipline investigations, and implement tougher sanctions.

Put God back in society. When we remove God from the public square, we make room for the devil. We have stopped seeing each other as made in God’s image and likeness, and are instead trying to remake God in our image and likeness in fulfillment of Satan’s lie, “You will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). The lawlessness, pejorative rhetoric, and the constant assault on religious liberty and freedom rampant in our culture are signs of this.

As faithful Catholics, we can no longer allow secular culture and ideology—with its promulgation of subjective, relativistic truth—to displace the objective, absolute truth of Catholic doctrine and principles. In order to defeat racism, there must be further introspection and a deeper examination of conscience in order to arrive at the root cause of the disunity and divisiveness within humanity that leads to sinful actions; where we see ourselves and worldly principles as the autonomous center of all truth.

We all live with the reality of human frailty and weakness, both within ourselves and in those we love.  We must recognize and acknowledge the reality of sin; that it affects us and speaks to us within the depths of our being.  Yet, we cannot allow the pain of sin and the suffering it causes to take root in our hearts.  We cannot allow sin to control us, or its anguish to overwhelm us.  Conquering sin in our lives begins with personal transformation; with an interior conversion that reveals the fundamental truth of our being and existence. “God is love,” stated Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio, “and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in His own image and keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion” (par 11).

Walk by faith not be sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Throughout history, sin has been a major obstacle to achieving true human freedom lived in God’s image and likeness. “So often we try to deny this fact. …”, wrote Reverend King in his 1959 book The Measure of a Man [1], “We know how to love, and yet we hate. We take the precious lives that God has given us and throw them away. We are unfaithful to those to whom we should be faithful. We are disloyal to those ideals to which we should be loyal. ‘We are like sheep that have gone astray.”

The Venerable Father Augustus Tolton was raised in an environment in which it was a common belief that “white people were superior to blacks and for that reason whites had the right or even the duty to dominate and control them and ‘keep them in their place’.” [2] He and his family endured a lifetime of hatred and oppression both within and outside of the Church.

Despite the fact that “from the time he was a small boy he learned, from an association with the white race, to accept the fact that degradation and contempt were the common lot of God’s black children,” [3] Tolton never retaliated or sought revenge. Though he was upset by the circumstances of his time, his heart was never filled with animosity or vitriol. Instead, Augustus Tolton responded with love, patience, and understanding.

What is striking about Father Tolton is that he remained a Catholic despite enduring a lifetime of racial animosity and prejudice.  In the face of such bigotry and hatred, why didn’t Father Augustus Tolton leave the Church?  Father Tolton was able to discern what many fail to perceive and do not fully appreciate: that what the Catholic Church actually teaches is true, good, and beautiful despite the hypocrisy and contradiction of Church members who do not actually live the faith they profess. Father Tolton always acknowledged the great gift of his Catholic faith and recognized that personal sin and human weakness are not greater or more powerful than the strength of objective truth found in Catholicism. Father Tolton was a visionary who saw far beyond issues of race and politics, looking inward—into the heart of the Church herself. “The Catholic Church,” Father Tolton once said, “deplores a double slavery—that of the mind and that of the body.  She endeavors to free us of both. […] In this Church we don’t have to fight for our rights because we are black. The Church is broad and liberal [i.e., generous]. She is the Church for our people.” [4]

Pray constantly (1 Thessalonian 5:17). Our saying “yes” to God’s holy will provides the road map that leads us into a life of prayer.  Even during those times when we forget about God for a while, the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer. In prayer, God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response. As God gradually reveals Himself; as He makes a complete gift of Himself to us in love, “prayer becomes a reciprocal call” (CCC 2567), an acceptance of God’s invitation to covenant relationship: an acceptance of His invitation to intimate, personal, loving, and life-giving communion. 

Prayer is both a gift of grace and a response that takes effort on our part.  In order for us to walk humbly before our God in the obedience of faith, we must appreciate the fact that we cannot do this all on our own; that we need God’s help every step of the way, especially during the turbulent and troubling times we are facing today. Anyone who truly believes in God’s infinite love will abandon themselves totally to Him in prayer and, in that complete self-gift, we will find the courage to defeat the scourge of racism, and discover the peace and certainty for which our hearts long. I recommend:

  • Praying before Jesus who is truly, fully, and substantially present in the Most Blessed Sacrament in Eucharistic Adoration for personal conversion, as well as the strength and commitment to be a voice and advocate for real change.
  • Uniting the “Life and Dignity of the Human Person,” “Rights and Responsibilities,” and “Solidarity” principles of Catholic teaching with the Beatitudes so that faith becomes not simply “what we do” but “who we are.”
  • Asking the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “In God’s eternal plan, woman is the one in whom the order of love in the created world of persons takes first root. The order of love belongs to the intimate life of God himself, the life of the Trinity. … Through the Spirit, love becomes a gift for created persons. […] The dignity of woman is measured by the order of love, which is essentially the order of justice and charity” (Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, no.29 [emphasis in the original]).

A parable parallel: The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The Samaritan, in the eyes of the Jews, was an alien, an unwanted foreigner.  There was strong hostility between the two neighboring peoples. Jews and Samaritans were ethnically related and shared some of the Jewish beliefs, but the Samaritans were seen as heretics. 

Yet, this despised outsider—presumed to have nothing of the spirit of God’s mercy and compassion—gives the Jewish man lying on the ground the attention that the clergyman refused to give. In fact, the Samaritan went to extraordinary lengths to take care of the injured man, sparing no expense. What’s more, the priest and Levite didn’t make any humanitarian effort to help the man all; they could have at least called for help or let someone else know what happened. 

What would you have done in that situation?  It’s easy to say, in retrospect,  “I would help the guy.” But what if the almost dead man was one of the police officers involved in the George Floyd killing? As we walk by the officer on the side of the road, the anger and hatred we feel would burn like a fire in our hearts, and would we want—more than anything—for that person to suffer greatly, even to the point of death.  We would want to leave him lying there and say, “You deserve it!” and not give him a second thought. 

Yet, our Lord tells us that we must be Good Samaritans. “The Samaritan exemplifies a new standard of holiness, where God no longer requires his people to separate from others, but calls them to extend mercy to everyone in need and to exclude no one on the grounds of prejudice” [5] or hatred. Our Lord gives us no other options and makes no exceptions. If we are to defeat the evil of racial injustice, we must always lead with love. We must be the Samaritan.

The truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Despite the efforts of Dr. King and the countless others who gave their hearts, souls, and lives to the cause of justice, peace, and equality, racism remains an evil that endures to this day. It’s not because Dr. King failed, not by a long shot! Racism persists in our world because of the existence of evil and sin.

Some people will tell you that “because the courts have eliminated statutory racial discrimination and Congress has enacted civil rights legislation, and because some minority people have achieved some measure of success, that racism is no longer a problem in American life.” [6] However, when we look beneath the surface, the continuing existence of racism becomes readily apparent.  Racism is alive and well, and is intricately woven into the fabric of American life and culture.

Dr. King and Father Tolton understood that racism is a distortion rooted in the very heart of human nature. “Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world. To struggle against it demands an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society.” [7] “The ultimate remedy against evils such as [racism] will not come solely from human effort. What is needed is the recreation of the human being according to the image revealed in Jesus Christ, for he revealed in himself what each human being can and must become.” [8] We must not be afraid to live out our baptismal call to holiness with fervor and enthusiasm! We must not be afraid to stand up for truth, justice, and peace! Let us lovingly accept our Lord’s invitation to “go and do likewise” as living signs and witnesses of God’s tender love and mercy, so that the world may see the good that we do and give glory to God.

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I am an Informed and fully practicing Roman Catholic

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