In 2020, racial violence and police brutality towards Black persons have profoundly marked this tragic year beset by the Coronavirus pandemic. We’re concluding Black Catholic History Month today. Various Catholic organizations noted the celebration in some way. For example, the US Bishops promoted Black saints on their website. Given the current state of affairs in our society, however, I think it’s quite clear that the efforts of the US Church (in terms of honoring Black people) cannot end on December 1.
Recently-heightened societal awareness of racism that has long been brushed aside and downplayed has had the additional effect of unveiling an ugly implicit bias against Black persons. We can now see clearly that the inequitable belief in white racial superiority is still rampant in our society.
As a Church, we have been tone-deaf to the reality of white supremacy and the potentially mortal effects that this worldview continuously imposes on Black people and communities. The tragic and untimely deaths of Black persons—including but not limited to Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd—serve as poignant examples of the continuing failure of Catholic Church authorities to call out expressions of racial superiority and systemic racism as sinful, contrary to the Gospel, and unacceptable for Christians.
The systemic travesty of racism demands a forceful response from the Church in the United States. We must clearly and categorically condemn white supremacy, white nationalism, and white privilege. Church leaders must also acknowledge their own complicity in failing to acknowledge and address racism in our society.
But there is more we can do as a Church to understand and address the harm caused by implicit bias and inequitable beliefs about rational superiority and shepherd ourselves and the world to a more just society. We must undertake an examination of conscience. We must understand why racism is a mortal sin, and we must explicitly condemn the signs and symbols of white supremacy.
Am I an unconscious racist?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly defines racism as a sin (CCC 1938). This sin is more pervasive than is immediately evident to many of us. Racism is holding inequitable beliefs regarding those of another race, in conjunction with a belief in one’s own racial superiority.
Discriminatory views on race and the belief in one’s own racial superiority can often elude detection if they permeate one’s culture or family. We must make an honest examination of conscience, and we must reflect on our implicit biases, including those that have been inculcated in us by our environment and experiences.
Implicit bias is that tendency for stereotype-confirming thoughts to spontaneously pass through our minds. It might not even be a conscious prejudice. One can have implicit bias even when one doesn’t believe oneself to be racist.
Preeminent to this is the Christian responsibility for taking ownership of our conscience formation, which calls on us to become aware of inherent, built-in, and learned tendencies that could lead to sin.
Bishop Joseph Perry of the Archdiocese of Chicago encourages this examination of conscience around racism:
“The place to start (with regard to racism), I believe, is in our own hearts and in our own little corners of the world. And the first concrete step we need to take is to courageously examine our consciences.
“Think about our thoughts and words, our actions or inactions. Do we detect expressions or subtle references to the inferiority of certain peoples?
“Have we picked up conscious or unconscious bias regarding peoples of color or other marginalized peoples from our homes and formative environments? How might this have influenced my worldview or determined my assumptions about certain types of people?
“Continuing this examination, we want to determine whether we avoid the experiences, the neighborhoods, or the viewpoints of people of color. Do I see people of color as a threat, or do I consider them beneath me or somehow making my life difficult? At the extremes: Do I get anxious or cross the street when I see a person of color walking toward me?”
Bishop Perry’s suggestions are an excellent starting place for ending racism beginning with ourselves. I recommend you read them in full.
When does the sin of racism become a mortal sin?
The Catechism teaches, “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: ‘Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent‘” (CCC 1857).
Some might argue that without full knowledge of the sinful nature of racism, people who subscribe to racism aren’t culpable for mortal sin, as opposed to a venial sin. I would argue that my point above stands: we are responsible to take an active role in our conscience formation.
Racism absolutely can be a mortal sin, given its trajectory towards the dehumanization and death of persons. It is also the catalyst for the diminishment of the quality of life for entire communities. Additionally, we cannot ignore sins of omission and complicity by silence. These can often have effects just as grave as racism in its more overt forms.
We don’t often hear about racism as a mortal sin. For many this might come as a surprise. No one wants to consider themselves a racist whose soul is in peril. However, in its extreme form, the effects of racism more than satisfy the Church’s precepts for a sin to become mortal.
Racism is indeed grave, as it can result in the oppression and death of human beings. Racists, in believing themselves the superior race, knowingly look down upon their perceived inferiors (or consciously ignore the plight of their fellow humans). This belief stands in opposition to God, who made all of us in his image. Those who consent to continue to hold that worldview truly endanger their souls.
Further, the diminishment of the quality of life of any culture of people considered conglomerately inferior (and therefore exploitable) has historically plagued all societies to some extent. The difference for Christians is that we are called to be a voice for the voiceless. Not to do so is to commit a sin of omission. Make no mistake, silence in the presence of racial injustice is complicity. This can impose mortal effects on its victims and the souls of its perpetrators.
Even without witnessing or experiencing overt racism first-hand, it is difficult to imagine, in our information-laden society, that we could be ignorant of existing racist realities in our nation. But the Catechism also teaches, “Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin” (CCC 1859). Therefore, there is no excuse not to fully educate ourselves about the sin of racism and acknowledge the true reality and implications that it can have on our souls.
The Church must respond to racism
The response from Catholic Church leaders in the US on the heinous actions towards members of the Black community—just in the last year—has been divided. Frankly, the Church has been a poor witness to the faithful and to society by this weak response. This suggests that Church leaders have serious work to do in terms of their own implicit biases and conscience formation.
Starting with calling a spade a spade (or in this case, calling a swastika a swastika), our appointed shepherds need to explicitly denounce symbols of white supremacy for what they are: violence-inciting, racial-factioning, bully-enabling emblems that have led to the senseless, disproportionate killing of Black people.
The symbols of those who promote ideologies of racial superiority and nationalism are well-known: swastikas, Confederate flags, nooses. These images are used to perpetuate the idea that whites are superior to everyone else. Shamefully, in the drafting of Open Wide Our Hearts (their 2018 statement on racism), the US bishops rejected an amendment that listed the Confederate flag among the symbols of racial hatred, writing, “While for many the Confederate flag is also a sign of hatred and segregation, some still claim it as a sign of heritage.” Catholic leaders must make it absolutely clear that these symbols have no place in a just society, and that their use by Catholics is categorically condemned.
When we do not explicitly condemn the symbols, messages, and systems that perpetuate racism, we fail to address the root cause—the implicit bias—that leads to violence against Blacks today. As Fr. Bryan Massingale, author of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, stated in a lecture he gave at Emory University:
“Efforts of denouncing racism often fail to intentionally condemn and attack root causes and the perspectives that fuel it. These include nationalist ideals based on the perceived supremacy of one race over all others.”
The Church must also avoid complicity in white supremacy and white nationalism through silence. In another lecture, Fr. Massingale describes those who ignore white supremacy as “bystanders.” He explains:
“Bystanders teach onlookers a very important message: doing racist things is okay because white people will let you get away with it. …We create safe spaces for racism to fester and to brew… the atmosphere that says when white people do terrible things, other white people have your back. Other white people won’t call you out.”
The Church cannot continue to be a bystander when her role in our formation demands that she set an example for all of its members—clergy, religious, and laity. The Church can start by explicitly denouncing the symbols of white supremacy. This will enable the believer to actively and directly form one’s conscience as intentionally anti-racist, to identify and shun the symbols associated with racism.
In conjunction with our responsibility for intentional conscience formation against racism, we must emphatically and comprehensively denounce white nationalism, white supremacy and white privilege. We must reject their symbols. We must root out any implicit bias and inequitable beliefs that underlie the sin of racism.
Moreover, if we are to properly form and shepherd the faithful’s consciences, the Church must clearly affirm that Black lives are sacred, and that Black lives matter to all Catholics. This is critical in current times, where ingrained notions of white supremacy are now being called out into the open. Any implicit bias against Black people as inferior is contrary to the Gospel. It’s mind-blowing to think that we still must be reminded of this. And yet, here we are.
With its renewal of their ad hoc Committee Against Racism for another three years, the Catholic Church in the US has the perfect opportunity to implement spiritual and moral formation centered around a Catholic response to racial injustice. Let us pray that the committee commits to demonstrative changes. It is urgent and necessary that we comprehensively and unambiguously condemn the sin of racism and all of its manifestations, especially symbols of white supremacy, as a serious—and potentially mortal—sin.
Image: Adobe Stock.