When counter-protesters arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia last August to challenge the white nationalists and neo-Nazis gathered there, the one thing Gloria Purvis kept asking herself as she looked with horror upon television images of Confederate flags, torches, automatic rifles and Swastikas, was “Where are the Catholic priests?”
Purvis recalls seeing Protestant ministers and other faith leaders who arrived on the scene - which eventually turned fatal after a white nationalist drove a vehicle into a crowd of counter-protesters - yet the seeming lack of an authoritative Catholic presence joining the resistance struck her as shameful.
One year later, the Catholic Church in the United States appears to be still struggling to reckon with America’s “original sin.”
Although the nation’s bishops offered a swift institutional response to the events of Charlottesville, many Catholics of color fear that the real work of combatting deeply-entrenched racist tendencies is either stalled due to bureaucratic obstacles, or, in some quarters, a lack of conviction for substantive and lasting change.
Statements and Substantive Change
On August 12, the day after Charlottesville, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), issued an initial statement calling for calm and condemning “the abhorrent acts of hatred on display.”
Following an initial wave of criticism that the statement failed to name the specific type of hatred, DiNardo released a second statement, joined by Bishop Frank Dewane, who serves as point man for the USCCB’s domestic issues, in which they said, “We stand against the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-nazism. We stand with our sisters and brothers united in the sacrifice of Jesus, by which love’s victory over every form of evil is assured.”
Ten days later, on August 23, the U.S. bishops rolled out plans for a new Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism - the highest structural response within the USCCB.
“Recent events have exposed the extent to which the sin of racism continues to afflict our nation,” said DiNardo. “The establishment of this new ad hoc committee will be wholly dedicated to engaging the Church and our society to work together in unity to challenge the sin of racism, to listen to persons who are suffering under this sin, and to come together in the love of Christ to know one another as brothers and sisters.”
Yet the problem for many Catholics of color - like Purvis, host of EWTN’s radio show “Morning Glory,” - is that statements are often just that.
“It’s a sad thing that I don’t remember what the Church said in response to Charlottesville,” she told Crux.
While she believes moves such as the Ad Hoc Committee and the bishops’ plan to release an updated pastoral letter on racism later this year are healthy and necessary, she still believes bringing up the issue of race at a local level, be it in one’s parish or on social media, is still something most Catholics have a hard time doing - and she’s particularly frustrated that some Catholics fail to connect racial injustice to Church teaching on human dignity.
“When we talk about the loss of dignity for the unborn child, people understand that as they rightfully should. And people defend that. But when you make statements saying that racism dehumanizes a black person, people don’t want to hear that and try to say it’s a ‘left-leaning issue,’” said Purvis.
“But when it’s seen from a truly Catholic lens, it’s all about the dignity of the human person,” she continued. “The fact that there’s a hyper-active or negative reaction when you mention the word racism, that’s still frustrating.”
Individual and Institutional Change
Such challenges, however, are no surprise to Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux in Louisiana, who took over as head of the Ad Hoc Committee this past May after Bishop George Murry stepped down to fight Leukemia.
“We still struggle [to] dialogue openly about racism, to speak constructively and listen productively to one another,” he told Crux. “I think in many instances we still largely approach race and racism from a reactive stance.”
“We need to approach the evil of racism from the position of a positive, interactive stance with others,” he continued. “We want to give people permission and motive to talk about race.”
Going forward, Fabre envisions both institutional change in how the Church responds to race relations, as well as changes at an individual or local level.
He told Crux that part of the Ad Hoc Committee’s role will be to facilitate individual prayer and liturgical opportunities over race, and, more broadly, to work with other Christian traditions to learn how to better combat its evils together. He also said that the committee will work to improve formation on racial issues in Catholic schools and seminaries.
For Marjorie Romeyn-Sanabria, a recent Catholic convert of Puerto Rican descent and a communications professional in Washington, D.C., initiatives to battle racism at a local level will have the most influence.
“I think the most important work the Church is doing is behind the headlines. It’s going to be in homilies, in community outreach, and away from the press,” she told Crux. “Whenever a hot-button topic is discussed in the news cycle, its meaning is lost. The Church has been good about keeping the deep-rooted work in the parishes and communities, where it belongs.”
Jeanné Isler of Faith in Public Life and an active member of St. Augustine Catholic Church, Washington, D.C.’s first black Catholic parish, emphasized the need for more robust engagement within the local Church, but told Cruxshe’d like to see Catholic leaders more specifically address policy questions with racial implications.
She pointed to the recent debates over immigration and the Trump administration’s former policy of separating immigrant parents from their children, saying that many other Christian denominations seemed more forceful in condemning policy she believes is racially motivated - as well as offering tangible alternatives, such as sanctuary churches.
Romeyn-Sanabria agreed, saying that the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border has revealed how tone deaf she believes some Catholics are on the issue of race.
“As a woman of color, I was very saddened to know there were members of the religious right drinking champagne because of [Supreme Court Justice Anthony] Kennedy’s retirement, while there were children held in cages at the border,” she said. “Those children look like me. Would they still be celebrating if it were me in there?”
A Necessary First Step
Following Charlottesville, both the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee, along with many dioceses and parishes, initiated listening sessions to hear firsthand the concerns of Catholics in the pews.
Michèle Guerrier, a member of the diocese of Brooklyn’s Commission on Racism and Social Justice, has been encouraged, but told Crux “It’s very sad that we had to wait for Charlottesville.”
Fabre said he believes these sessions are a necessary first step.
“When parish communities and people of good will, aided and inspired by the Ad Hoc Committee’s listening sessions and other works, begin to invest in having their own spontaneous, frank, honest and open conversations about racism and inviting people previously seen as ‘the other’ into the common spaces of their lives…it will become a regular part of our national self-reckoning,” he said.
Yet for Guerrier, even the listening sessions are evidence of how far the Church must go. In her experience, they have primarily been attended by black individuals, proving to be their own form of yet another segregated activity.
“We need to sit down and have a conversation, all of us, black, white, Asian, and everybody,” she said. “If you go to a parish event, you’d never think that we’re one of the most diverse dioceses in the country.”
One year after Charlottesville, the overwhelming consensus of Catholics of color seems to be gratitude that this is a conversation that the Church is beginning to have - but conviction that confronting racism will require some brutally hard work, beyond the talk.
Purvis is frustrated because when she’s had conversations with leading Catholic youth evangelization groups or advocacy groups, their leaders seem unwilling to dedicate the necessary resources to undertake such efforts, or are afraid of the risks of failure.
Moreover, she believes that too many priests fail to comprehend the gravity of the situation and are unwilling to change their own patterns of behavior.
“Why is there a willingness for a priest to learn different languages and travel to different countries for mission work, yet he refuses to set foot in a historically black college or university?” she asked.
“Sin has long-lasting effects, and racism is a sin,” Purvis concluded. “People lose their souls, they lose heaven because of this. And we, as a Church, must continue to grapple with that.”