In a new pastoral letter on racism, the Archbishop of Washington has encouraged Catholics to recognize the dignity of every human person, and to address the challenges — both subtle and obvious — posed to that dignity by various kinds of racism and discrimination in the United States.

The Catholic Church has a very important role in speaking out on racism — particularly within the Archdiocese of Washington, explained Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, in an interview with CNA. “As I say in the letter, it falls to the Church to be the conscience of the nation. That’s our task.” “When it comes to something as critical as what’s happening in the area of racism, we all agree that our people, our priests, should give some sort of spiritual and pastoral leadership.”

The process of writing the letter, titled “The Challenge of Racism Today” began years ago, after an archdiocesan synod identified racism and diversity as priorities to be addressed by the archdiocese, Wuerl told CNA. Prominent instances of racial discrimination over the past several years, in addition to movement by the U.S. bishops to address racism around the country, demonstrated the need to issue a pastoral letter addressing the issue for the archdiocese, he said.

The letter is addressed to the clergy, religious, and laity of the Archdiocese of Washington. In August, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops formed an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism in order to confront racism around the nation, following violence in Charlottesville, Va. The bishops last issued a collective pastoral reflection on racism in 1979, “Brothers and Sisters to Us.”

In his letter, Wuerl pointed to both “subtle” and “obvious forms of racism, and called on Catholics to recognize all forms of racism and discrimination operative in American communities. He noted that while racism is a complex social problem, “there is something we can do about it even if we realize that what we say and the steps we take will not result in an immediate solution to a problem that spans generations.”

Wuerl especially encouraged Catholics to know that there are steps they personally can take to mitigate racism. Wuerl pointed out that the United States has experienced “exploitation and oppression of indigenous peoples,  Asians,  Latinos,  Japanese-Americans  and others,  including people  from various parts of Europe,” but noted that African-Americans have faced the most racial discrimination in American history.

“In our homeland, the most profound and extensive evidence of racism lies in the sin of centuries of human trafficking, enslavement, segregation and the lingering effects experienced by African-American men, women and children,” he wrote. Discrimination continues today through “ignorance,” the “silent support of other expressions of discrimination” within some sectors of society, and a lack of interaction with those from other backgrounds.

He wrote that racial prejudice is “a hindrance to unity and a heavy burden for some to bear. The pain it causes in people’s lives is very real.” Wuerl also pointed to the “witness of African-American Catholics who through eras of enslavement, segregation and societal racism have remained steadfastly faithful,” as well as the perseverance of the faith of immigrant communities “who have not always felt welcome in the communities they now call home.”

To address racism, Wuerl highlighted the importance of understanding that every person is made in the image and likeness of God, and of recognizing their fundamental equality and dignity as a human person. He also called for parishes and individual Catholics to actively work against racism in their churches and in their own hearts, also encouraging evangelization efforts “to welcome and  reach out to people of every race, culture and nationality.”

Wuerl pointed to initiatives within the Archdiocese of Washington that celebrated diversity of the Catholic Church in the Archdioceses of Washington, such as the celebration of Black History month with the archdiocesan Gospel Choir, events for Our Lady of Guadalupe among the Latino community, or the training of priests, Church staff and teachers in cultural competency for the vast array of backgrounds present in the Archdiocese.

The cardinal called for social action addressing fair housing access, non-discrimination in the workplace, education which truly respects diversity, and reform of the criminal justice system. “Tolerance and racism will not go away without a concerted awareness and effort on everyone’s part.  Regularly we must renew the commitment to drive it out of our hearts,  our lives and our community,” he stated.

While the Church and society have gradually improved their response to racism throughout the centuries, more work is done, Wuerl said. “We’ve been at this now for centuries, but each generation can build on what we’ve learned,” said Wuerl in an interview with CNA. “You can’t just say ‘finally we’re all done.’”

Wuerl said that addressing racism is, in some ways, similar to the efforts required for sanctity. “You just can’t say at some point in your life ’there it is, I’ve done it,’ and so it is with any of the living out the Gospel issue: racism one of them. Society can’t just say, ‘there, we’ve done it.’”