Racism: The Word that Does Not Appear in Laudato Si’

November 16, 2015

By Sister Karen Donahue

Sisters Cora Marie and Georgine discuss strategies for dismantling racism at a recent anti-racism workshop.

Sisters Cora Marie and Georgine discuss strategies for dismantling racism at a recent anti-racism workshop.

The word “racism” does not appear in Laudato Si’. At first glance this appears to be a serious oversight. However, I believe that Pope Francis is calling us to the deeper conversion that is essential if we are to dismantle racism.

As a woman of white, I have had to face my internalized racial superiority and deepen my realization of how economic, political and cultural systems work to benefit me and other people of white.  

At the same time, I have learned how these same systems work to disadvantage and demean people of color.  Women of color whom I know have shared stories of discrimination in the here and now. Racism did not disappear with the advent of the Civil Rights movement, and recent events in the United States serve to highlight the insidious nature of racism and how deeply it is embedded in the fabric of our society.

Racism is systemic and operates above and beyond the personal prejudices of any individual. This is where I think Laudato Si’ is earthshaking. No public figure of the Pope’s stature has offered such a scathing critique of neoliberal capitalism, the economic system that dominates the world today and which puts financial gain above all other considerations. Even nominally communist China operates more like a capitalist economy.

Pope Francis doesn’t use the word “racism,” but his message calls for a deeper conversion. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/Alateia Image Department on Flickr

Pope Francis doesn’t use the word “racism,” but his message calls for a deeper conversion. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/Alateia Image Department on Flickr

The Doctrine of Discovery is a concept which provided theological justification for colonization and the slave trade in the 15th and 16th centuries and seizure of indigenous lands in the 17th and 18th centuries. This doctrine was derived from several papal documents.

The spiritual and environmental crisis we face today is the full flowering of a system that turns all reality, including people, into commodities. Viewing indigenous people and people of color as less than human made it easy to justify their enslavement and the confiscation of their lands and resources. Today, our economic system gives priority to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain while failing to take into account the effects on human dignity and the environment (Laudato Si’ #56).

Pope Francis notes that poor people (who are overwhelmingly people of color) are the ones who are experiencing the impact of pollution and climate change most severely, yet they are much less responsible for environmental degradation than their richer neighbors (Laudato Si’ #51-52). He said that developed countries ought to help pay this debt by limiting their consumption of nonrenewable energy and supporting policies and programs for sustainable development.

At the heart of Laudato Si’ is a call for profound changes in our lifestyles, modes of production and consumption and the established structures of power which govern today’s societies (Laudato Si’ #5). Our current arrangements benefit a small segment of mostly white humanity, which consumes a disproportionate share of the planet’s resources. The environmental damage caused by fossil fuel extraction and use, mining for minerals needed for high-tech devices, mono-cultural agriculture and meat production fall most heavily on people of color. They are the ones whose lands are devastated by mining. They are the ones who live next door to refineries and power plants. They are the ones whose labor has become superfluous in an economy determined to cut costs at all cost.

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  1. Virginia Fifield

    Thank you Sister Karen. You have shown amazing insight into Loudato Si` but you have consistently shown great compassion and understanding on the Institute Anti Racism Transformation Team. You are a voice of reason and calm in the midst of this difficult subject. As a woman of color I thank you for your thoughts.


  2. Michelle Gorman, RSM

    Thanks for saying this so clearly and concisely, Karen.


  3. Kathleen Erickson

    amazing how so many voices are raising the issues in ways that show us over and over how interconnected it all is. Thanks, Karen!


  4. Sema'J Gonsalves

    As a young black teen this is notably the the first time I have seen a white person admit to the advantages they have which we call ‘white privilege’. Thank you, I needed this because I think a lot of white people are in denial about it. So maybe if they don’t listen to us they’ll listen to you.