Open Wide Our Hearts — What I Wish the Bishops Would Have Said

January 21, 2019

By Sister Karen M. Donahue

Given the racial climate in the United States today, like many, I was happy to hear that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a new pastoral letter on racism, Open Wide Our Hearts, at their November 2018 meeting in Baltimore. The bishops have made statements before (Discrimination and Christian Conscience, 1958, and Brothers and Sisters to Us, 1979), but these teachings never seemed to find their way to the people in the pews. Will it be different this time?

My biggest disappointment with Open Wide Our Hearts is that white privilege is never even mentioned, much less discussed. Through my experience as a member of the Sisters of Mercy Anti-Racism Transformation Team (IARTT), which was initiated to create an anti-racist identity within the Institute, I have learned that racism is about privileging one group at the expense of others. While the bishops discuss at length the oppression experienced by Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanic Americans, I think it would have been more helpful and challenging if they had reflected on how racism favors people of white and makes the white experience the norm.

To their credit, the bishops do acknowledge that the Church has aided and abetted racism over the centuries. However, the Doctrine of Discovery deserves much more attention than the brief mention it receives in Open Wide Our Hearts. I suspect that most white Catholics have never heard of the Doctrine of Discovery (1493)a series of papal bulls that legitimated the confiscation of lands in areas of the world beyond Europe and the enslavement of indigenous peoples at the hands of Portuguese and Spanish explorers. In a real sense, it baptized the so-called Age of Discovery. Why didn’t I learn about this at some point in my 16 years of Catholic education? Does the current curriculum in our schools include an honest discussion and expanded understanding of the history of colonialism and the role of the Church in this process, whose destructive impact continues to reverberate to the present day?

The bishops admit that complicity in the sin of racism continues when Church leaders fail to speak out against racial violence and injustice. At a time when racist speech and behavior are modeled and condoned at the highest levels of our government; when white supremacist groups are emboldened to abandon their robes and hoods and march through our cities; and when states enact measures to disenfranchise voters of color, the prophetic voice of the Church is needed more than ever. But it must speak in explicit terms, not vague generalities.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C.

In preparation for today’s remembrance of the life, mission and intentions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I reread Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in April 1963. It was his challenge to the members of white churches who were upset by the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. The urgency and passion of the letter stand in stark contrast to the pedestrian tone of Open Wide Our Hearts.

Almost 56 years have passed since Dr. King penned that letter in Birmingham. His words continue to resonate:

I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor class can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.

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  1. Virginia Fifield

    Thank you for your insightful reflection. It has been an honor to work with you on the IARTT.

  2. Jackie Moreau

    Thanks Karen
    I have read the pastoral several times. There are calls to inform parish communities, develop faith formation tools, stop blocking non-whites from leadership opportunities.

    We are called to challenge friends who speak in racist terms. We are asked to respect each person’s dignity and care for all our neighbors.

    Priests are asked to address racism in their homilies often.

    I invite us to ask others to acknowledge racism is a life issue. In conversation see if clergy and other church leaders read, reflect and seek to act on its message.

    I agree our church leaders need to speak out and name sinful words and actions happening in our public sphere today.

    Jackie Moreau

  3. Sister Natalie Rossi

    Thank you. I pray and hope that somehow that systemic racism will be a thing of the past. I know that each one of us needs to pray and act for change.
    May God have mercy on us.

  4. Diane Guerin

    Thank you, Karen, for this insightful,and explicit reflection. Perhaps, Church leaders need to read the Letter from the Birmingham Jail. I find it one of Dr. Kimg’s most powerful and challenging writings.

  5. Sue Wieczynski, RSM

    Thank you, Karen. I agree with you whole heartedly. As an educator I am disgruntled by the lack of teaching about racism, white privilege, and the REAL history of this country not the white washed story.

  6. Marisa Guerin

    I so appreciate these sincere, thoughtful and caring comments about the painful reality of racism in our society, in our church. Thank you.

  7. Eileen A Cullinane

    You are correct – never heard of the Doctrine of Discovery.. Your openness to discuss sins of the past is admirable but discussion needs to be infused with action for change.

  8. Diane Clyne

    Yes, we do have a Life-work in the area of white privilege. Thank you so much for bringing a holistic perspective forward.

  9. Boreta Singleton

    Thank you Karen for your insighful words. I, too, am disappointed that the Bishops were not more forceful with their language regarding the sin of racism. Thank you for being one who does have “the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”

  10. Michele Gordon

    I recently attended a meeting of DREs on this letter. I agree with your insights, but am grateful that this letter was written and has prompted much discussion and reflection. I hope our schools and churches publicize this letter and promote thoughtful dialogue. As a former educator in a Mercy school I unfortunately encountered much resistance and anger over bringing the concept of white privilege into classroom discussion. Let’s just say the last couple of years have been extra challenging for those of us working for social justice.

  11. Joan Mumaw

    Thanks, Karen, for your insightful reflection on the pastoral. Lately I have been doing some research on the history on mission/missions in the church and came across the Doctrine of Discovery which I vaguely recall from church history. What I did not know was that governments, lacking officials on the ground ceded their responsibilities to the church. Church acted in the name of colonial powers! There is a need for the church to acknowledge the sins of the past and ask for forgiveness.

  12. katie minding

    Thank you for amplifying what all of us are learning together through our commitment to this Critical concern, namely the white privilege that we have been born into and have taken for granted – through many of the ways we taught and through our own complicity. As we take steps together to unmask this, to embrace these realities, and to seek transformation, we are grateful for our leaders and prophets who inform and call us!

  13. Judith Bonini, IHM

    Dear Karen,

    Thank you for the time and labor you put into your comments.


  14. Alejandro Siller-Gonzalez

    Thank you for the enriching comments and reflections on “Open Wide Our Hearts” and I coincide with them.
    I am Mexican brown by birth, but accepted by whites because of my formal and informal education, not as a Mexican but as a Spaniard or Italian. I am not accepted by Mexicans because I am seen as Northern European Latino. I am privileged on both sides of the color spectrum. Am I the only privileged brown skin person in the USA?
    I have met white colored people that are honestly not colored and reject any privilege that color brings.
    I wonder if describing people by color of skin should not be used nor accepted (even in government forms), and unearned privilege should be rejected and denounced??

  15. Martha Larsen

    White fragility also means to me the way we shelter ourselves from the suffering of people of color. We avoid “dangerous areas,” but do we work to change the area? Sometimes we label sections of a city – the better part of town, etc. which is also labeling people.
    Now that many of us are older we are in volunteer work that is beneficial to people who are poor. I would think we would need to analyze at times if there are ways we are racist without perhaps not being aware it. Too, now when we have people cleaning, cooking, etc. in our institutions, how do we treat them? Do we discriminate? How can we help one another to see our biases?

    Do we work in ways we can to change the oppressive situations of minorities? What do we do to better the education system in areas of our city or state that do not truly respond to the needs of people of color, particularly people who are poor? How do we work to change systems that are oppressive, e.g. prisons, housing, etc. ?

    We can and we probably are overwhelmed by all the oppressive situations we see, but we can also perhaps be more creative about how we can respond.

  16. Sheila Harrington,RSM

    Thank you, Karen…your words challenge and call me o greater self-examination. Thank you.

  17. Rita Torres, MSW, LCSW

    Finally I’m hearing more about white privilege! Years ago when I (who am white) started to talk about it with other white people, they had no clue and what’s worse no interest in hearing me! It’s time for us, no its OVER DUE for us to stand up and tell the truth about what our sisters and brothers are STILL going through with the insidious systemic racism in our country and in our world. Many of us grew up as ‘poor whites’ and sadly the majority of this cohort rejects the struggles of those who are of color because they are still hung up on their own poor white history. Some even blame the people of color for the plight of the poor whites! They Fail to see that we are all created equal in the eyes of God and therefore we are all created equal!!! However, sadly, people of color do not receive the same opportunities that white people receive. If only the majority of white people would open their eyes and ears and see with a heart of compassion, seek to understand and join with us in acknowledging that simply because of the color of our skin, we are privileged. Privilege isn’t just about money, wealth or position, It is about dignity and worth as a human being. As long as I live, I will be speaking out about this and continuing to challenge those who disagree. This is something we cannot back down from. Thank you for writing about it so eloquently and my only refinement would be to ask you to send your writings about white privilege to newspapers and to ask church leaders to include the topic in their repertoires upon the pulpit and in other venues that reach the greater poplulations of citizens.

  18. Hannah Mary oDonoghue

    Thanks so much, Karen, for your continual attention to justice issues…,
    Hannah-M. O’Donoghue, rsm

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  20. Rosemary Sabino

    I hope you continue to address this issue. Thanks for reminding us that we all must be persistent every day.