By Sister Patricia McCann
In 1979, the United States Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter on racism entitled “Brothers and Sisters to Us.” Forty-two years later racial inequality, bigotry and misunderstanding continue to be part of the fabric of American life.
The opening lines of the pastoral frame the situation which prompted the bishops to speak: “Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church. Despite apparent advances and even significant changes in the last two decades [1960s and 1970s], the reality of racism remains.” (“Brothers and Sisters to Us,” paragraph 1)
The church’s stance that racism constitutes an important moral concern challenging persons of faith is clear. Evil and sin are not words used lightly in church documents; they speak to conscience formation. “Brothers and Sisters to Us” uses the language of Catholic moral teaching. “Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Racism is the sin that says that some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race. It is a sin that makes racial characteristics the determining factor for the exercise of human rights.” (paragraph 7)
Sadly, the areas of American life in which the bishops identified racial bias in 1979 are not too different from the list we might draw up in 2022. They cited economic concerns: systemic poverty, job availability, unemployment rates; they noted the wide gap in educational opportunity and available housing between white and Black neighborhoods. The pastoral letter observed, “The educational, legal and financial systems, along with other structures and sectors of our society, impede people’s progress and narrow their access because they are black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian.” (paragraph 10)
Undoubtedly, progress has been made to alter this reality in the four decades since 1979, yet events like the multiple police killings of unarmed Black men and women in recent years and the rising number of reported hate crimes heighten awareness of the fact that we still have a long way to go. Racial profiling continues to be a common practice, especially for Black, Hispanic and Middle Eastern young men. Bigotry and racial slurs still dot our language and actions too often. White supremacists find safe haven in public support to an alarming degree. Much of this behavior is grounded in fear and ignorance.
Perhaps it is time for Catholics, clergy and laity alike to pull this 42-year-old pastoral letter from a dusty shelf and together study, pray about and discuss the challenge it presents to us. If we apply the moral teaching of “Brothers and Sisters to Us” to contemporary problems, it will move us closer to resolution of the racial divide that prevents us from actually being brothers and sisters in God’s human family.
Please note: The pastoral letter, “Brothers and Sisters to Us” is available on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website.