ROME – As the United States continues to wade through racial tensions, divides over the coronavirus and a polarizing upcoming election, one Catholic social justice advocate is calling for reconciliation, saying it’s a task that will require both political and spiritual investment.

“The polarization of culture and the ‘great divide’ of people need to be counterbalanced with a testimony of unity between political and spiritual leaders, both sides taking the lead in their respective areas,” said Henry Cappello, president and executive director of the Caritas in Veritate (CiV) Foundation.

A global confederation of Catholic institutions, the foundation takes it name from Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”) and focuses on recruiting, mobilizing and engaging young volunteers. Eight US bishops serve as episcopal advisors.

Leaders on both sides, Cappello told Crux, “need honesty to acknowledge past mistakes and courage to lead in reconciliation and forgiveness.”

Speaking of racial tensions, Cappello called for systematic change, insisting that “with one voice” all members of society must both encourage and support political leaders in particular to lead an “urgent” reform of the police and the criminal justice system.

Racial tensions in the U.S. and abroad skyrocketed after the death in May of George Floyd, an African American man who passed away in police custody after an officer knelt on his neck and back for nearly nine minutes, despite Floyd’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe. His death sparked an international wave of protests against racism.

In a recent open letter to both U.S. Congress and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the organization put forward several action points they called “foundational” for the healing of America.

They condemned the death of George Floyd and insisted that both the words and deeds of Americans must always uphold “the equal intrinsic dignity of our African-American brothers and sisters among all other members of our pluralistic society deserving of equal justice under the law.”

Issuing an apology on behalf of all members of society for racial discrimination, the foundation said every life, from conception to natural death has intrinsic value, “irrespective of color, creed, gender or race.”

Racism, they said, is “wholly unjust” and is “always an evil.”

Calling for political and social deliberations to be carried out in a sense of reparation and forgiveness, the foundation said discussions should focus on rebuilding trust, and asked that both political and spiritual leaders make efforts “to show joint leadership for justice and peace through concrete example, listening, and remedial action.”

They condemned violence in protests and the destruction of property, and urged mutual respect in the pursuit of justice, insisting that current social and political debate must focus on identifying “appropriate methods of policing as well as just and urgent reform of the same police force and  the criminal justice system.”

“By working to extricate injustices ironically preserved in our law, our nation may advance in the process of healing from historic sins,” they said, insisting that peace “begins in the heart of each one of us.”

Pointing to the Caritas in Veritate foundation’s own efforts in this regard, Cappello said the group is seeking to promote “a culture of dialogue and reconciliation” at the grassroots and through social media, and that they are in conversation with both political and religious leaders about how to effectively accomplish justice and peace.

In terms of the role that religious leaders can play, Cappello said the Catholic Church can begin by “acknowledging clearly and explicitly, on an international level and at a diocesan and parochial level, in humility, the sins of the past, asking forgiveness where it is due.”

He also urged the church to take a lead in fostering dialogue and launching prayer campaigns, but he acknowledged that it will take time to overcome the deep divisions tearing American society apart.

“It is a process, it is political and spiritual,” he said, insisting that “both need to join to overcome this divide.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen