NEW YORK — In a new pastoral letter released on Wednesday, Cardinal Donald Wuerl called for a strengthening of the Church’s efforts to confront racism, labeling it a “divisive evil that leaves great harm in its wake.”
Addressed to the clergy, religious, and laity of the archdiocese of Washington, “The Challenge of Racism Today,” references “incidents both national and closer to home” that Wuerl said will require a “fresh emphasis” on the “mission for reconciliation.”
Following the deadly, racially motivated events in Charlottesville, Virginia this past August, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) announced that it would establish an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism as a part of the Church’s “ongoing efforts to combat the sins of racism.”
However, in an interview with Crux on Wednesday, Wuerl said plans for this letter were already in the works prior to the events of Charlottesville and were the result of numerous discussions with his priest council and pastoral council.
Wuerl told Crux that they have been discussing “What do we do to move beyond any of the implications of slavery that remain today?” for several years and also noted that this long-standing concern is one reason the archdiocese of Washington has always tried to have an African-American auxiliary bishop to help “remind us of the residual issues of slavery that you only experience if you’ve lived them.”
In his letter, Wuerl argues that there are two necessary starting points for action: first, recognizing that racism exists in various forms, “some more subtle and others more obvious,” he noted, and secondly, recognizing that there is something that can be done about it, beginning on a personal level.
Wuerl invokes the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman and says, “The human race is rooted in the loving, creative act of God, who made us and called us to be a family — all God’s children — made in God’s image and likeness.
“There is no basis to sustain that some are made more in the image of God than others. In whatever form, intolerance of other people because of their race, religion or national origin is ultimately a denial of human dignity,” he added.
Echoing both the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the 1979 pastoral letter on racism by the U.S. bishops, Brothers and Sisters to Us, Wuerl said racism is a sin, “because it offends God by a denial of the goodness of creation.
“It is a sin against our neighbor, particularly when it is manifested in support of systemic social, economic and political structures of sin. It is also a sin against the unity of the Body of Christ by undermining that solidarity by personal sins of prejudice, discrimination and violence,” he continued.
A new pastoral letter on racism will be released in 2018 by the U.S. bishops.
Wuerl told Crux that one motivation for releasing a pastoral letter was to help transcend political polarization. “The pastoral letter is by definition a spiritual exercise,” said Wuerl, “bringing the contributions of moral order and the spiritual realm in the direction of Catholic action, Catholic activity.”
For Wuerl, Catholics can bring another dimension to this issue: “the spiritual realiziation that if we’re baptized into Christ we are spiritual brothers and sisters.”
“These are not political concepts,” he added. “These are theological realities.”
Wuerl observed in his letter that while the United States has had a regrettable history of exploitation and racist behavior toward various peoples and groups, he specifically highlights the sin of racism against African-Americans that has plagued the country since its founding.
“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,” wrote Wuerl.
In his letter, Wuerl lauded the diversity of this country and said that the various backgrounds that contribute to the fabric of America should add to the strength of the nation, rather than serve as the source of pain and conflict.
“What should be a blessing — the diversity of our backgrounds, experiences and cultures — is turned into a hindrance to unity and a heavy burden for some to bear,” said Wuerl. “The pain it causes in people’s lives is very real.”
Wuerl also praised both African-American and immigrant Catholics who have been victims of racism and yet have remained strong in their faith.
“At the same time, we acknowledge the witness of African-American Catholics who through eras of enslavement, segregation and societal racism have remained steadfastly faithful,” said Wuerl.
“We also recognize the enduring faith of immigrants who have not always felt welcome in the communities they now call home,” he added.
Wuerl concluded his letter by enumerating specific ways in which Catholics should “follow Pope Francis’s example in promoting a spirit of dialogue and encounter with others.” Among them, he encouraged the advocacy of fair housing statutes, workplace environments and employment opportunities that “reflect true opportunity,” and criminal justice reform. He also called for greater inclusion at the parish level and said priests should use homilies to focus on the incompatibility of Christian faith and prejudiced behavior.
In an interview with Crux, Wuerl said that while he has not yet had a chance to specifically discuss this letter or the issue of racism in the United States with Pope Francis, he said his conversations with the Holy Father are “usually about his concerns for marginalized people, for any reason.”
“I think he has this clear gospel driven focus of including everyone and keeping close to the spiritual family of the Church as many people as possible,” said Wuerl.
While acknowledging that the fight against racism is an ongoing challenge, Wuerl believes it was one to which Christians are specifically called and equipped to carry out.
“Without God and the sense of right and wrong that religious convictions engender,” said Wuerl, “we will never adequately confront racism.”
This story has been updated to include comments from a Crux interview with Cardinal Wuerl given on Wednesday morning.