WASHINGTON, D.C. – American Catholics have “shown a lack of moral consciousness on the issue of race,” Bishop George Murry told attendees at the 2018 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering.

While he believes America has made progress on the issue of race relations, he said that “recent events in our country have questioned exactly how far we’ve come.”

Murry, Bishop of Youngstown, Ohio, was appointed as head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) ad hoc committee against racism, which was established in August following the deadly, racially motivated protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Speaking on Sunday to more than 500 Catholic social activists who are gathered in the nation’s capital for a four-day conference and advocacy sessions on Capitol Hill, Murry chronicled the development of the Church’s position on slavery, noting that previously the Church considered there to be “just and unjust forms of slavery.”

Such teachings informed and shaped the American Catholic experience, and as Murry noted, “the subordination of blacks in America was simply an accepted part of the social and cultural landscape for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.”

While he praised the “remnant” of Catholics who worked to improve race relations in the U.S. — adding that, “there were many Catholic leaders, including bishops, priests, religious women in full habit, and university presidents who risked their lives to support the cause of racial justice” — these individuals “were the exception to the rule.”

“As the global Church has championed human dignity and equality, why does it appear that the Church in America has been incapable of taking decisive action and incapable of enunciating clear cut principles regarding racism?” he asked.

Murry said the scourge of racism has not simply been an African American experience, but has also been a lived reality for many Hispanics, Asian Americans, Jews, and immigrants.

He criticized Catholics for being “silent observers” to this reality and said “we cannot help but wonder why in the United States there has been so little social consciousness among Catholics about racism.”

“The discussion on equality must run much deeper if we are to be true to the principles on which our country was founded and the principles on which our faith is based,” he added.

Despite this grim assessment, Murry said the ad hoc committee, which is the highest structural response of the USCCB, is meant to have real teeth and move beyond just talk.

“The point of all of this will not be to simply issue statements,” said Murry. “The point will be to help us all act together so that the Church can be in the position of sustained effort to eradicate this problem.”

Later this month, the committee will host an ecumenical gathering of religious leaders to discuss concrete responses to racism. This will be followed by listening sessions around the country, and then a systematic national conversation on race in Catholic parishes, schools, healthcare institutions, and social service providers.

A new pastoral letter on racism will be released later this year, which will serve as an update to the 1979 letter “Brothers and Sisters to Us.”

In an interview with Crux following his address, Murry said the new pastoral letter will be brief, readable, accessible, and will discuss “not only individual attitudes of racism … (but also) some of the broader systemic problems that we often don’t think about as being oppressive to people of color.”

Bishop David Talley of Alexandria, Louisiana, who is a member of the ad hoc committee, also told Crux that the new letter will offer “continuity” with the original one, but will reflect “a different time and different cultural context.”

Talley, a former Southern Baptist who left the denomination during his teenage years over the issue of racial segregation, said he is encouraging Catholics not to be “overwhelmed by the historical nature of this issue.”

He told Crux that his many years as both a priest and bishop in the south have given him real encouragement of the “faithfulness” of Catholics in wanting to confront racism.

“While there can be a blasé attitude among some…there’s an authentic spiritual hunger to do the right thing,” said Talley.

While the new ad hoc committee will provide an institutional structure, according to Murry, much of the work will be bottom up — taking place in parishes, local communities, and their respective institutions.

He told Crux that last week he spoke at a parish in Charlotte, North Carolina and prior to his talk he was admiring a mural of Jesus calling Peter and Andrew to become disciples when a parishioner approached him and said “isn’t it interesting that Jesus was Jewish and from the Middle East, but he looks like he’s German.”

The point being, Murry noted, for many Catholics of color, Church art is strictly white. He encouraged greater “sensitivity and awareness” to that reality.

“When a Church chooses to put up a statue of Martin de Porres,” the patron saint of racial harmony, “and it’s a white parish in the suburbs, they’re making a statement, and I think it’s an important statement,” Murry told Crux.

As he concluded his talk, Murry encouraged boldness and courage, insisting that Catholics must “speak the truth of one’s own sinful past.”

“If race in the Catholic imagination is to exemplify the love of Christ, it must move forward with the realization that no one can enter full communion with the Lord if one’s relationship to the other is marked by indifference or oppression,” he concluded.

“Christ wishes to break down the walls created by the evils of racism,” he said to a standing ovation.

Stay tuned for Crux’s latest news and updates from the 2018 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, where Crux’s national correspondent Christopher White will be providing regular updates. Follow him on Twitter @CWWhite212 and visit Crux for daily updates and interviews from Washington, D.C.