NEW YORK — As the nation was gripped by widespread unrest over the weekend in response to the killing of yet another unarmed black man by a police officer last week, U.S. Catholic leaders said recent events served as a “wake-up call” to the racism that continues to plague the country, while encouraging non-violent protests as a means of effective resistance.
On Friday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) took the unusual step of issuing a joint statement signed by seven committee heads calling the death of George Floyd and other recent high profile attacks against people of color as a “wake-up call that needs to be answered by each of us in a spirit of determined conversion.”
“We are broken-hearted, sickened, and outraged to watch another video of an African American man being killed before our very eyes,” the bishops wrote.
“While it is expected that we will plead for peaceful non-violent protests, and we certainly do, we also stand in passionate support of communities that are understandably outraged,” they continued. “Too many communities around this country feel their voices are not being heard, their complaints about racist treatment are unheeded, and we are not doing enough to point out that this deadly treatment is antithetical to the Gospel of Life.”
The signers included the heads of the ad hoc committee against racism, along with the heads of the Committee for Pro-life Activities and the Committee for Domestic Justice and Human Development, among other committee chairmen in a united front.
That effort was followed up less than 48 hours later with a subsequent statement by USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who labeled Floyd’s death a “senseless and brutal, a sin that cries out to heaven for justice.”
“How is it possible that in America, a black man’s life can be taken from him while calls for help are not answered, and his killing is recorded as it happens?” Gomez asked in reference to the now viral 8-minute video that shows Floyd pleading with police officers while saying “I can’t breathe,” as an officer keeps his knee on his neck as the unarmed man gasps for breath.
“We should all understand that the protests we are seeing in our cities reflect the justified frustration and anger of millions of our brothers and sisters who even today experience humiliation, indignity, and unequal opportunity only because of their race or the color of their skin. It should not be this way in America,” Gomez said of the weekend’s riots which had broken out in most major American cities. “Racism has been tolerated for far too long in our way of life.”
“It is true what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, that riots are the language of the unheard. We should be doing a lot of listening right now,” he continued. “This time, we should not fail to hear what people are saying through their pain. We need to finally root out the racial injustice that still infects too many areas of American society.”
Yet seeking to encourage a peaceful form of protest, Gomez characterized the violence that has occurred at recent events as “self-destructive and self-defeating.”
“Nothing is gained by violence and so much is lost,” he wrote. “Let us keep our eyes on the prize of true and lasting change. Legitimate protests should not be exploited by persons who have different values and agendas. Burning and looting communities, ruining the livelihoods of our neighbors, does not advance the cause of racial equality and human dignity.”
Over the weekend, a range of statements were also issued by individual bishops, eliciting a flurry of responses condemning America’s “original sin of racism,” in a number not seen among the U.S. hierarchy since the fatal of events of August 2017 when white nationalists and neo-Nazis descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia in protest over efforts to remove a confederate monument.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago issued both a statement condemning the murder of George Floyd, followed by a column for Chicago Catholic in which he called for a national reconciliation to confront America’s racist history.
“I will not pretend to speak with any authority about the challenges people of color experience in our society. I do not share the fear they put on when they and their children leave their homes every day. I do not know what it means to be “other,’” wrote the Chicago cardinal. “But I know there is a way to fix it. And the fix begins when we stop talking about the proportionality of ‘their’ response and start talking about the proportionality of ‘ours.’’
“Surely a nation that could put a man in space, his safety assured by the brilliance of black women, can create a fair legal system, equitable education and employment opportunities and ready access to health care,” he continued. “Laws do not solve problems, but they create a system where racism in all its forms is punished and playing fields are leveled.”
In his column, he cited the 20th century genocides of the Jews, the Rwandans, and the South African Apartheid and the subsequent reconciliation efforts which have required honest national reckonings with the past in order “to hold accountable those who committed them and to move toward something resembling reconciliation.”
“We are well past overdue for such a national reconciliation and the need to account for the history of violence against people of color in this country,” he wrote.
On Saturday, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston also cited the nation’s history of police brutality against African Americans.
“There is a history here, one documented over decades in print, and now in social media and on television in our homes. The history is clear and tragic: George Floyd was an African American man who died at the hands of a police officer,” he wrote. “This is a narrative which has been repeated often and in multiple locations across the country. The history is well documented, but it is known experientially in the African American community in a way that is not widely shared.”
Sunday also brought about the issuing of a joint statement by the Commission of Religious Leaders in New York, chaired by Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
“We respect those who want to honor George Floyd’s memory with peaceful protest against the horror, evil, and sin that is racism,” they wrote. “We also support the members of Floyd’s family who said, in part, “We cannot endanger each other as we respond to the necessary urge to raise our voices in unison and in outrage. Looting and violence distract from the strength of our collective voice.”
“We often speak of ‘thoughts and prayers,’” they continued. “We will offer our many prayers of healing, but we need not only serious thoughts but also firm action as we work together with all members of our community to find that critical cure for human hatred.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212