Kickstarting a series on “The Church after 2020,” three Catholic leaders in the United States stressed the need for ongoing conversion on racial justice and assessed the Church’s pro-life commitments as the presidential election draws near.

Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, characterized the first half of 2020 as a “dress rehearsal for the effects of climate change,” saying Friday that the pandemic has shown that when all Americans face a common threat, the “resources we have to face these kinds of challenges are not the same.”

“The injustices were laid wide open in the ability of some people to work from home and other people not to work from home, for some people to have access to government benefits and other people not to have access,” he said during the July 31 livestream, “The Church after 2020.”

Event moderator Dr. Dan Cosacchi, assistant professor of religious studies at Marywood University, told Crux that “the panelists painted a picture of a church that has a lot of room for improvement, but simultaneously, a lot about which to be hopeful.”

Stowe was joined by Dr. Shannen Dee Williams, assistant professor of history at Villanova University, and Michael Bayer, a Chicago-based lay ecclesial minister.

The three panelists argued forcefully that the Church’s credibility is on the line in the way Catholics – both clergy and laity – join in the nation’s reckoning with a history undergirded by white supremacy.

“One of the first things that the Church must do is tell the truth about itself,” Williams said. “It must make formal apologies; it must formally acknowledge the Church’s own role in the history of slavery and segregation.”

“The Church was never an innocent bystander in this history, the Church was there at the beginning,” she continued, pointing to the disturbing presence of chapels and priests in key historical scenes of the trans-Atlantic slave trading system.

“It means something that the Church itself was the first corporate slaveholder in the Americas, that somehow that history is unknown to so many of us, and yet it’s everywhere around us,” said Williams.

The historian said that she has been encouraged in recent months by Catholic schools that have reached out to her to develop ways to integrate Black Catholic history into their curriculum.

Recovering and teaching that history, she argued, is key to moving the Church forward because “the blueprint is in that history, of those faithful who never had to be taught that it was wrong to enslave another person, of those people who never had to be told that it was wrong to exclude someone because of the color of their skin.”

Stowe offered a window into his personal “ongoing conversion” on matters of race, noting the tough reactions in his region to the words “white supremacy” and his concerns about how to “talk about white privilege to unemployed coal miners in Appalachia.”

The Kentucky prelate said his conversion has been shaped by guidance from Father Bryan Massingale, author of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, who pushed Stowe on his approach by asking him, “Why is it only white people’s comfort you’re worried about?”

“It’s an uncomfortable topic for everybody involved,” Stowe conceded, “but nobody has suffered like the African American community when it comes to slavery, and nobody suffers like people of color when it comes to the white normative narrative in our society and, sadly, in our Church.”

“If we do a sincere examination of conscience, we have to recognize how those of us who are white benefit from white privilege, even if we don’t want to acknowledge or admit it,” he said. “It’s real for us just as it’s real for those who are oppressed by it.”

Bayer added that white Catholics have a responsibility to work to dismantle “systems, policies, and institutions, including those within our own Catholic Church, that continue to benefit white folks disproportionately in this country.”

Impending closures of Catholic schools and parishes around the country, Bayer pointed out, provides an opportunity for wealthy white Catholics to practice solidarity by offering financial support to parishes and schools in communities of color as “one concrete step, a small step towards reparations.”

The panel discussion also touched on what it means for the Church to be a credible witness to its pro-life commitments with the 2020 election on the horizon.

Stowe expressed his frustration that Pope Francis’s instructions on the “totality of pro-life issues” have not always made their way into the teaching documents of the American bishops.

The decision to exclude a paragraph containing Francis’s perspective on what it means to be thoroughly pro-life from Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship – the U.S. bishops’ guide for voters – was “a sad day for the leadership of the Church in the U.S.,” said Stowe.

The bishop’s comments were in reference to the U.S. bishops’ November 2019 rejection of Cardinal Blase Cupich’s proposed amendment to include paragraph 101 from Francis’ Gaudete et Exsultate, which calls for “clear, firm and passionate” defense of the unborn and says that “equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”

“Pope Francis has given us a great definition of what pro-life means, and he basically tells us that we cannot claim to be pro-life if we support the separation of children from their parents at the U.S. border,” the bishop explained.

“If we support exposing people at the border to COVID-19 because of the facilities they’re in, if we support denying people that have need access to adequate health care, if we keep people from getting the housing or education they need, we cannot call ourselves pro-life,” he added.

To be pro-life in 2020, Stowe argued, is to see that the Church’s deep concern for unborn children – “it’s foundational for us” – is interconnected with many other life issues, an approach with roots in the “seamless garment” consistent ethic of life articulated by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago in the 1980s.

“For this president to call himself pro-life,” he continued, “and for anyone to back him because of claims of being pro-life, is almost willful ignorance.”

“He is so much anti-life, because he’s only concerned about himself, and he gives us every, every, every indication of that,” the bishop from Kentucky said.

Friday’s online event was the first in what will be several dialogues on the future of the Church, sponsored by Pax Romana ICMICA, which identifies as a global community of Catholic professionals and intellectuals.