American Catholics and Race in 2020: A Church Historian’s Reflection

American Catholics and Race in 2020: A Church Historian’s Reflection June 8, 2020

This stained glass window of St. Katharine Drexel is from St. Stephen, Martyr Church in Chesapeake, VA.

“Are We There Yet?”

Over the past week, we’ve looked at some painful history. While it has at times been hard to address, as a Church, we’ve definitely come a long way. Still, as one of my college professors used to say, “We’re not there yet.” 

We know the hierarchy got it wrong with the sex abuse crisis, but when it comes to reminding Catholics about racism and racial justice, I think they’ve been doing a very good job. Priests and religious, not to mention lots of committed laypeople, have also provided a great hands-on witness. Likewise, Catholic schools have taken great pains to promote fuller awareness of this issue. 

Race in America Today

That’s institutional awareness. And yet the problem of racism continues to continue. Many Americans, white mostly, assumed that the race issue no longer existed after the election of our first African American President. Some assumed that the issue had simply been put to bed because of that. Not so!

In the year 2020, white racism is more visible at the local level than it has been at any time since the 1960’s. Incidents and images of hate and prejudice are constantly popping up on the news, the  internet, and social media. Sad to say, some Catholics are among the worst perpetrators. The problem isn’t the bishops, the clergy or the schools anymore: the problem is us. 

The Problem is Us

Bishops no longer ban Black men from the priesthood, nor do convents exclude women of color. Catholic education prides itself on diversity, as do Catholic institutions in general. Everything the bishops and others are talking about these days is great, but there needs to be more action taken at the grassroots level by us laypeople. Vatican II calls us to make a difference in the world where we are!

But let’s look for a moment at the pre-Vatican II era, when “Catholic Action” was a popular notion promoted by the popes on down. Basically, it consisted of priests and laypeople engaged in social activism. This included:

Catholic involvement in these areas long predated the sixties. If there’s anything worth reviving from the Church of the forties and fifties, it’s not “smells and bells.” How about new Catholic Action Committees and Interracial Councils to meet the day’s pressing needs. Let’s set up grassroots organizations to promote racial healing. Call these groups whatever you want, but let’s do something!

More Pro-Life, Not Less

In their social media ministries, Father James Martin, S.J., and Pauline Sister Rose Pacatte frequently suggest being “more pro-life, not less.” Race is a life issue, too, and we need to treat it as such. If Catholics took it as seriously as they do abortion, there just might be a lot less hatred in the world. Fighting racism at all levels is an important witness to the sanctity of life. As the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin reminded us, it’s all part of a consistent ethic of life.  

When Pope St. John Paul II raised Mother Katharine Drexel to the honors of the altar, he named her the patron saint of racial justice: “Her apostolate helped to bring about a growing awareness of the need to combat all forms of racism through education and social services.” Let’s invoke her intercession as we seek to promote peace and good among our sisters and brothers of every race and ethnicity. Let’s be part of the healing. St. Katharine Drexel, pray for us!   

(Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)


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