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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Patrick McCormick: Confessing racism in the Catholic Church

By Patrick T. McCormick, S.T.D.

In a recent video released to his staff, Dr. Rob McCann, CEO of the local Catholic Charities, acknowledged his own racism and the racism staining Catholic Charities and the Catholic Church. This confession, which soon went viral, created a tempest, evoking angry, defensive and some spiteful responses from white Catholics and leaders supposedly “roiled” by these charges of institutional racism. The local Catholic bishop has supposedly called McCann on the carpet and decided to reduce or replace the Christmas Catholic Charities appeal with funds for the Black and Indian missions.

At the heart of this shocked and angry reaction is the charge that Dr. McCann has tarred all Catholics and our beloved church with the brush of racism, leading many to protest that neither they nor their church are racist, and that Catholics and our church have often spoken or acted against racism.

In spite of the stormy response to Dr. McCann’s video, his threefold confession of personal and institutional racism is quite similar to statements by the U.S. Catholic Bishops, particularly two pastoral letters on racism in which the bishops admitted to the enduring presence of racism in our American Catholic Church, called upon all Catholic clergy and lay people to engage in a systematic examination of conscience, uncovering and confessing both personal and institutional racism at every level of our church, and invited bishops in every diocese to engage in listening sessions with those harmed by the presence of racism in our church.

“Brothers and Sisters to Us,” the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ 1979 pastoral letter on racism, begins by confessing that “Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church. Despite apparent advances and even significant changes in the last two decades, the reality of racism remains. In large part it is only external appearances which have changed.” Later the bishops lament, “How great, … is that sin of racism which weakens the Church’s witness as the universal sign of unity among all peoples! How great the scandal given by racist Catholics who make the Body of Christ, the Church, a sign of racial oppression! Yet all too often the Church in our country has been for many a ‘white Church,’ a racist institution.”

Then, in “Open Wide Our Hearts,” the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter against racism, the bishops confess that “(t)he truth is that the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have been complicit in the evil of racism … We also realize the ways that racism has permeated the life of the Church and persists to a degree even today … Acts of racism have been committed by leaders and members of the Catholic Church – by bishops, clergy, religious, and laity – and her institutions … We ask for forgiveness from all who have been harmed by these sins committed in the past or in the present.”

Additionally, in “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” the bishops urge both “scrupulous consideration of the evil of racism as it exists in the local Church,” and “that on all levels the Catholic Church examine its conscience” regarding racist attitudes and behaviors toward all people of color. Moreover, in “Open Wide Our Hearts,” the bishops call upon their clergy and laity to “fight the evil of racism by educating themselves, reflecting on their personal thoughts and actions, (and) listening to the experience of those who have been affected by racism.”

Perhaps the problem with Dr. McCann’s triple confession of personal and structural racism is that too many Catholics have not heard the confessions of their own bishops regarding institutional racism. Perhaps the problem is that these offended white Catholics have not been taught to examine their own personal and communal consciences regarding racism. Perhaps the problem is that our own Catholic Church in Spokane has not taken up the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ call to hold listening sessions with those harmed by our racism. Many have been offended by what Dr. McCann said in his video. But perhaps the problem is what has not been said or heard in this local Catholic Church.

Patrick McCormick is a Catholic theologian and Professor of Religious Studies with a doctorate from the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome.

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