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Church leaders urged to take stronger stand against institutionalized racism


  • Herschella G. Conyers of the University of Chicago Law School, Vincent D. Rougeau of Boston College Law School and Eduardo M. Penalver of Cornell Law School are seen in this composite photo. The three lawyers participated in a panel discussion June 22, 2020, about "Race, Justice & Catholicism." (CNS photo/courtesy The Lumen Christi Institute)
  • People in Atlanta stand in line June 22, 2020, at the public viewing for Rayshard Brooks, the Black man shot dead by an Atlanta police officer after resisting arrest. (CNS photo/Elijah Nouvelage, Reuters)
  • Protesters near the White House in Washington attach a chain to the statue of President Andrew Jackson in a failed attempt to pull it down June 22, 2020. (CNS photo/Tom Brenner, Reuters)

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TORONTO (CNS) -- The Catholic Church has been caught up in a quagmire of racism in American society, especially in the wake of the May 25 police-related killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Despite its reputation as an institution of communion, reconciliation and healing, the church is drawing fire in some circles for its words-only response to incidents of racial injustice, and for "sustaining" racism by the attitudes of both ordained and lay membership.

A June 22 webinar organized in part by the Hank Center for Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University Chicago brought together two leading Black American Catholic jurists to consider "race, justice and Catholicism."

Key presenters were Vincent Rougeau, dean of the Boston College Law School, and Herschella Conyers, clinical professor at the University of Chicago Law School. Eduardo Penalver, dean of law at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, was moderator for the 70-minute webinar.

Both speakers outlined personal incidents of racism at the hands of church officials in their earlier lives and suggested that despite church teachings on social justice and support for the vulnerable, many church leaders have failed to preach the basic message that racism is a sin.

For Rougeau, finding ways to counteract institutionalized racism is long overdue.

"These conversations are critical because we are witnessing a transformative moment in the U.S. around the issues of racism and racial justice," he said. "There is a level of awareness of the problem and a demand for change across a wide segment of the population that has not existed in a long time. I think people are morally outraged, and it is affecting how they view a range of social, economic and political issues."

Rougeau also said it is critical for the church to exercise moral leadership, and that the latest racially motivated incidents can be opportunity to offer guidance to a rising generation only marginally engaged with organized religion, and to demonstrate how faith and Christian witness can be a force for social justice.

Conyers, who has gained a reputation in Chicago for legal defense of vulnerable clients, said many of the Catholic Church's social justice teachings are muted or are being ignored.

"The bishops' 2018 statement ('Open Wide Our Hearts') was a good start, but it was more cautious than prophetic," she said. "This country is hungry for powerful moral leadership and the Catholic Church and its leaders are in a good position to take this on."

Conyers would have preferred to see the bishops put forward something of a "command" for the faithful to do God's work in dispelling racist thinking and attitude.

The U.S. bishops issued a more recent statement May 31 in response to the Floyd killing that asserts "racism has been tolerated for far too long in our way of life."

In a separate interview after the webinar, Rougeau was asked to explain how the Catholic Church inadvertently sustains racism rather than working to root it out.

"The way the church would sustain or enable racism would be through the acts of the people who make it up," he told Catholic News Service. "But the actions of all of those people are deeply influenced and shaped by social, political, and economic structures they inhabit.

"Many of them would not perceive their actions as enabling racism, but if they accept the structures uncritically, they are doing that, and they inhibit the church from realizing the full impact or engagement of its social teaching."

Despite their concerns, both speakers are hopeful church leaders and laity can find solutions to the lingering problem of racism. They both urged parishes to organize study sessions of the problem and to reach out to other parishes for more broad-based remedying.

Study and education however are only part of the solution. Both speakers said individuals can take a "racial component" to their interactions throughout the community, as well as "living" the church's teachings on social justice beyond the local parish.

Co-sponsors of the June 22 webinar included the Lumen Christi Institute of Loyola University Chicago, Boston College Law School, America Media and the Chicago chapter of the St. Thomas More Catholic Lawyers Guild.

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Mastromatteo is a Toronto-based writer and editor.

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