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January 29, 2021

The Sin of Racism

The Sin of Racism

This article was taken from the 2021 Lent–Easter Triduum–Easter Season edition of Today’s Liturgy, a liturgy preparation magazine.

As some of the restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic were being loosened in the United States last year, protests took place in cities and towns across the country following the death of George Floyd during an arrest by police in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. For many people, especially many in the Black community, the protests gave voice to anger not only about the death of Mr. Floyd and other unarmed black individuals in the previous few weeks, but also about the ways in which many people of color continue to be mistreated. The protests caught the attention of Pope Francis who said, “My friends, we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life…I join the Church in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and in the entire United States, in praying for the repose of the soul of George Floyd and of all those others who have lost their lives as a result of the sin of racism.”

The sin of racism: it’s a term that should cause Catholics to pause as we prepare to enter the season of Lent with its call to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. This year, Lent begins almost exactly a month after the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, and in the middle of February, which is observed as Black History Month. While each Catholic may be aware of sins in his or her own life that need scrutiny this Lent, and while there are ample social sins that call for our collective scrutiny, the sin of racism is one whose time for collective scrutiny has certainly come.

As Catholics, we understand racism in light of the most fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching which is human dignity. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity. The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design” (1934–1935). The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace presents racism as a moral issue: “any theory or form whatsoever of racism and racial discrimination is morally unacceptable” (433). In their 1979 pastoral letter on racism entitled Brothers and Sisters to Us, the Catholic bishops of the United States bluntly said, “Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of races. It is the sin that makes racial characteristics the determining factor for the exercise of human rights” (Paragraph 7).

As a white person, I understand the impulse to disassociate myself from racism with rationalizations such as “I have never harmed a person of color,” “I do not judge people by the color of their skin,” or “I have black and Latino friends and colleagues.” All of this is well and good, but these things alone do not bring an end to racism. Racism, as Father Bryan Massingale points out in his book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, does not just manifest itself when “Person A (usually, but not always, white) consciously, deliberately, and intentionally does something negative to Person B (usually, but not always, black or Latino) because of the color of his or her skin” (11). Rather, Father Massingale notes, “racism functions as a culture, that is, a set of shared beliefs and assumptions that undergirds the economic, social, and political disparities experienced by different racial groups” (19). If I, as a white person, assume that being white is the norm and that those who are not white are deviations from the norm, then I am acting out of the culture of racism. If I, as a member of a parish overwhelmingly composed of white people of European ancestry whose first language is English, assume that such people are the norm and that those who are not white, are not of European ancestry, and do not speak English as their first language are deviations from the norm, then I am acting out of the culture of racism. I may not intend to be supporting racism; I may even declare that I am anti-racist. However, my unconscious attitude reveals that I am still immersed in the culture of racism.

For many white people, including me, this is difficult to hear. For white people who consider themselves allies to people of color and who even march in protests against overt acts of racism, it is challenging to accept that we enjoy “white privilege.” The “white guilt” that some white people experience can leave them feeling immobilized or, even worse, can divert attention to them rather than to those who have been the objects of racism. A more appropriate Catholic response takes its inspiration from the Lent/Easter cycle that we are entering: we acknowledge our participation in sin, we affirm that the process of conversion will take time, we prayerfully place ourselves in God’s loving hands, we ask the Holy Spirit to inspire us to take the first small steps to change our mind and amend our ways, and we do this all in the firm belief that Jesus will accompany us through death to new life. In their 2018 pastoral letter against racism entitled Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, the U.S. bishops committed themselves to a similar process: acknowledge sin, be open to encounter and new relationships, resolve to work for justice, educate ourselves, work in our churches, change structures, pray and work for conversion, approach racism as a life issue.

As ministers of music and liturgy, how might we collaborate with our colleagues in ministry to help our communities work on turning away from the sin of racism this Lent? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Explore the role of Catholic institutions in slavery in the United States. Go to http://slavery.georgetown.edu/ to see how Georgetown University, the nation’s oldest Catholic university, is coming to grips with its historical role in slavery and working on reconciliation with the descendants of those who were impacted.
  • Read the nine brief articles on “Black Catholic Ancestors and Heroes” in Clip Notes for Church Bulletins, Volume 3 (Liturgy Training Publications, ltp.org). Include some of these articles in the parish bulletin during Black History Month and throughout Lent.
  • Offer a parish book club on Father Bryan Massingale’s book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Orbis Books, orbisbooks.com) and Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Beacon Press, beacon.org).
  • Show the 2019 film Just Mercy about a civil rights lawyer who defends a falsely accused black death row inmate. Follow it up with an opportunity for discussion.
  • Introduce children ages 5–12 to the book Everyone Belongs (Loyola Press, loyolapress.com) which is inspired by the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter against racism Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.
  • See the resources on the “Combatting Racism” page of the U.S. bishops’. Prayer resources include a reproducible prayer card and a “Prayer Service for Racial Healing in our Land” (both in English and Spanish).

Find this article, as well as additional insightful articles, liturgy worksheets and music suggestions, in our quarterly magazine Today's Liturgy.

Deacon Paul Covino
Deacon Paul Covino

Deacon Paul Covino received his master’s degree in liturgical research from Notre Dame, and has worked for more than thirty years in pastoral liturgy. A permanent deacon for the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts, he is editor of Celebrating Marriage: Preparing the Roman Catholic Wedding Liturgy, Fourth Edition and currently serves as Director of Campus Ministry at Assumption College in Worcester.