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Open Wide Our Hearts

At its meeting in November, the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter against racism, Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love. The document was overwhelmingly approved, though not unanimously by the Bishops.  America magazine has reported that among the debated issues were the inclusion of statements about the confederate flag and police shootings of unarmed African Americans. Open Wide Our Hearts acknowledges both willful and unconscious racial bias, the rise in hate speech and hate crimes, that impact African Americans as well as Hispanics, Native Americans, Muslims, Jews, migrants and refugees. They also condemn widespread complicity in the persistence of the sin of racism.  The bishops explicitly name the fight against racism as a “life” issue. The letter calls for a change of heart, rejecting the evil of denying a sister’s or a brother’s humanity, and the transformation of social structures and institutions by modeling the oft-quoted passage “to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mi 6:8).

The bishops acknowledge the role that the Church has played in racism and the practices of slavery and segregation. In no uncertain terms, they admit: “The truth is that the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have been complicit in the evil of racism.”  More of this story must be told. It must be told in parishes and schools.  White privilege must likewise be named, its assumptions challenged, and its practices “dismantled.” The bishops stop short of this (self) critique. Missing too is an explicit recognition of intersectionality with respect to race, class, gender, and other identities. Addressing racism is urgent and will necessarily lead Christians to similarly challenge other related sins including sexism.

Opening hearts wide demands also open wide neighborhoods, schools, houses of worship, homes, work places, hospitals and clinics, borders, voting booths, and government halls. Such an opening means also to listen and hear those who bring the weight of fear, trauma, grief, and righteous anger. The witness of remarkable people whom the bishops name –Sister Thea Bowman, Daniel Rudd, Lena Edwards, and Thomas Wyatt Turner—should indeed be shared but not used to gloss over or mitigate the sins and horrors of the past. Such listening means opening wide to struggle, hope, and beauty. And such hearing means opening wide to solidarity and sacrifice.

In this recall, the bishops assume that the hearts of those whose bodies and spirits have been scarred by slavery, Jim Crow, racism, and discrimination in all its forms are also opened wide enough to find space of forgiveness for the past and present complicity of the millions of US Catholics against them. It seems too much to ask. Further, if the Catholic Church, the Body of Christ, the People of God is present within those who suffer the indignities of racism, then the bishops may have their focus backwards, or better, inside-out. The Body of Christ from Calvary to today has been and is enslaved, incarcerated, lynched, sword and bullet-ridden, raped, dismembered, and forgotten. Will the complicit have the humility and courage to admit their fault, make reparation, and enter into the merciful heart of Christ?

From the inside out, the Church –from its leadership to its laity—must actively expose the past and present injustices of racism in our midst and actively pursue justice for all, starting with justice for those who have been dehumanized. Is there a sufficient, or at least acceptable, penance for the sins of racism that would allow for the complicit Christian (and I include myself), who claims membership and leadership in the Church, to rejoin the communion of the faithful in all its diversity?