July 25, 2016

Father Bryan Massingale, a Milwaukee priest and well-known theologian, knows what it's like to be watched by police.

Massingale said that as a black man, he has occasionally been followed by police officers on the campus of Marquette University, where he taught for 12 years, as he walked on campus when he wasn't wearing his priestly garb.

It's a sign, Massingale told Catholic News Service, of the widespread racism entrenched in American culture.

Racism takes many forms: unequal access to housing, economic segregation, differences in the quality of schools between poor and well-to-do communities, and how police approach someone at a traffic stop or a street-side altercation.

"Racism is more than negative speaking," said the priest. "It's really a cult of white supremacy."

White supremacy is broader than the Ku Klux Klan, he said. "It's a subtle culture of white belonging, that somehow public spaces belong to 'us' in a way (that) for others they are not."

It's time, Massingale said, for the U.S. Catholic Church, led by the bishops, to hold up racial injustice as an "intrinsic evil," just as it has prioritized abortion and same-sex marriage.

Other Catholic theologians and social justice leaders urged the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to openly confront the "original sin" of racism and acknowledge that a sense of white privilege is widespread.

While Church teaching about racism has been clear, they told CNS, Church practice has not always been forthright.

Some initiated a call for the bishops to develop a new pastoral letter on racism to address 21st-century concerns. The last, Brother and Sisters to Us, was issued in 1979.

Donna Grimes, of the African American affairs of the USCCB's Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church, said the secretariat has led training sessions across the U.S. to help people be sensitive to other cultures.


The programs help parishes to become welcoming places to newcomers in an increasingly diverse Church.

Priests and seminarians in particular, Grimes said, are interested in learning how to guide parishes to be more welcoming communities.

Grimes added, "People would really like to hear more from the bishops. This is what I keep hearing. They say, 'Do they (the bishops) care? Is it really a Church home for me?'"

Theologians admitted whites become alarmed when terms such as white supremacy and white privilege are used to explain why racism persists.

Shawn Copeland of Boston College said that beyond the bishops, parishioners must take charge in the fight against racism. "We are all responsible. It's not about guilt. It's about responsibility."

Copeland suggested parishes assemble groups of people to "sit together . . . and be quiet enough to surface what is happening in our country.

"It's asking people to think deeply and prayerfully about what's happening to us."


Pax Christi USA uses prayer, reflection and discussion to build interracial understanding.

Sister Patricia Chappell, executive director, said Pax Christi leaders developed the Communities of Colour workshops because they saw true peace would never be realized until people better understood each other.

In many cases, she said, the discussions are the first that participants have ever had about race relations.

"The reality of the Catholic Church and, of course, our country is that Sunday morning services still continue to be the most segregated times in America," said Chappell.