How the Catholic Church in the US is confronting America's 'original sin'

Far right demonstrators process with torches at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.Reuters

Building on a centuries-long and almost entirely distinguished anti-racist record, the Catholic Church in the US has created a new committee against racism following the violent clashes amid white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The committee is the latest in a long line of anti-racist initiatives that have intensified after Charlottesville.

'Recent events have exposed the extent to which the sin of racism continues to inflict our nation,' said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the US bishops' conference, yesterday.

'Marches by hate groups such as the KKK and Neo-Nazis are outrageous to the sensible mind and directly challenge the dignity of human life. It is time for us to recommit ourselves to eradicating racism,' he said in the statement announcing the new committee, entitled 'In His Image'.

The committee will be chaired by Bishop George V Murry, of Youngstown, Ohio. 'Through Jesus' example of love and mercy, we are called to be a better people than what we have witnessed over the past weeks and months as a nation,' said Bishop Murry, according to the Catholic News Agency (CNA).

The establishment of the new committee comes after white nationalist 'Unite the Right' rallies in Charlottesville on August 11-12 which drew members of neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan groups, as well as other white supremacists.

The rally's organisers claimed that they were aimed at protesting against the removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee, but participants also chanted racist messages. The night of Friday, August 11 featured a torch-lit rally reminiscent of Klan and Nazi rallies. On Saturday, August 12, a 20-year-old man from Ohio drove a car into the counter-protest which featured a diverse array of groups including religious leaders.

One woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and 19 people were injured in the incident. The driver was charged with second-degree murder.

Cardinal DiNardo immediately released a statement condemning the violence and calling for peace. The following day he released a joint statement with Bishop Frank Dewane, the chair of the US bishops' domestic justice and human development committee, specifically condemning racism, white nationalism, and neo-Nazi ideologies.

An impromptu memorial of flowers and chalk notes written on the street commemorating the victims in Charlottesville.Reuters

The US bishops' conference is already planning a new letter on racism to be released in 2018.

It will be the latest in the Church's increasingly strong record of opposing racism in the US and elsewhere around the world.

Early in the history of the Church, according to the CNA, distinctions were initially made between people on basis of religion, not race, as the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace explained in its 1988 document on racism, 'The Church and Racism: Towards a More Fraternal Society'.

The letter said that this began to change with the discovery of the 'New World,' as nations colonising the Americas sought to 'justify' the killing and enslavement of indigenous peoples with a 'racist theory'.

For example, the Dominican priest Bartolome de las Casas actively tried to stop the slave trade that he had once backed. He initially helped start it in the Spanish colonies in order to relieve the mistreatment of the Indians there in the 1500s, but later decried what he called the 'spine-chilling barbarity' directed at indigenous people by Spanish Conquistadors in his 1542 letter A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.

Pope Paul III in a 1535 encyclical issued a strong condemnation of theories that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were sub-human. He added that 'we consider' that 'the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it'.

Then in 1839 – when slavery in the US was widespread in the Southern United States – Pope Gregory XVI condemned the slave trade once again and explicitly forbade Christians from partaking in it, writing that 'we warn and adjure earnestly in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition that no one in the future dare to vex anyone, despoil him of his possessions, reduce to servitude, or lend aid and favour to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men but rather animals, having been brought into servitude, in no matter what way, are, without any distinction, in contempt of the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold, and devoted sometimes to the hardest labour'.

Elsewhere, in a 1937 encyclical, Pope Pius XI condemned the Nazi government and its 'so-called myth of race and blood'.

His controversial successor Pius XII, who has been accused by some critics of colluding with Hitler, nonetheless in 1939 decried racial ideologies as one of the 'errors which derive from the poisoned source of religious and moral agnosticism'.

Later Popes have all decried racism, with the current one, Francis, gaining a reputation for prioritising the plight of migrants and refugees. 

Meanwhile, the US bishops have consistently issued statements against racism in America, such as their 1979 document, Brothers and Sisters to Us, in which they decried racism not only as the sin 'that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race,' but also as a sin that denies 'the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation'.

Following the recent events in Charlottesville, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia summed up the Church's response: 'Racism is a poison of the soul. It's the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed.'

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