Race in the American Catholic Imagination

by Alex Wasilkoff


On September 11, Bishop George Murry, S.J. of Youngstown, Ohio, gave an address titled “Race in the American Catholic Imagination.”


Bishop Murry started his talk by quoting several statistics about the growth and spread of the Catholic Church over the past century: “In 1910, there were 291 million Catholics worldwide. As of 2010, that number was over 1 billion.” He gave particular emphasis to the geographical shift in the Catholic population saying, “Two-thirds of Catholics lived in Europe in 1910. By 2010, only one-fourth lived in Europe.” He went on to say that the Catholic population in Sub Saharan Africa and other regions of the global south have increased dramatically. Despite the increased racial diversity, Bishop Murry said that the Church still has a crippled conscience about race.

The Bishop then discussed the history of the Catholic Church and racial issues. In the early days of Christianity, the church believed that some forms of slavery could be just. Gradually, Christendom rejected slavery, but the found renewed justification during the era of colonialism. Murry listed some statements from various popes on slavery, including Pope Paul III’s decree that affirmed that all who have the capacity for receiving Christianity should not be enslaved and Pope Gregory XVI’s decree condemning the slave trade. Bishop Murry went on to discuss that American Catholicism often did not regard these papal statements with much respect, and many adopted the prevailing attitude in Protestant circles that slavery was permissible because it led to the spiritual and material betterment of the slaves.


Bishop Murry related the history of the Catholic response to these racist ideas. In 1889, Daniel Rudd founded the National Black Catholic Congress in order to promote the wellbeing of Black American Catholics. The Knights of Peter Claver were founded in 1909 by a group of Josephite priests to be an organization similar to the Knights of Columbus for lay African-American Catholics. Many other organizations for black Catholics were established in the early part of the twentieth century, including the League for Black Clergy.


Next, Bishop Murry addressed the Catholic Church’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, explaining that there were Catholics on both sides of the issue. He gave the example of the clergy of Alabama who condemned Dr. Martin Luther King, but many Catholics, including men and women religious, marched with him. The position of the American Catholic Church on Civil Rights in this era was ambiguous.


Forty years ago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued their one and only document of race, “Brother and Sisters to Us.” Unfortunately, Bishop Murry said that this letter and its proposals have been largely ignored. Promisingly, the USCCB created an ad hoc committee against racism on August 23, which is chaired by Bishop Murry. The committee will hold listening sessions in order to support those affected by the sin of racism, and to help combat this attitude altogether.


Toward the end of his talk, Bishops Murry explained how the Church should respond to racism both as individuals and as a community. He emphasized the importance of an “ecclesiology of communion,” saying, “You can’t enter into full communion with prejudice.” He also echoed Pope Francis’s call to “go to the peripheries.” Bishop Murry said that Catholics must be willing to give our lives over to the liberation of others. He said that the Church, as a whole, must recognize her institutional problems and reach out to Black and Hispanic theological voices. Bishop Murry ended his talk by asking, “What is the change of heart and practice to which we are called?”

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