The sin of racism

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | July 27, 2016

Bishops’ new initiatives should consider calling it intrinsic evil

In 1979, the Catholic bishops of the United States released a pastoral letter on racism titled “Brother and Sisters to Us.” The document, approximately 5,500 words, acknowledged the sin of racism. It offered scriptural citations and church teaching that identified the “evil” of racism; statistical examples of racial discrimination; a historical and contemporary look at racism; the sociological underpinnings of racial disparity; and finally, proposals for addressing racism.

“There must be no turning back along the road of justice, no sighing for bygone times of privilege, no nostalgia for simple solutions from another age,” they wrote in their conclusion.

A generation later, it seems that this message has fallen on deaf ears, as many of the problems cited in it still exist. While the blatant, outward signs of racism may have diminished, it still plagues our country.

A national poll conducted by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation between August and October 2015 found that roughly half of Americans (49 percent) say racism is “a big problem” in society today. That figure was up from 28 percent in 2011.

There are other indicators that racism is still rampant:

  • According to a 2014 FBI Uniform Crime Report, 47 percent of hate crimes are racially motivated. (Religion and sexual orientation tied for second at 19 percent).
  • A 2014 Southern Poverty Law Center survey reported that there are active hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, in all 50 states.
  • The recent deaths of two black men pulled over by police in Louisiana and Minnesota also hint of racial bias, as does some of the negative reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement.

In response to recent racial tensions, the U.S. bishops are focusing again on racism in America. Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced July 21 a “Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities.” This day of prayer will be held Sept. 9, the feast of St. Peter Claver, a Spanish Jesuit who ministered to black slaves in the 17th century.

Archbishop Kurtz also announced the formation of a five-member bishops’ task force that will help bishops to address “the challenging problems highlighted by the (recent) shootings.”

While these are positive steps, we have to ask: will a task force and a day of prayer for peace make an impact on discouraging racism? Perhaps. A more meaningful suggestion has been offered by a black priest who has suffered the sting of racism.

Fr. Bryan Massingale, a priest of the Milwaukee Archdiocese and theology professor at Marquette University, suggests that it is time for the U.S. bishops and the church to call racism an “intrinsic evil.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses intrinsic evil in a section titled “the Morality of Human Act” (1732). It explains that every moral act consists of three elements: the object deliberately chosen; the intention; and the circumstances of the action. “The object of the choice can by itself vitiate (spoil or impair) an act in its entirety,” states the catechism, “because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.”

In his 1993 encyclical, “Veritatis Splendor” (Splendor of Truth), St. John Paul II wrote about human acts that are intrinsically evil.

“The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts,” wrote St. John Paul. Anything that is “hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide” is an intrinsic evil.

Other acts that “violate the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children” also display intrinsic evil.

Racism is certainly offensive to human dignity. When it convenes, the bishops’ task force should consider putting greater moral weight on condemning racism. It is more than a sin, it indeed is an intrinsic evil.

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