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Call to end ‘sin of racism’

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

“Racism thrives,” declared the six Illinois Catholic bishops in the first pastoral letter ever issued by the state’s hierarchy. They urged Catholics to unite in pledging, “We will not live with the sin of racism any longer.”

But the brief, 1,400-word statement was immediately criticized by some black Catholics as flimsy and lacking in substance. “This document has as much meat as a slab of ribs eaten by 100 hungry people,” said Ralph Shaw, a Chicago permanent deacon and co-publisher of Deliverance, a newsletter on African-American Catholic issues.

The bishops’ letter, titled “Moving Beyond Racism: Learning to see with the eyes of Christ,” (signed by the 14 Illinois bishops including the state’s eight auxiliary bishops) cited the dragging death of an African-American in Texas and the sexual assault on a Haitian prisoner by Brooklyn police as examples of extreme racism. It also noted more subtle forms of racist action: realtors who steer clients along racial lines, police “who routinely profile black drivers” for checks, “parents who drive by excellent schools with substantial black enrollment” to register their children at all-white facilities.

At a news conference at a Chicago west side Catholic parish, Cardinal Francis George said the letter has been in preparation since 1994, but he noted, “The bishops are sometimes slow to get their act together.” His words were well chosen, since the letter was presented on April 3, the eve of the 32nd anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The remedies proposed in the letter were modest: People should “pray for an end to racism,” get to know people of another race, refuse to use biased language, teach toleration to children, elect public officials who work for racial justice, avoid investment in companies that support racist policies and “ask media people to publicize good people and actions in every racial group.”

Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory, an African-American and the vice president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, told NCR the recommendations were simple and the document “purposely brief” so it could get “to the heart” of people in the pew. “The average person won’t read a long letter,” he explained. “We want people to read this one.”

Said Shaw, who facilitated a retreat for Chicago’s black deacons last year, “We’ve been through all this for years, and there’s nothing here in this letter. Racism is more than just another problem, and it takes more than a feather to put a dent in steel.”

Another Chicago activist, Sheila Bourelly, said what’s needed is a plan of action on racism at the archdiocesan level. “We don’t see any changes downtown,” she said. “If all your advisers are white, nothing important is going to happen.”

Meanwhile, the Chicago archdiocese announced that a Black Catholic Convocation of leaders, more than a year in planning, would be held next Nov. 3 and 4 at Chicago’s Loyola University. The city will also host the next National Black Catholic Congress in 2002.

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000