The Summer of 2020 has been, among other things, a season of reckoning for latent or residual systemic racism as well as for the confrontation of individual racist attitudes and practices. Both in the U.S. and Europe, we have seen nearly universal agreement both that insidious racism is still a widespread problem, and that we must unite to confront and work to eliminate it.
Lest anyone doubt that racist attitudes exist even within the Church, a recent incident in the U.S. sadly dispels that doubt.
The former monthly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, The Catholic Telegraph, has recently been transformed into a lovely magazine under the leadership of its new editor, Jessica Rinaudo. The covers of the July and August issues of the new format feature photographs of parishioners from within the Archdiocese. The July image shows a smiling inter-racial couple and their four young squirming children, sitting on the porch of a house; August’s features three Hispanic children, dressed in their school uniforms, striding happily down a school corridor. (In the interest of full disclosure, my daughter, photographer Margaret Craycraft Swensen, took both the photos in question; and I write a monthly column for the magazine.)
In response to these covers, the editor received a voice mail message from a person who identifies himself as living in a neighboring diocese. After praising the production values of the new format, the caller got to the point of his message, transcribed as follows:
I am a devout Catholic. I’m a member of [a certain] parish. And I cannot believe the [July] issue [of the new Catholic Telegraph magazine format] had a biracial family. [Sarcastically], Of course, Cincinnati has always been “racist.” But you didn’t have to put a biracial family on the front cover. The [August] issue is Hispanic children. And who knows if they’re illegal? I can’t believe that you’re doing this.
It is hard to say which part of the unapologetic racism in the message is more scandalous: the assumption that (a) any “devout Catholic” should know better than to put a racially mixed family on the cover; or (b) that all Hispanics are presumptively “illegal”? The assault on the dignity of the persons on the covers—parishioners and students in Archdiocese of Cincinnati parishes and schools—is appalling.
It would be only too easy to dismiss this as the unfortunate attitude of an isolated individual.
Rinaudo has received a large number of similar communications, in fact. If it is a mistake to conclude on that basis alone, that overt racism is rampant within the Church or that the Church itself is racist, it is nevertheless evidence at least of such attitudes’ deep entrenchment.
We are all sinners, called to self-examination to confront all of our sins and repent of them. Racism is one among many serious sins that many of us commit and even harbor. Neither this caller nor the others like him see that their attitudes are indeed gravely sinful. It is not only reasonable, but urgent that we all interrogate ourselves regarding the ways in which we contribute to racism’s persistence.
Racism is not a matter of weakness of will or moral failure in the heat of passion. It is cool, dispassionate, deliberate sin. The caller identified himself as a devout Catholic. His failure to see the sin in his racism tells us that the Church has work to do, both through magisterial teaching and personal witness.
(Ironically, my column for one of subject issues of The Catholic Telegraph addresses the problem of racist ideas and attitudes even within the Church. Without denying the reality of residual systemic racism, I emphasize the need for personal reflection and repentance, and challenge all of us to confront our own individual racism and enabling of racist behavior and attitudes. Perhaps our caller did not get past the cover to read that column.)
In his 1963 song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” Bob Dylan describes the murder of an African American kitchen maid by a white man. After noting that the murderer was sentenced to six months in prison for his crime, Dylan concludes, “Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears/Bury the rag deep in your face/For now’s the time for your tears.” Unfortunately, that time has not passed.
Kenneth Craycraft is a licensed attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds the Ph.D. in theology from Boston College, and the J.D. from Duke University School of Law.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.