Catholic Bishops Tackle Racism, But Is It Too Late?

Bishop George V. Murry, SJ of Youngstown, Ohio has been named Chair of the New Committee on Racism

After years of foot-dragging on issues that aren’t related to abortion or “religious liberty,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took an unequivocal stance against racism this week when it created a new high-level committee to tackle the issue. “Recent events have exposed the extent to which the sin of racism continues to inflict our nation,” said USCCB President Cardinal Daniel DiNardo when he announced the new committee.

The creation of an Ad Hoc Committee on Racism, which is the bishops’ highest level committee, elevates the issue to the same level of importance the bishops have placed on eviscerating the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act and protecting “traditional” marriage.

And in announcing the new committee, Youngstown, OH, Bishop George Murry noted that the initiative wouldn’t just address racism at a national level, but also within the church:

For too long, the sin of racism has lived and thrived in our communities and even in some of our churches. For those who have been watching, even with passing interest, it should be plain to see why we need a concerted effort at this moment.

This is an important admission for the U.S. Catholic Church and a much-needed corrective to the deafening silence on race that has emanated from many Catholic pulpits. But, as Anthea Butler noted in the Washington Post, the real issue may be in the pews:

The major challenge may actually be those in the Catholic community who voted for President Trump and continue to support his policies on immigration and race.

As Thomas Edsall notes, racial identification among whites has skyrocketed in reaction to the nation’s shifting demographics and the racially polarizing Obama years, causing political scientists to reexamine their conviction that white identity isn’t a major electoral variable.

Edsall points to a stunning new analysis that links white identification among Republicans to the likelihood that someone voted for Trump in the GOP primaries. White Republicans for whom white identity holds little salience were unlikely to vote for Trump. But as the degree of white identity increases, so did the likelihood that a Republican intended to voted for Trump, until at the top of the scale:

Among those who said their identity as whites was extremely important to them, Trump’s support reached 81 percent.

Catholics, it should be noted, were notably lukewarm to Trump during the primaries, probably due to the presence of a large number of Catholic and neo-Catholic candidates like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and John Kasich.

But, as Edsall notes:

Once Trump secured this “white identifier” base — making him competitive in a multicandidate field — he was positioned to expand his traction among traditional Republicans, including a decisive majority of those who backed Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush.

As 60 percent of white Catholics ultimately voted for Trump, there’s no reason to believe that many of these Catholics weren’t as motivated by fears of racial usurpation as their Republican counterparts. This means that the Catholic Church is dealing with a significant portion of white Catholics who have been racially radicalized around issues of perceived anti-white bias and discrimination.

A recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute confirms this. Nearly half (48 percent) of white Catholics say that African Americans don’t face a lot of discrimination, making them second only to white evangelicals in saying blacks don’t face significant discrimination, which is a key marker of perceived racial persecution among whites. By comparison, 65 percent of Hispanic Catholics say African Americans face significant discrimination.

The problem for the church is that this may require more of an exorcism than the statements from the bishops and community meetings Murry envisions to address racism. Anyone who has spent time around conservative Catholics can attest to the degree to which animosity toward those they believe are gaming the system based on racial preferences has seeped into the core of their identity along with opposition to abortion and taxes—which is itself a racially tinged issue as it’s often framed as less-deserving minorities getting handouts from white taxpayers’ dollars. And, as with abortion, once an issue becomes fused with political and religious identity, it can be difficult to expunge.

For the Catholic bishops the real problem is they have allowed the issue of racial identity to fester for too long because it was politically useful to have conservative Catholics committed to the anti-abortion, anti-LGBT rights agenda of the Republican Party. The bishops were unwilling to see the even uglier parts of that agenda that were dragged along and that Charlottesville pushed into the daylight.

The bishops’ committee on racism is an important and much-needed step. Openly addressing the issue of racism not just in the church but in Catholics themselves signals that the church will no longer look the other way. But the bishops also need to understand the ways in which their focus on a narrow conservative agenda has helped to radicalize white Catholics, even if they didn’t intend to bring racial identity into the mix.