Points of Clarification for Rob’s Message on Racism
I set out to begin a difficult and overdue discussion about racism – historic, ongoing, personal, and systematic – with the staff of Catholic Charities. In this past week, it has been brought to my attention that, although my intentions may have been good, there also have been unfortunate impacts from my video on certain members of the Catholic family. Though I meant the video to begin a humble examination of my role and Catholic Charities’ role in systemic racism, it was perceived as an attack on the Church. And though I meant the video to begin healing rifts within our community, it resulted in some people becoming further entrenched in their positions.
I must also state that I have been horrified at the violent and hateful language directed towards Catholic Charities. There also has now been violence committed against my wife and children at my home. For all of my best intentions, these past weeks have been marked by hurt and sadness from all involved. Words cannot express how much I regret that pain.
In the spirit of peacemaking through dialogue that listens deeply and speaks respectfully, I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge where I misspoke, explain my intentions more fully, and ask for forgiveness for the hurt felt by many.
In my video message, I was not speaking and do not ever speak on behalf of the Catholic Church or the Bishop. I was wrong for not making that explicitly clear from the beginning. I do not ever speak for the Catholic Church or for the Bishop; only the Bishop speaks for the Diocese. Since the message was one of many regular weekly messages to our staff and clients, my intended audience knew that already. Obviously, the wider audience who viewed my message misunderstood this and that mistake is wholly mine.
I wanted the video to put race front and center in the minds of Catholic Charities’ team members. By reflecting on my own role in systemic racism, I wanted to encourage our team members to do the same. And by acknowledging that both Catholic Charities and the broader Church could have been better allies in the anti-racist movement, I wanted to challenge our team members to recognize that even the most ardent forces for good in our world can, and must, do better. However, I fear that my video hardened the hearts of some. Instead of engaging in a discussion about race, I spoke in a way that some heard as a critical rant against the Church. For that, I am deeply and truly sorry.
The temptation of racism is rooted in the lives and experiences of every human being. This each person must discern for themselves. I was attempting to address this temptation in my own life, but I was careless with my words in a number of instances. I acknowledge that I was wrong in that, and I apologize for the hurt that it caused.
In a number of cases, I pointed to the Church’s failings without referencing its virtues. It would be impossible in a 7-minute video (or a 7-hour video) to discuss all of the ways that the Catholic Church throughout the world has been an amazing force for good, for justice, and for equality in the world. All Catholic Charities team members know how deeply I love the Church. By acknowledging instances where the Church fell short of its potential, I hoped that through our work at Catholic Charities, our team members would see the Church as an ever-improving force for Love and Grace in a troubled world. I was deeply saddened to learn that some took my statements as an attack on the Church's history.
“I am a racist” – what I intended to convey is that I realize that due to my upbringing and my membership in the majority race in this country, I certainly have areas of both known and unknown bias in my heart that I need to work on, and that in my lifetime I have struggled with those biases in ways that are so subtle I may not have fully realized them. As an individual with white privilege, I certainly have had moments where I could and should have done more to be actively anti-racist. I am not saying that all white people are racists or that all Catholics are racist. I am acknowledging that I need to deeply evaluate my own sin in this area every single day and that I hope others will do the same.
Where racism was once understood to mean only an active and hostile animus toward minority racial groups, we now know that racism also exists where members of majority groups, or groups in power, fail to stand in active and constant opposition to systems that result in disparate treatment of, and outcomes for, minority groups. Being “color blind” is not only insufficient, but often perpetuates systemic racism. We can only avoid racism by being anti-racist – that is, by actively, constantly, and consciously opposing systemic racism. This mindset is a daily challenge; it requires us to acknowledge that each time we fall short of active anti-racism we are – in hard truth – contributing to the continued existence of systemic racism.
“My Catholic Church and my Catholic Charities organization is racist.” – what I intended to convey is that my experience of my own flawed faith life and my experience inside human organizations, lead me to know that there are areas of both known and unknown bias, as well as areas of historical mis-steps that should be acknowledged in order to be a positive force for change.
The USCCB in its pastoral letter on racism from 2018 called out ways that the evil of racism has “permeated the life of the Church and persist to a degree today.” (USCCB pastoral letter on racism “Open Wide Our Hearts” 2018). By calling out this recognition of racism from the USCCB, I wanted to encourage the organization I run to tackle racism with words and actions. The same pastoral letter also called out institutional racism from Church history. “Not long ago, in many Catholic parishes, people of color were relegated to segregated seating, and required to receive the Holy Eucharist after White parishioners. Acts of racism have been committed by leaders and members of the Catholic Church.” (USCCB pastoral letter on racism “Open Wide Our Hearts” 2018). The USCCB also challenges us to speak up. “The Church cannot remain silent about the racial injustices in society and its own structure.” (USCCB pastoral letter on racism “Open Wide Our Hearts” 2018)
In my video message I spoke only of harms done by some Catholic groups and individuals, those who enslaved people and those who damaged cultures and abused people in some Indian schools. I never intended my blanket statements to deny any of the good work that has been done by Catholics in the U.S. and abroad, from missionaries to Civil Rights leaders. This was not a balanced approach and I was wrong to omit here. This was a missed opportunity.
I plan to continue to honor those injured by acts of racism by listening well and working to prevent future abuses. I also plan to draw inspiration from the many examples of Christ-like actions performed in support of the marginalized by those Catholics who came before me. We are on a common mission to eliminate the pain of racism. Our work is about affirming human dignity. Fighting racism affirms human dignity. Acknowledging that our organization is flawed and has not yet done all that we can, was my attempt to let our team and those we serve know that we are committed to doing better.
My description of our Catholic faith tradition being built on the premise that a baby born in a manger in the Middle East was a white baby has also caused pain, and here I must admit I misspoke and was wrong to say it that way. A wise truth was shared with me by a pastor who has always been a priest truly cherished by me, Fr. Jeff Lewis. He reminded me that in other parts of the world, and in some places in the U.S., artistic and pictorial representations of Jesus are in the images and likenesses of the local culture. Jesus, and the entire Holy Family, are consistently, artistically, beautifully represented as members of every race and culture around the globe where there are Catholic churches. Catholic Charities will work to acquire and install a more inclusive diversity of depictions of all God’s people in our buildings.
Our support of the important non-violent racial justice advocacy elements of Black Lives Matter is specifically support for human dignity, which has a clear connection with Catholic Social Teaching. To be clear, we support the concept of Black Lives Matter, but that does not mean we support any elements of that movement that promote violence or violate Church teachings. We affirm the life and dignity of every human person from conception to natural death. We stand firmly against abortion, poverty, violence, and the death penalty. Racial justice and equality are values inherent to life and dignity, and Catholic Charities is not only dedicated to upholding those values, we stand willing to work in strength and in peace to see those values realized in our world.