How the Catholic Church Can Recognize the Legacy of Slavery and Move Toward Reconciliation

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at a ceremony to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first recorded arrival of enslaved African people in America, on Sept. 10 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Over the past 20 years, Catholic institutions and leaders have made real efforts toward racial reconciliation. Examples include the U.S. bishops’ anti-racism pastoral letter “Open Wide Our Hearts” in 2018; the formation of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism in 2017; individual statements from church leaders, including Bishop Edward K. Braxton’s 2016 pastoral letter on the Black Lives Matter movement; religious men and women acknowledging their history with slavery, including the Jesuits in 2016 and three orders of nuns in Kentucky in 2000; and the U.S. bishops’ 2001 collection of essays Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself.

“Open Wide Our Hearts” acknowledges the need for U.S. Catholics to fully reckon with the sin of slavery: “The generational effects of slavery, segregation, and the systemic use of violence—including the lynching of more than 4,000 black men, women, and children across 800 different counties throughout the United States between 1877 and 1950—are realities that must be fully recognized and addressed in any process that hopes to combat racism.” The pastoral letter was accompanied by resources to educate Catholics about racism and its effects on educationemploymenthousing and migrationguides for clergy to lead discussions on race; and educational material for students at all levels.

These efforts are helpful, but the church can do more. And this summer, The New York Times provided a template worth considering.

The 1619 Project was published to commemorate the 400th anniversary of what many historians believe was the first transport of African slaves to the European colonies that would become the United States. That summer, two English privateer ships attacked Portuguese vessels and captured 20 to 30 enslaved Africans. In August of that year, the White Lion arrived in present-day Virginia, and its crew sold several Africans to the colonists as indentured servants. Eventually, more than 12 million Africans were forcibly transported during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, including about 380,000 who were taken directly to North America. By 1860, the slave population in the United States had grown to four million.

The extensive work by Nikole Hannah-Jones, who spearheaded the project, and other writers, historians, sociologists and photographers traces this history. They argue that no part of American life is untouched by the legacy of slavery, from our prison system to our daily traffic jams (the result, in part, of segregationist housing patterns). In an interview about the project, Ms. Hannah-Jones said that it is for “Americans who are not black, so that they could understand this history and ongoing legacy and really reckon with our true identity as a country and who we really are. I wanted to reframe the way that we see this history and the way that we see ourselves.”

Black worshipers have always been part of the Catholic Church in the United States and yet, as Tia Noelle Pratt recently wrote in America, there is often “incredulousness that surrounds the very idea that black people are Catholic.” Rather than serve as a safe space for black Catholics, Ms. Pratt writes that the church has become “a place where [racial] segregation is heightened and perpetuated.” She argues, however, that there is still time for the church to show black Catholics—and all black Americans—that it is committed to racial justice.

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Source: America Magazine