Christians and Race Part I: The Catholic Church

I came across this tombstone inscription for a slave girl.  I wrote it down verbatim, though I neglected to note the source:

“Here lies Sarah [no last name] a Negro slave woman from age 13 to 22, who died in childbirth.  She was a faithful slave to the housemistress who did what she was asked unselfishly and in complete obedience.  She was baptized on her deathbed and given complete freedom.”

That epitaph captures the convoluted theological justification employed by Christians throughout 250 years of enslavement of Africans:  We treated them well when they served us faithfully, then we’d send them on to a reward in heaven.  It was the Christian thing to do for these creatures who were perceived as inferior.

The next 150 years (after Emancipation) presented a bit of a dilemma, since the law now said that these freed people are human in every respect, and there was to be no distinction among us any longer.  What was a Christian to do?  What might they think?

I know how to be kind when they’re obedient and docile.  But “What Would Jesus Do” if they moved in next door; or were mixing with my children in school; or dating my daughter??  I’m sure Jesus would have his limits, right?

In these next two posts, I’ll offer some historical and current perspective on Christians and race.  For this post, I’ll focus on the Roman Catholic Church which deserves particular recognition for mixed reasons:

Historically:   As Christian European monarchs began to colonize and enslave “heathens,” “pagans,” and “infidels,” the Catholic Church in 1452 granted apostolic permission for the kings of Spain and Portugal to buy and sell Africans, setting the stage for the slave trade.  In 1493, through another papal edict which came to be called the Doctrine of Discovery, the Catholic Church explicitly endorsed the right of European nations to conquer and claim foreign lands.  The American colonizers employed these endorsements to justify the annihilation of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans, often while carrying and wearing crosses.

Battle between Crusaders and Saracens

In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the Doctrine of Discovery as the basis for federal laws used to dispossess Native people of their lands.   This case was cited as recently as 2005 by liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a decision that tribal sovereignty was not restored even when tribal lands were repurchased by Native people.

Through the centuries, many pontiffs including Pope Francis have received pleas to officially denounce and rescind the Doctrine of Discovery.  To date, there is no concrete response.

Nationally:  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had issued several past statements on racism (1958, 1968, and 1979).  In November 2018, they issued the document:  “Open Wide Our Hearts: the Enduring Call to Love – a pastoral letter against racism.”  The text gives evidence of the breadth and depth of racism throughout American society and institutions.  They call for a conversion of heart as the basis for reform, including reforms within the Church itself.  This is to be done through education, recognition and atonement for the past, and acting on behalf of justice.  They acknowledge the complicity of the Catholic Church in the past, citing the first papal edict mentioned above.  (It is puzzling that they did not also list the Doctrine of Discovery.)

In my opinion, the bishops’ 30-page document has worthwhile substance, including historical and current understanding.  My concern is this, an admitted conjecture:  I doubt that one in 1,000 people who call themselves Catholic know of its existence, fewer will have read it, and even fewer are acting on it.  This is partly a commentary on the vast distance between the prelates and the pews, a gap exacerbated by the sexual abuse scandal.  This scandal undermines the Church’s credibility in speaking of justice.  And their legitimacy in regard to race matters is not aided by pictures of the assembled bishops, depicting a sea of white males.

Locally:   Thanks to correspondence with the Diocesan Director of Communications Doug Mandelaro, I can note the following:

  • Bishop Salvatore Matano was present and did vote affirmatively for the Pastoral Letter on Racism mentioned above.
  • The Diocesan Department of Pastoral Services and several other departments collaborated to present a two-day anti-racism workshop last spring.  Another workshop in the Spring focused on the Pastoral Letter.
  • Two newsletters originating in Catholic Family Center routinely provide updates and resources for area parishes regarding racism.
  • Another event is scheduled for this Fall.
  • As to the direct engagement of Bishop Matano, Mandelaro referenced a single mention of the Pastoral Letter in one of Bishop Matano’s monthly columns in the Catholic Courier since 2013.

I can also testify that I know many Catholics engaged in direct, concrete action to eradicate racism; most of their activities are not associated directly with the institutional church, but with activist organizations.

The activity seems minimal, and concrete results to reduce racism seem notably lacking.  As to Bishop Matano’s influence and commitment:  During my involvement in numerous gatherings, workshops, and talks related to racism over the past four years, I have yet to encounter him or to see his name.  When other faith community leaders have spoken out individually or as a group, again, his witness is missing.  Speaking out and acting on social issues is an historical strength in Catholicism.  If silence is complicity, then silence on the part of a spiritual shepherd and educator deserves particular note.

This has been an admittedly terse treatment of a very intricate issue.  I’m acutely aware that I’ve only scratched the surface.  Still, the hope would be to spark thinking and interest in further exploration, and to elicit comments.  Please reply below.

In the next post, and with the same caveats, I’ll focus on the unique current influence of the Evangelical Christian churches on race/racism.



America’s Original Sin – Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America   by Jim Wallis

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

“Open Wide Our Hearts: The enduring call to love; A pastoral letter against racism”  Statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, 2018

“Indian nations ask Pope Francis to rescind Doctrine of Discovery”  National Catholic Reporter 12/28/18.

“Doctrine of Discovery: In the name of Christ”  45 minute documentary available on Youtube

“Doctrine of Discovery: Upstander Project”  Article includes its influence on American law

“Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery in your Meeting”  FGC Friends General Conference

Racial Justice and the Catholic Church by Bryan N. Massin

“Bishop: ‘Shootings show all communities are affected by racism’”.  Rochester Catholic Courier article highlighting statement by Bishop Shelton J. Fabre, chair of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops  8/8/19



If you are part of any faith community, advocate for the appropriate group in that community to become familiar with the statement on race from the USCCB, and to sponsor discussion/action sessions.  I realize that may not fit well for other-than-Christian communities.  Here is one link to the Catholic Charities Justice and Peace staff.

Save The Date:  Rochester Symposium on White Privilege:  November 15-16.   Details to come.

Assumption Parish in Fairport is conducting a series focused on the US Catholic Bishops’ Letter on Racism, six Wednesdays beginning October 2.  Details:  COTA Program and COTA, COR Racism Program — Speaker Bios.

Check out the array of events including workshops offered by 540WMain.

Also:  The elections this coming November will be especially critical for the City.  In addition to seats on City Council and on the School Board, a referendum will be on the ballot, with citizens having an extraordinary stake in the outcome:

Citizens will be asked to approve or reject the plan for a Police Accountability Board, as approved by City Council recently:

If you live in the City:

Check info on the Police Accountability Board Alliance Facebook page for background on this vital issue.  Includes volunteer options for voter registration.

Commit time to assist in voter registration.  Send interested people to the on-line site, or to MoCo Board of Elections 39 W. Main St..

Contact the League of Women Voters of Rochester Metropolitan Area to volunteer for registration drives.  Ask to be assigned to a City location.

Go to Candidate Forums and quiz candidates on these issues, and ask for their concrete plans to address structural racism in city institutions.

If you are not a City resident:

You can still take the above steps.

In addition, attend candidate forums in your area and quiz Monroe County candidates about their concrete plans to address structural racism in County institutions.

11 thoughts on “Christians and Race Part I: The Catholic Church”

  1. Thanks, Frank. One thought is that the people of the past can be judged only within their historical context. Certainly not excusing any of the problems cited but they have to be taken in their own context, not ours. (I may regret this post!!) Has there been any comment from any of our past Bishops in the DOR? Perhaps our dear Matthew Clark?


    1. Good question, Dan. I’m not sure. He was Bishop when they issued a letter in 1978. The Courier archive search might reveal something. As to your “context” comment: sure, of course, and still….


  2. As the saying goes “Power Corrupts and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely”. The Catholic Church leaders has used their power to promote slavery, anti-semitism, colonization, male superiority, and other offences. These leaders and followers somehow missed the Golden Rule.


  3. Thanks, Frank. A great kickoff to uncovering the long history of how the construct of “race” and perpetuation of racism (among other bigotries) has served the patriarchal political/economic powers including religious institutions such as the RC Church. The Holy Roman Empire comes to mind. A fine piece of historical research and fact. Hadn’t heard of the Doctrine of Discovery.


    1. Thanks Bob. Knowing your rich grounding in history, I’m amazed to hear that the DOD was new. But you might also know it by its more recent (19th Century) uniquely American adaptation: Manifest Destiny! Wish I’d noted that.


      1. Ah. Manifest Destiny. My guess that’s the Church of England’s translation applied by its former colony’s elite.


    1. Thanks Dennis. I’m hoping this will prod our local church into action. So far it’s just some educational sessions, and no direct engagement by the leader. I’ll be especially interested to know your take on the next post which will be on Christians in general.


  4. Frank – About 15 years ago I attended a workshop with Fr. Bryan Massingale SJ on the topic of racism. He pointed out the embedded racism and exclusivity in the title of the 1979 USCCB statement “Brothers and Sisters to Us.” Speaks for itself.


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