Rev. Edgar Chandler (from l.), Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh and Msgr. Robert H. Hagarty at the 1964 Illinois Rally for Civil Rights in Chicago’s Soldier Field. (CNS photos)
Rev. Edgar Chandler (from l.), Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh and Msgr. Robert H. Hagarty at the 1964 Illinois Rally for Civil Rights in Chicago’s Soldier Field. (CNS photos)

WASHINGTON — Catholic groups and organizations are calling out the evil of racism, acknowledging the sins of the past, but also doing something to atone for them.

Network, a Catholic social justice lobby, issued a Lenten study guide last year, “Recommit to Racial Justice.” It has proved so popular that more copies of the six-week program need to be made whenever Network participates in conferences, according to Meg Olson, who leads Network’s grassroots mobilization team.

They flew off the table at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington in January, and Olson said, “I’m printing several hundred copies to take to L.A. for the Religious Education Congress,” an annual event that draws thousands of participants each year.

The response to “Recommit to Racial Justice” was enlightening, Olson told Catholic News Service. “Last year, especially, with the talk of racial justice, we had people accessing (it) who knew nothing about Network,” she said. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had recently approved a new statement, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love — A Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” which called racism a sin.

And last month the president of the USCCB said while the United States has “come a long way” in addressing racism and injustice, much more remains to be accomplished to achieve the dream of “the beloved community” envisioned by the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“We have come a long way in our country, but we have not come nearly far enough,” Archbishop Jose H. Gomez said. “Too many hearts and minds are clouded by racist presumptions of privilege and too many injustices in our society are still rooted in racism and discrimination.”

The archbishop lamented that “too many” young African American men are killed across the nation or are “spending their best years behind bars.”
He called on citizens to recommit themselves to assuring that all people have equal opportunity to overcome what Rev. King called “lonely islands of poverty.”

Citing “disturbing outbreaks of racism and prejudice,” the archbishop raised concern about the rise in anti-Semitic attacks, displays of white nationalism and nativism, and violence against Hispanics and other immigrants.

“Such bigotry is not worthy of a great nation. As Catholics and as Americans, we must reject every form of racism and anti-Semitism,” he said.

“Racism is a sin that denies the truth about God and his creation, and it is a scandal that disfigures the beauty of America’s founding vision,” the statement continued. “In our 2018 pastoral letter on racism, my brother bishops and I stated: ‘What is needed, and what we are calling for, is a genuine conversion of heart, a conversion that will compel change and the reform of our institutions and society.’ ”

Archbishop Gomez urged the country to honor Rev King’s memory by committing to building the “beloved community” the civil rights leader envisioned, “an America where all men and women are treated as children of God, made in his image and endowed with dignity, equality and rights that can never be denied, no matter the color of their skin, the language they speak or the place they were born.”

Some Catholic institutions have recognized their own culpability on racial matters in recent years and taken steps to right wrongs.

Georgetown University in Washington acknowledged its history of slaveholding in 2016. The Jesuit school had sold 272 slaves in 1838 to keep the school from closing. Georgetown was paid $115,000, the equivalent of $3.3 million in 2020 dollars.

Georgetown committed to raise $400,000 a year to distribute to the 8,000-plus known descendants of the slaves — known as “The GU 272,” although descendants said last year the number of known slaves once held by Georgetown is expected to top 300.

If there were exactly 8,000 descendants and each got an equal payment from the $400,000 fundraising target, that would come to $50 per person per year. According to a New York Times op-ed essay by three of the descendants posted Feb. 6, the university has an endowment of about $1.6 billion.

After Georgetown’s history of slaveholding was made public, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart conducted research into its own history. It was generally believed the order owned slaves, although details were sketchy, according to Sacred Heart Sister Irma Dillard, a member of the order’s Slavery, Accountability and Reconciliation Committee.

“We knew we were involved, like everybody else in the country, in slavery, because that was what it was,” Sister Dillard told CNS in a phone interview from San Francisco. The research first zeroed in on the order’s oldest continuously operating school, founded in 1821, in Grand Coteau, La.

It turned out that the woman who “gave us the land and the first house — she was a widow — she had about 25 enslaved with her, so that’s how we started, with her enslaved people,” Sister Dillard said. A private girls-school education was costly. “When they finally started taking students, there were people who were rich in land but not in cash,” she added. “You bring a student, and they would bring one or two of their enslaved to offset the cost of tuition.” Also, Sister Dillard said, “we ended up buying a few here and there.”

At the nearby parish, “they did not want the black folks to go to hell, so they baptized and evangelized. They taught the catechism to the slaves,” she said. Parish sacramental records and handwritten journals kept by the nuns at that time led to the ultimate discovery of about 150 who had been enslaved.

Unlike at Georgetown, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart decided to “talk to the descendants first” before figuring out how to address the slavery issue, Sister Dillard told CNS. Some of their requests: “They want a memorial. They wanted as much information as we could give them. Then they asked to have a gathering at Grand Coteau,” which took place in September 2018. There, they asked further for headstones and a plaque on the old slave quarters that still stands on the academy’s property.

Both the order, corporately, and Sister Dillard, individually, are still at work on the subject. The order offers a scholarship to an African American girl to attend the Grand Coteau school, and Sister Dillard lends her voice to equality issues from California.

After all, “there’s 40 million-plus people in slavery today,” she said. “Slavery’s all about money.”