Open Wide Our Hearts


(This is the second column in a series about racism from the perspective of church theology by faculty members of St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

As Professor Micah Kiel noted last month, the church has asked us to identify racism as evil. It is a sin, both in its conscious and unconscious forms — that is, in individuals’ explicit behaviors and in social systems. In this second article of the series on racism from a theological perspective, I am offering a reflection on the most recent U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” with a continued focus on how the church de­fines racism and our response to it.

Published in 2018 on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Open Wide Our Hearts” clearly states its purpose: “The persistence of the evil of racism is why we are writing this letter now. People are still being harmed, so action is needed” (#7). The document defines racism as a sin, stating, “Racist acts are sinful because they violate justice. They reveal a failure to acknowledge the human dignity of the persons offended, to recognize them as the neighbors Christ calls us to love (Mt 22:39)” (#3).


What is the Christian response? The bishops tell us to find inspiration in the prophet Micah’s words “You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God (Mi 6:8)” (#7). The document proceeds by advising church members to respond to racism by following these three steps: “do justice,” “love goodness” and “walk humbly with God.”


To “do justice,” according to the bishops, is to follow its biblical definition: to be “in right relationship with God, with others, and with the rest of God’s creation” (#9). Yet, before relationships may be reconciled, we must admit the sin in our relationships. “The evil of racism festers in part because as a nation, there has been very limited formal acknowledgement of the harm done to so many, no moment of atonement, no national process of reconciliation and, all too often a neglect of our history” (#10). To this end, the document admits the church’s history of involvement in slave trade and ownership; racist attitudes blocking a “fully indigenous clergy and religious;” and — most recently — racial segregation, in not only seating but also in communion distribution in Catholic parishes (#22).

To “love goodness,” the bishops ask us to turn our gaze inward. Individuals need to acknowledge our own individual failings and ask ourselves: Have I separated people into categories of “we” and “them”? Do I interrupt racist words and resist racist ideologies? Do I work “to change policies and structures that allow racism to persist?” (#18)

The final command, “to walk humbly with God,” calls the church and its members to work for structural and systemic reform. The bishops advocate for legal, healthcare, economic and educational reform in our nation. They urge our church’s seminaries, schools, institutions and religious education programs to develop curricula relating to racism and racial justice (#26).

These calls to action are challenging. The bishops seem to understand this. Defining racism as a sin recognizes that it “requires a moral remedy — a transformation of the human heart — that impels us to act” (#20).

Indeed, to be impelled to act, many Catholics (especially white ones like me) need to undergo a deep conversion. For example, I might think, “I’m not racist. I don’t tell racist jokes, so racism is not my problem.” On the contrary, the bishops’ definition of racism as both an individual and structural sin makes it everyone’s problem. Not telling racist jokes isn’t enough. It won’t stop the racial disparities in Covid-19 victims, incarceration rates, healthcare access, poverty and murders of unarmed persons by law enforcers (#30). For structural change to occur, every member of the church and society needs to work for it.

Moreover, these racial disparities lead the bishops to declare: “[W]e unequivocally state that racism is a life issue” (#30). Conversion in this area is also necessary: “Too many good and faithful Catholics remain unaware of the connection between institutional racism and the continued erosion of the sanctity of life” (#30). We don’t speak out as consistently and forcefully about racism as we do about abortion.

Again, this problem requires transformation, especially for white persons, an opening of hearts. We need “to see, maybe for the first time, those who are on the peripheries of our own limited view.” If we “truly see each other as Christ sees us,” we will act. “Love should then move us to take what we learn from our encounters and examine where society continues to fail our brothers and sisters, or where it perpetuates inequity, and seek to address those problems” (#30). The work is difficult but urgent, necessary, and the call of those who seek to follow the way of Christ.

(Ella Johnson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the theology department of St. Ambrose Uni­versity in Davenport.)

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