The nationwide reckoning on racial justice spurred by cases of police killing unarmed Black men and women should impel Catholics to learn about racism and its history in the Church and to draw on their faith to take action to combat it, panelists said during an Oct. 13, 2020 online discussion. 

They also emphasized the importance of learning the history of U.S. Black Catholics who endured slavery, segregation and racism in society and the Church and who kept their faith.

Racism and systematic racial injustice “are the issues our people are trying to navigate and are struggling with,” said Father Robert Boxie III, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington who serves as the Catholic chaplain at Howard University. He said it was important for Catholic bishops and priests to offer guidance on this, and for the faithful to “become well-informed, intentional Catholics who actually go and do something about this grave sin of racism we are experiencing.”

Four Black Catholics spoke on a panel on “Religion and Race: The Future of Anti-Racism and the Catholic Church” during a live streamed Salt and Light Gathering for young adults sponsored by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and by the Archdiocese of Washington’s DCCatholic young adult ministry’s Theology on Tap program.

Jonathan Lewis, the archdiocese’s assistant secretary for the Secretariat of Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns, served as the moderator, and in his first question noted the racial justice movement sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and asked how the Catholic Church should confront the issue of racism. Taylor, an emergency medical technician was shot to death by Louisville police on March 13 during a nighttime raid on her apartment, and Floyd died on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes during an arrest.

Panelist Gerald Smith Jr., the principal of St. Thomas More Catholic Academy in Washington, D.C., said, “For my kids and many kids of color, the death of George Floyd was just another reminder of the first few years of their lives. My kids in the eighth grade can name a victim that has been killed by police brutality.”

The principal added, “For them, it was normal. If I’m called to work with some of the youngest, most marginalized groups of people, and if they have this thought that this is normal, we need to do something about it.”

Smith said their school tries to teach its young scholars to respect other people and cultures, especially the marginalized, and to have an awareness of the world around them and know they have the power within themselves to take action against injustices in society. 

“One of the greatest things we do as Catholics is discernment… We should practice that often,” he said, noting that is essential in confronting systems and policies that are racist and reflecting on what it means to be anti-racist.

Gerald Smith Jr., the principal of St. Thomas More Catholic Academy in Washington, D.C., speaks during the panel discussion on “Religion and Race.” (Screen capture/Andrew Biraj)

Another panelist, Ogechi Akalegbere, a Nigerian-American who serves as the Christian service coordinator at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Maryland, said, “I call myself an activist and a social justice warrior.”

She emphasized that Catholics need to get out of their comfort zones and be advocates for those who are on the margins, walking as allies beside their Black and Brown brothers and sisters facing injustices.

Akalegbere, who is the content creator for the podcast “Tell Me, If You Can,” said it is not enough for Catholics to just think they are not racist.

“You have to take on the fight. You cannot be passive. You can’t be on the fence,” she said, adding that as people learn about racism, they should talk with others, like their family members, about it, even if broaching the topic brings discomfort. She noted, “If you ever feel comfortable working toward racial justice, you’re not doing it right.”

Panelist Ogechi Akalegbere, the Christian service coordinator at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, emphasized the importance of Catholics joining the fight for social justice. (Screen capture/Andrew Biraj)

Panelist Shannen Dee Williams, an assistant professor of history at Villanova University, said it “is important for every Catholic to understand that the Catholic Church was never an innocent bystander in the history of slavery, segregation and exclusion in American society.”

She noted that at times in American history, the Church was “the largest corporate slaveholder in Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri.”

Williams, who has a doctorate in history from Rutgers University, pointed out how noted early figures in U.S. Catholic history likewise are connected to slavery and racial injustice.

“There is a Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence – Charles Carroll of Carrollton –who was one of Maryland’s largest slavers, who was also the cousin of Bishop John Carroll, who was our first bishop and who was himself a slave holder,” she said, also noting how Roger B. Taney, the nation’s first Catholic Supreme Court justice, wrote the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857.

That decision, she said, claimed that “Black people ‘had no rights which the White man was bound to respect,’” and denied the freedom petition of Scott, his wife Harriet and their two daughters.

In the years following emancipation, Black Catholics faced segregated churches and schools and encountered barriers that prevented them from entering segregated seminaries and religious orders. Williams noted that some Catholics adopted an adversarial position toward the freedom struggle of Blacks during the civil rights movement.

“Obviously, racism is real. White supremacy is real in our history, and it’s also real in our Church,” she said.

Panelist Shannen Dee Williams, an assistant professor of history at Villanova University, said the Catholics wanting to confront racism should understand the Church's involvement in slavery, segregation and racism and can draw hope from the enduring faithfulness of Black Catholics. (Screen capture/Andrew Biraj)

But Williams said it is also important to remember the stories of Black Catholics who lived out their Church’s teachings on human dignity and serve as a “moral compass” in their times and ours, like Martha Jane Chisley Tolton, the mother of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, who led her three children on a march from slavery in Missouri to freedom in Illinois.

“It is this family that will give us our nation’s first self identified Black priest,” she said of Father Tolton, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1886 and later served as a parish priest in Chicago before his death in 1897. Father Tolton, one of six U.S. Black Catholics whose causes for sainthood are under consideration, was recognized as living a life of heroic virtue and was declared “Venerable” by Pope Francis in 2019.

Williams also highlighted the story of Anne Marie Becraft, the daughter of devout Black Catholics and who historians have identified as the paternal granddaughter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton. At the age of 15, she founded a school for free girls of color in the Georgetown neighborhood in 1820 during an era when slavery was widespread in Washington, D.C., and when most people of color did not have access to an education.

“She was so devout, so intelligent, so beautiful, she got the slaveholding Jesuits and the slaveholding Visitation Sisters to support her school,” she said.

Becraft operated her school until 1831, until she joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the nation’s first Catholic religious order for African American women, and she took the name Sister Mary Aloysius. She died in 1833, and in 2017, Georgetown University as it confronted its own legacy of slavery named a building in her honor.

Williams said Becraft’s life “shows the subversive power of true faithfulness.”

The historian noted, “What’s truly great about Black Catholic history is the beautiful faithfulness in the face of that unholy discrimination,” and she praised the White Catholics throughout the U.S. Church’s history who have also stood up against racism.

Williams – who is writing a book with the working title “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long  African American Freedom Struggle” – also emphasized the important role of those sisters in desegregating Catholic religious orders, schools and hospitals, and in recognizing the importance of teaching their students about Black Catholic history. That history, she said, should be taught in Catholic elementary and high schools and universities.

Father Boxie like the other panelists underscored the importance of learning those instances of racism in the Church’s history and the story of Black Catholic history, and he said that should be part of the formation in seminaries and the ongoing formation of priests.

“When we acknowledge what the Church has done, her failures, her shortcomings, we arm ourselves with the power to move forward and do something about it,” he said.

The young priest spoke about how in earlier eras Black Catholics faced the indignities of having to sit in the back of churches and being the last to receive Communion, and how Black men were denied entrance into seminaries and how Black women were excluded from convents.

But while remembering those shortcomings, Father Boxie said it’s important to remember the witness of faith of Black Catholics.

“Our gift of faith” has persevered through all those challenges, he said. “We’re still here. This is our Church, too, and we belong here.”

Speaking of his own vocation, Father Boxie said, “I love being a priest, and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”

He said he is mindful of how the Church during eras of segregation prevented Black men from entering seminaries and joining religious life and how over the years Black candidates for priesthood sometimes felt disrespected.

“I carry that with me as a Black priest,” he said, noting how as he studied for the priesthood and after his ordination, he has had the experience of feeling alone as one of the only Black seminarians or priests at gatherings.

Father Boxie said the Church offers a response to racism, by being “authentically Catholic… Let’s really double down on our Catholicism. Let’s really get the message of the Gospel, what Christ came to bring and put that into practice.”

“We have so much in our faith, in our history, in our tradition, in our doctrines that provide what we need in this particular moment,” he said, emphasizing “our baptismal call as brothers and sisters to each other and as sons and daughters of God the Father. God does not make any distinctions among his children, but we have… We’re all one. We’re all equal under the Lord.”

The priest pointed to “the power of the Eucharist. It’s the sacrament of unity… It’s capable of transforming hearts, minds, souls, cultures and societies.”

Father Boxie said the Sacrament of Reconciliation also offers a model for how individual Catholics and the Church can reflect on and acknowledge the sin of racism and seek to make amends for that. He noted how the Church’s sex abuse crisis demonstrates the importance of making reparation and seeking healing in the face of sin.

“When part of the body of Christ suffers, the whole body of Christ suffers, and we have to do something about that,” he said.

Akalegbere said the examination of conscience that is part of Confession can guide archdioceses, parishes, communities and families in doing an audit, examining how they are addressing racial justice. For example, she said a parish could see if its councils include people from diverse backgrounds.  In that way, she said, people can “move the needle of justice, not just in a secular space, but in the parish where you find a spiritual home.”

Smith noted that  St. Thomas More Catholic Academy and Sacred Heart School in Washington are working in partnership with Howard University on a Justice by Design curriculum, to teach students about how to navigate and seek solutions to issues like racism, drawing on their faith.

“Even at preK, we can start having these conversations” that people “shy away from in the real world,” he said. “…We can build that sensitivity in kids. We have to help them discover that power within. We’re called to do that as Catholic educators… and what better place to tie it right back to what Jesus has called us to do.”

To close the discussion, Lewis asked the panelists where they see hope in the Church today in confronting racism and what are practical things Catholics can do.

Williams said that in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, she has written editorials calling for Black Catholic history and Black history to be taught in Catholic institutions, and she’s been encouraged by letters of support she’s received.

“For me, education is a key for us in terms of making reparation,” she said.

She also said it would be a powerful step if Pope Francis would offer a formal apology for the Church’s historic connection to slavery and segregation. Williams recommended that every Catholic should some day make a pilgrimage to the slave castle in Elmina, Ghana, where they can see a chapel located in the building right above the prison where enslaved people where held.

“It’s a reminder that the Church was there,” she said, adding that by visiting that place and acknowledging that history, “we can begin to heal ourselves.”

Akalegbere said she sees hope in young people, as girls as young as middle schoolers at Holy Child recognize injustices and want to do something about it.

“They give me hope, because they will keep us moving toward justice,” she said. “…Everyone has a role in this work of justice.” Akalegbere recommended that Catholics “choose how you act and start today.”

Smith also said he finds hope in “the children, our kids,” and he agreed about the importance of Catholic educators talking about these issues in their classrooms, so students can one day help dismantle systems of injustice and “make the world more just and humane for everyone.”

Father Boxie said he finds hope in serving as a chaplain at Howard University, and in the students there.

The priest said it’s important to remember that racism “is a moral, spiritual problem… We need a transformation, a constant conversion of our hearts and minds, of our ways of thinking, revealed to us through Jesus Christ, and that starts with prayer.”

The Howard University chaplain said they would be participating in a program during Black Catholic History Month in November to study the lives and spirituality of the six U.S. Black Catholics being considered for sainthood. In addition to Father Tolton, those candidates include Venerable Pierre Toussaint, who was born as a slave in Haiti and became a noted for his works of charity in New York City; Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, the foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence; Venerable Henriette Delille, the foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Family; Julia Greeley, a devout Catholic laywoman in Denver who died in 1918; and Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration and noted evangelist who died in 1990.

Reflecting on the ultimate source of his hope, Father Boxie said, “Jesus Christ will always be my sign of hope. This is His Church. He said he would never leave it, and I’m not going to leave it either.”

Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory celebrated a Mass of Peace and Justice on Aug. 28 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle to commemorate the 57th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. At that Mass, Archbishop Gregory announced the Archdiocese of Washington's new initiative, “Made in God’s Image: Pray and Work to End the Sin of Racism,” which will promote pastoral activities and outreach including prayer, listening sessions, faith formation opportunities and social justice work.

In June 2020, Maryland’s Catholic bishops released a statement on racial justice that called for “…healing, harmony and solutions that recognize that every person has been created in the image of God and that every person possesses human dignity. …We pray that God will guide us during these difficult times and give us the courage to act with conviction in our duty to seek racial equality, heal divisions, and build bridges of understanding and hope.”