With faith, people can confront and help overcome the evil of racism, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl said in an April 17 talk at The Catholic University of America.

“The elimination of racism may seem too great a task for any one of us or even for the whole Church,” he said. “Yet we place our confidence in the Lord, because in Christ, we are brothers and sisters, one to the other. With Christ, we stand in the Spirit of justice, peace and love.”

Cardinal Wuerl, who as the archbishop of Washington serves as Catholic University’s chancellor, was invited by its president, John Garvey, to speak on his recent pastoral letter, The Challenge of Racism Today.

Speaking at the university’s Pryzbyla Center to an audience consisting mostly of seminarians and other students, the cardinal compared racism to a residue that has contaminated streams that flow into the societal well from which people drink. He warned that the unhealthy contaminants causing racism in our culture can be subtle and ubiquitous.

“We have the possibility to be that fresh stream of water flowing into the societal well,” he said.

Noting that the U.S. bishops in their 1979 pastoral reflection, Brothers and Sisters to Us, identified racism as a sin, the cardinal said that evil has spanned continents and centuries and continues in today’s world.

“In societies around the world the social construct of race has been used to classify ‘us’ and ‘them,’ separating those who are seen as ‘different’ – those who come from a different place or look differently or speak a different language,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “This construct has then led to the assertion of innate superiority of one group over the other. This has real destructive effects in society and in the lives of individuals and families.” 

Explaining that the concept of race is not a biological reality, but a social construct, the cardinal said, “Properly understood, there are not multiple races, but objectively there is only one race – the human race.  We are all one species, one people, one human family, albeit manifested in diverse ethnic, cultural and societal ways.”

Emphasizing a point about all people’s equal and innate human dignity central to the creation story in the Book of Genesis and underscored in Catholic teaching, the cardinal said, “We are, all of us, brothers and sisters, children of the same God.”

Quoting from his pastoral letter on racism, Cardinal Wuerl said, “Today we need to acknowledge past sins of racism and, in a spirit of reconciliation, move towards a Church and society where the wounds of racism are healed.”

Noting that African Americans because of their skin color have borne “the social scars of denigration and a cultural classification rooted, fostered and experienced in slavery in this nation and the denial of their fundamental human dignity,” he said the societal impacts of racism endure today.

“The context in which our response to racism takes place,” the cardinal said, “must also include a recognition of the lingering effects of slavery and segregation and of the many social inequities that exist, including the disparate negative impact that certain policies have had, including the concentration of people by race in residential neighborhoods, de facto segregation in public schools, with many African-American children being consigned to poor quality schools, the inequities manifested in employment opportunities, health care and incarceration rates.”

In his pastoral letter, Cardinal Wuerl emphasized the importance of Church efforts to foster social justice, opportunity and hope in facing those problems. 

Reflecting on the sin of racism, Cardinal Wuerl noted, “It is a sin against our neighbor, particularly when it is manifested in support of systematic social, economic and political structures of sin. It is also a sin against the unity of the body of Christ by undermining that solidarity by personal sins of prejudice, discrimination and violence. It is a sin against all of us.”

Speaking in the month that marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination and death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cardinal Wuerl praised him as being first and foremost “a man of faith. His Christian faith is what animated his life and kept him going day after day. Always faithful to the Lord and his Gospel, he also insistently, forcefully, yet without violence, reminded this nation that we are all brothers and sisters, because we are all children of the same God.”

The cardinal said the civil rights leader was a man who pursued and championed “the transformative power of love” and who offered one of the “great prophetic voices of history whose legacy lives on.”

Cardinal Wuerl also praised the life and work of one of his predecessors, Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle, who immediately after assuming the shepherd’s staff as the first resident archbishop of Washington in 1948, began working to integrate the archdiocese’s schools, six years before the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in public schools. Then-Archbishop O’Boyle also gave the invocation at the beginning of the 1963 March on Washington, which featured Dr. King’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech.

In February, Cardinal Wuerl continued that work of justice by blessing commemorative bronze plaques honoring unknown enslaved men, women and children buried throughout the Archdiocese of Washington. The plaques will be installed this spring in the archdiocese’s five cemeteries, to prayerfully remember those enslaved people buried in unmarked graves.

“The purpose of this ceremony was to begin to right a wrong,” the cardinal said, noting that action reflects the need to confront the evil of racism, “recognizing when there’s something wrong, we need to correct it.”

Diversity, he said, is a blessing, and it should be celebrated. In 2015, the Archdiocese of Washington established its Office of Cultural Diversity & Outreach, and on April 21, Cardinal Wuerl will celebrate the opening Mass at the first Archdiocesan Intercultural Conference, when Catholics from different cultural groups will come together for a summit on how they can collaborate, accompany each other and share their gifts.

“Among Christians, the call to unity is greater because it is rooted in grace,” the cardinal said, adding, “…Every single one of us reflects, in some way, the glory of God.”

Cardinal Wuerl emphasized that “intolerance and racism will not go away without a concerted awareness and effort on everyone’s part.” He noted that in an a 2013 address, Pope Francis said, “Let us combine our efforts in promoting a culture of encounter, respect, understanding and mutual forgiveness.”

Cardinal Wuerl pointed out that five days before his death, Rev. Dr. King spoke at the Washington National Cathedral and quoted the words of Jesus in the Book of Revelation, “Behold, I make all things new.”

As he concluded his talk, the cardinal said, “My brothers and sisters, it is possible that we can build a new city, a new heaven and earth, a new community… We’re capable of a much better world. Each one of us can renew the face of the earth.”