The sight and sounds of a handcuffed African-American man, George Floyd, calling out for relief as a white Minneapolis police officer calmly kneels on his neck, choking the life out of him, has hit America like a thunderclap.
The scene, reminiscent of so many before it, brought to the forefront in a visceral way the most difficult issue facing the United States: racism and all the ways, both obvious and hidden, that race influences life in our country..
As if jolted from their sleep by an earthquake, people of all races, ethnicities, creeds and ages watched the infamous video of George Floyd’s arrest and death and their eyes were opened. It was no longer possible to deny the pernicious effects of racism on our society. They flooded into the streets to demand change. Protestors calling for justice and law enforcement officers determined to maintain order faced off in cities across the country. While most protests were peaceful, even if tense, some devolved into rioting and looting.
It brought to mind for many Americans the tumultuous 1960s, when, like today, America seemed hopelessly divided.
And like the 1960s, our country is once again coming to grips with the racism that has been called America’s original sin.
Catholic Church leaders have made it clear that racism is a sin that denies the God-given dignity of others and corrupts the soul.
In remarks addressed to his “brothers and sisters in the United States,” Pope Francis said: “I have witnessed with great concern the disturbing social unrest in your nation in these past days, following the tragic death of Mr. George Floyd. My friends, we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life. At the same time, we have to recognize that the violence of recent nights is self-destructive and self-defeating. Nothing is gained by violence and so much is lost. Today I join the Church in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and in the entire United States, in praying for the repose of the soul of George Floyd and of all those others who have lost their lives as a result of the sin of racism. Let us pray for the consolation of their grieving families and friends and let us implore the national reconciliation and peace for which we yearn.”
U.S. bishops were just as clear, as they have been for decades, in denouncing racism and its dehumanizing effects.
In their 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” the U.S. bishops said, “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.”
Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, released a statement that said: “The killing of George Floyd was senseless and brutal, a sin that cries out to heaven for justice. How is it possible that in America, a black man’s life can be taken from him while calls for help are not answered, and his killing is recorded as it happens? … On behalf of my brother bishops, I share the outrage of the black community and those who stand with them.”
Archbishop Gomez condemned the violence that erupted as “self-destructive and self-defeating,” and he noted that the death of George Floyd “does not reflect on the majority of good men and women in law enforcement, who carry out their duties with honor,” But he added, “We should all understand that the protests we are seeing in our cities reflect the justified frustration and anger of millions of our brothers and sisters who even today experience humiliation, indignity, and unequal opportunity only because of their race or the color of their skin. It should not be this way in America. Racism has been tolerated for far too long in our way of life. … We need to finally root out the racial injustice that still infects too many areas of American society.”
Bishop J. Mark Spalding joined the chorus of Church leaders lamenting the death of George Floyd and calling for change and an end to racism.
“Now, more than ever, the principles of justice and mercy embodied in Catholic Social Teaching and rooted in the respect for the human dignity of each person guide our efforts to work toward healing.”
Bishop Spalding reminded us that we must fight racism and inequality not only with words but with actions. “It is our trust in God that calls us to address a wide range of human needs including affordable housing, senior housing, and the support and assistance of many services provided by Catholic Charities of Tennessee,” as well as making available to everyone a Catholic education, which he called “a great equalizer,” that forms students in faith and develops “well-rounded and civic-minded persons ready to serve as leaders throughout our communities.”
Eradicating racism from our country will require something even deeper than words and actions. “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,” the bishops said in “Open Wide Our Hearts.”
“Conversion is a long road to travel for the individual. Moving our nation to a full realization of the promise of liberty, equality and justice for all is even more challenging,” they said. “However, in Christ we can find the strength and the grace necessary to make that journey.”
The journey begins with one step, one question: Are we doing all we can to make sure we are respecting the dignity of every person and loving them as Christ calls us to do?