August 17, 2017

Our response to Charlottesville

By Bishop James D. Conley *
Bishop James D. Conley prays at installation Mass outside of Risen Christ Cathedral in Lincoln, Nebraska on Nov. 20, 2012 / Credit: Seth DeMoor_CNA
Bishop James D. Conley prays at installation Mass outside of Risen Christ Cathedral in Lincoln, Nebraska on Nov. 20, 2012 / Credit: Seth DeMoor_CNA

In the late 1940s, Archbishop Joseph Rummel began the process of ending segregation in the parishes, seminary, and schools of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He faced real opposition, from families, from teachers, from civil officials, and even some of the priests and religious of his diocese.

Political leaders threatened to end all state financial support for integrated Catholic schools. Catholics wrote to Pope Pius XII asking him to remove Archbishop Rummel from his post. At times, the opposition became violent – A cross was burned on Archbishop Rummel’s lawn; his home was picketed nightly.

In 1959, eight years after segregated Church seating was banned, two black men were beaten by a mob because they sat in the front pews of a New Orleans area parish. Some diocesan officials pleaded with Archbishop Rummel to end his mission. But the archbishop was undeterred.

In 1956, he wrote that racism “is morally wrong and sinful because it is a denial of the unity… of the Redemption. The Eternal Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, came into the world to redeem and save all men, to die for all men on the cross, to make the life of grace available through the Church and the Sacraments for all men.” Racism, he wrote, and especially segregation “would draw the color line across the inspiring plan of the Redemption and thus sin against the divine providence, the love and the mercy that conceived and carried out the wonderful Mystery.”

No matter the cost, Archbishop Rummel was committed to ending racial stereotypes and prejudices, which are, he said, “grievous violations of Christian justice and charity.”

Archbishop Rummel died in 1964. By then, the Archdiocese of New Orleans had done away with racial segregation in its institutions. But the evil of racism – which sins against Providence, justice, and charity – remains a powerful force in our country.

Last weekend, white supremacists and neo-Nazis demonstrated in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was the largest such gathering in the United States in decades. They marched across the campus of the University of Virginia, carrying burning torches. They carried vile signs and chanted Nazi slogans. They engaged in violent fights with counter-protestors – in some cases punching or beating black onlookers. And one participant in the protest drove a speeding car through a crowd of people, injuring dozens, and killing one young woman. Please join me in praying for the repose of the soul of that young woman – Heather Heyer – and for all of those who were injured.

Racism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism are absolutely opposed to the truth of the Gospel. Racism is a dangerous evil: a lie sown by Satan, which seduces, and confuses, and ensnares. The Evil One seeks to divide us from one another and from the Lord, by sowing and exploiting prejudice, stereotypes, and fear.

Regrettably, the white supremacists were not the only ones sowing violence in Charlottesville. A small number of the counter-protestors, but not most of them, were violent, anarchist members of the “antifa” movement, who opposed their racist counterparts with violence. 

We should all be disgusted by the racism of white supremacists. But hatred, expressed in anarchic violence, is the wrong response to injustice. Hatred begets hatred. Violence begets violence. Christians know that evil cannot overcome evil. Only grace can conquer evil.

This weekend, Archbishop Chaput wrote that “Charlottesville matters. It’s a snapshot of our public unraveling into real hatreds brutally expressed; a collapse of restraint and mutual respect now taking place across the country... If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others. That may sound simple. But the history of our nation and its tortured attitudes toward race proves exactly the opposite.”

Today, our call is to oppose the evil of racism, and the violence begotten by hatred, with the Gospel of Jesus Christ – with the love of the One who came to redeem every human heart. Jesus Christ can free the captives of racism, and Jesus Christ can heal racism’s victims. Our job is to proclaim the truth, mercy, and freedom of life in Jesus Christ. We should not be naïve about how difficult that job really is.

It should be absolutely clear to us that without a massive spiritual renewal in our country, violence, hatred, and chaos will continue unabated. In fact, each one of us must guard our hearts, to ensure that Satan does not sow within us the lie of racism, or use our disgust for racism to make us hateful, vengeful, or violent. 

The only Christian response to the evil that unfolded in Charlottesville is to redouble our prayers for our nation, and to redouble our efforts to build a civilization of love.

More than 60 years ago, Archbishop Rummel worked to combat the evil of racism, because he knew that “Jesus Christ had come to die for all men.” It wasn’t easy, but it was his mission. Today, we are called to do the same. May the Lord give us the grace to build a nation alive in Jesus Christ, which respects the dignity, rights, and beauty of every person, created in the image of God.

The Most Rev. James D. Conley served as the auxiliary Bishop for the Denver Archdiocese from April of 2008 until November of 2012, and during this time also served as Apostolic Administrator for Denver from September 2011 until July 2012. Bishop Conley is currently the Bishop of the Lincoln diocese.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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