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Archbishop addresses Notre Dame community on ‘moral imperative’ of anti-racism

| Monday, August 24, 2020

Archbishop Wilton Gregory, of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., addressed the Notre Dame community virtually Aug. 21 in the inaugural lecture of this fall’s “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” series, hosted by the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights.

In his lecture, “Anti-Racism as a Moral Imperative,” Gregory spoke to the 110 students enrolled in the course, as well as other students, faculty and alumni who tuned in. Klau Center associate director Dory Mitros Durham moderated the event and posed questions submitted by students to the archbishop.

Gregory’s lecture laid out the history of Catholic leaders’ involvement and inaction in racial justice efforts. Church leaders’ stances on racial justice issues have not been uniformly positive, Gregory said.

Bishops in the 19th century failed to voice support for the anti-slavery movement, Gregory said, and the consequences of that silence are clear in the demographics of the church today.

“Who will ever know the numbers of African American Catholics we might have had if the Catholic Church had publicly and prominently and enthusiastically, jointly chosen to be identified with the anti-slavery movement?”

By the late 20th century, Gregory said the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had grown bolder in calling for racial justice.

Gregory, who formerly served as president of the USCCB, commended U.S. bishops for their “increasingly direct and forceful” statements condemning racism. However, he said the Church has not done enough for its more than three million Black Catholics.

“All too often the church in our country has been for many a white church, a racist institution,” Gregory said, quoting “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” the bishops’ 1979 pastoral letter.

Gregory shared stories from the course of his ministry, describing the need to center the experiences of Black Catholics. One of only eight Black bishops in the U.S., he said he has witnessed the need for racial reconciliation in the Church time and again.

As the first Black auxiliary bishop in Chicago’s history, Gregory was assigned to preside at the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation for children in predominantly Black parishes on the South Side, but he asked to confirm children across the diocese as well. Gregory told the story of one white parishioner who, after a Confirmation service, told him, “I was prepared not to like you, but my kids like you.”

The experience shaped Gregory’s perspective on the importance of Black role models for all Catholics.

“The need for African American bishops was clearly not limited to the African American community,” Gregory said. “It was for the life and the growth and the development of the whole church.”

Now, Gregory believes it’s a crucial moment for Church leaders to speak out for racial justice. Pointing to current events, he said the U.S. is confronting two viruses at once: COVID-19 and racism.

“[Racism] too destroys lives,” he said. “It destroys the lives of those who are hated — because of their race, their culture, their language, their legal status — and it destroys the lives of those who hate.”

Gregory said the Church has an important role to play in combatting this virus of racism.

“The brutal killing of Mr. Floyd has triggered something in this nation,” he said. “And I think it’s triggered something in the Church, too, that we need to be about this much more aggressively and much more consistently.”

Gregory said he sees young people “on fire” for racial justice as a particular source of hope.

“I bow to my young audience,” he said. “At this moment, because of their concern about racial injustice and racism, probably at a greater level of participation than we have experienced in the past. I’m hopeful. I really am very hopeful that the end result will be a step forward.”

Gregory challenged his audience to look honestly at the Church’s legacy of racism, but he also called on listeners to respond with hope.

“To turn a blind eye to the past is dangerous, but not to see the possibility of a hopeful future is even more dangerous,” Gregory said.

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