It is long past time for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to speak out against the evil of today’s racism. The “alt-right” white nationalist racism that surged alongside the political campaigns of 2016 is an evil that the church in America cannot ignore.
After endorsing candidate Trump during the campaign, the Klu Klux Klan celebrated the president-elect’s win in its publications and websites. A local Klan chapter in North Carolina even held a victory parade. In Washington, the white supremacist National Policy Institute celebrated during its convention in the Ronald Reagan Building, some attendees replete with Hitler haircuts and “Heil Trump” salutes. The scary “alt-right” leader of the institute, Richard Spencer, spoke glowingly of how the election had awakened a movement of white nationalism in America. Since the election, a tide of hate crimes has swept across the country.
What should be a Catholic’s response? Section 34 of the USCCB’s 2015 guide to voters, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, condemns racism in the same words as it does abortion, identifying both sins as “intrinsically evil.” By its very definition, white nationalism is utterly racist. Faithful Citizenship goes on to say that voters who vote to advance or promote intrinsic evils like racism are guilty of grave, formal cooperation with that evil.
Sixty percent of white Catholic voters chose Trump in November. That’s a higher percentage of white Catholic support than voted for either of the Presidents Bush or President Reagan. Some voted because of his position on abortion. Some believed that the billionaire and reality TV star from 5th Avenue would be their champion against East and Left Coast elites. And, while surely not even a majority of his Catholic supporters were enthusiastic about the confluence of Trump’s campaign with white nationalist racism, none can claim to be ignorant of that association. White nationalism, then, is not only a rising social evil in American society at large, it is also a serious moral danger within the church that must concern the community of the faithful.
Why then has the bishops’ conference remained almost entirely mum in the face of this election’s mounting racism when it has been so courageous in speaking moral truth to power in regard to other so-called intrinsic evils of contemporary public life?
Perhaps our bishops are rethinking what counts as intrinsically evil? In fact, the application of the technical term “intrinsic evil” to condemn political movements and public policies has been roundly criticized by many theologians. In moral theology, something is intrinsically evil not because of the magnitude of its infamy but because of its intrinsic compromising of the will of the subject. Intrinsic evil, correctly understood, is not a term for categorizing terrible sins like racism, it is a term to describe human acts that are inherently wrong—including many mundane acts, such as telling a fib.
Theologians have also objected to those who use the language of intrinsic evil to condemn political positions because such language technically concerns an individual act, whereas in the sweep of political life evil often transcends individuals and can be structural or driven by historical logics such as markets. In this vein, perhaps the silence of our shepherds about white nationalism reflects only a pause while reevaluating the best theological language with which the church should address questions of morality in politics.
Even were tweaking of theological language needed, however, the embarrassing duration of the silence by the conference of bishops is unconscionable. The danger that renewed racism poses to American society and to the community of the church is immediate and the church’s moral duty is imperative. History bears testament to how monstrous this sin can be. Just as the church cannot remain silent about political movements that promote abortion, it cannot remain silent in the face of today’s “alt-right” racism and white nationalism.
In all fairness, the USCCB must be credited for making some movement. Last summer they named a task force to develop a conference-wide statement or pastoral letter from America’s bishops to address the issue of racism. That task force was a belated response to the national tensions that erupted last winter over police shootings of African Americans. Unfortunately, this worthy step was eclipsed by the metastasis of white nationalist racism during the presidential campaign. The timetable for completion of the task force’s statement appears painfully slow—with a possible release as late as 2020.
Frustrated by the pace, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who heads the task force, publically urged the USCCB after the presidential election to take more immediate action on racism and not wait for completion of a new pastoral letter. Moreover, it has become clear that the racist agenda at the heart of the “alt-right” white nationalist movement extends beyond discrimination against African Americans to target Jewish, Asian, Latino, and Muslim Americans. Archbishop Gregory is right: The nation needs the moral voice of its Catholic bishops to speak clearly and unambiguously in condemning the racism of “alt-right” white nationalism.
What needs to be said is not hard to put into words.
The sinful infamy that is racism must always be opposed and can never be tolerated. The sin of racism corrupts the individual soul. Racist ideologies corrupt and deform the divinely appointed purpose of political life. Racism is gravely in contradiction to the Christian understanding of the human person as taught by Christ in the gospels and as presented in the most ancient teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholics in political life are morally obliged not only to reject racism personally, but also to prophetically oppose any advance of racism and racist policies by others and answer every instance of racism with the remedies of social justice. Catholics must oppose “alt-right” white nationalism.