How (and how not) to address racism in the church

A pastoral letter from the U.S. bishops won’t solve racism. Becoming an intercultural church might.
In the Pews

In 1979 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a pastoral letter on racism entitled “Brothers and Sisters to Us.” It was significant because it was the strongest statement by the U.S. bishops declaring racism a sin. However, a problematic title to this otherwise dynamic document seemed to perpetuate exactly this racial “us” versus “them” the document itself was trying to alleviate. Just who is “us”? critics asked, pointing out how the title implied that the American church’s membership and leadership was of European descent. Where were the black, Asian, and Latino Catholics in the conversation?

It’s been almost 40 years since that document, and tense race relations in the church and society have anything but subsided. Father Simon Kim, a Korean American priest and theologian who has researched racism in the church and is currently serving on the committee drafting the upcoming bishops’ document on racism, believes that the church has “taken a decline, a step back from the momentum of the ’79 document, and we’re not doing as much or anything substantial or relevant right now.”

As the Black Lives Matter movement and immigration concerns continue to shine the national spotlight on racism in the United States, surely church leadership shouldn’t be taking a step back.

Kim is quick to point out, however, that while a formal stance on racism from the bishops is a good place to start, a pastoral letter isn’t the only way the church should respond to racism. We ought to embrace our intercultural nature. “One of my roles as a theologian is to bring different frameworks or thoughts into the limelight,” Kim says. “We need to find a better way of being a church.”

Is the Catholic Church racist?

I would say most institutions, cultures, and people have elements of racism. To just say the church is racist would be unfair. However, we do a lot of racially biased things and support a certain racially biased structure. Part of that is because of ignorance.


Racism is a moral sin because it disorders the relationships God has given us and the vision of Christ we see in each other. You might not be a racist person, but you probably have racist thoughts. I might not be a sexist person, but I have made sexist comments before. You can ask for forgiveness for that.

But we need to start thinking of racism as a structural sin, even when we have a thought or a racially biased attitude. And we, as the Catholic Church, should be out on the forefront speaking up against this structural sin.

When we do that, we lose our privilege. It affects our lifestyle. We lose out in some sense, because part of being in an affluent church is that we have some privileges. When we speak out against these injustices, we’re speaking out against some of the things that have been contributing to our own success and values.

What are some examples of racism in the American church today?

A friend of mine was recently installed as pastor at St. Norbert’s in Orange, California. The demographics have changed in Orange County, and it’s not predominantly white anymore. Hispanic people are the majority, and there are large populations of Vietnamese, Filipino, and Korean people as well.

At the installation Mass for my friend the first reading was done in Spanish. It’s typical when you do a multilanguage Mass to provide the other languages in some form, whether printed out or projected on a screen. After the first reading, a gentleman stood up in front of the pastor and said, “Speak English. This is America.” Right in the middle of the liturgy.


The bishop felt like he needed to say something after that comment. He got up and talked about how we are one holy catholic apostolic church—not an American church or just a church of one ethnicity. We are one church.

The second example comes from another friend who’s a pastor in a different church in Orange. It’s a trilingual parish: English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. They work on a shared parish model, where you have different ethnic and language groups coming together to share a space.

Originally, when the English-speaking population was in charge, this model seemed to work. Then the pastor invited in communities of other cultures to keep up the population levels of the parish. But as soon as the English-speaking population didn’t have control of the parish, there was a lot of white flight and a lot of people angry at the other cultures.

The parish originally had 12 daily Masses: one in Spanish, one in Vietnamese, and 10 in English. But the parish was almost 70 percent Hispanic. So the pastor switched the Mass schedules to have four in English, two in Vietnamese, and four in Spanish. He accommodated English speakers by projecting English when Mass wasn’t in English.

The original Mass schedule was acceptable for other cultures, but when it changed, the English-speaking population protested. They felt threatened as if they were losing their church. Rather than joining in the shared parish vision, the English-speaking community wanted to step out and move to where they were comfortable or where they could have more of a say.

Have you personally experienced racism as an Asian American priest?

When I go to a new parish and celebrate Mass, I get a few different responses. The parishioners might thank me for speaking English. They might also say that the parish had never encountered an Asian priest before me. I recently experienced that at a parish in Chicago, even though they’d had a Filipino priest and a Sri Lankan priest currently serves there.

After hearing comments like this over and over again, I realized the disconnect between other people’s realities and the realities I live every day.

If I’m visiting a parish once, I’m not quick to say anything. I just thank them for the response. If it’s a parish that I frequently go back to, I can help to educate through individual conversations. I also try and preach about these types of prejudices.

Why do you think racism has recently become such an important part of the national conversation?

The civil rights movement garnered the national consciousness because people were tuned in to TV news every night. It galvanized the country in that way. I think the Blacks Lives Matter movement has done the same thing. However, I think we’re more complacent to racism both as church and society today. The struggle has been going on so long that it’s hard for people to respond the same way when it initially came to our consciousness in the ’60s.

How should parishes and priests respond to the Black Lives Matter movement?

I think we should show solidarity with the movement. Solidarity is one of our big social justice teachings. You can’t just talk about it; you have to actually walk with the oppressed. For me, I think this movement is a real indicator, a thermometer of where our country is right now and what our church should be dealing with.

In solidarity, we don’t necessarily have to say we agree with everything, but there’s a big injustice in our midst that we’re addressing as Catholics as well.

What I like to point back to is the preferential option for the poor. When the idea came out of Latin America, people had issues with the word preferential. They asked, “What about us?” This is kind of like when people ask, “What about all lives?” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. John Paul II said God loves everybody, but a preferential option for the poor points us to where that love begins.

We need to stand in solidarity with immigrants and the Black Lives Matter movement because it seems that’s where the Holy Spirit is showing us the kingdom of God.

The church should be on the front lines of some of these protests and marches. The church shouldn’t just stand on the sidelines. One of the ways we can get involved is by getting our parishioners to come out and walk with Black Lives Matter protesters. That doesn’t take much or any resources at all.

How have U.S. Catholic bishops responded to racism in the past?

The civil rights movement and the Immigration and Nationality Act of ’65 happened alongside the Second Vatican Council, and those events really changed the sociopolitical and religious landscape of our country. Without them, we wouldn’t have the immigration and diversity we have today.

However it’s a mystery to me why the U.S. bishops didn’t raise racism or civil rights as an issue at the council. It had to be on the radar, so why wasn’t it communicated? Before the council, bishops got to send in suggestions of important topics, and only 12 bishops out of the entire country brought up racism.

Based on such a small response, it would seem that racism was not a problem for the U.S. Catholic Church at that time. But then you look at what was done in individual U.S. dioceses. In Chicago in the 1960s the diocese held a conference on African Americans. At that time the African American community was growing, and neighborhood demographics were shifting. The conference was focused on welcoming and evangelizing African Americans and making sure the parish communities could stabilize with a new influx of people. Other dioceses were doing this as well.

I wonder if the bishops didn’t get more involved in the civil rights movement or bring up racism at the Second Vatican Council because they thought they could solve the racial question on their own.

Why might the bishops have thought they could “solve” racism on their own?

If we look at the European immigrant experience in the United States, they were targeted with racial slurs, oppressed, and kept in ghettos. They emerged with the Catholic Church by their side because, often, clergy had immigrated with them. They were struggling together, so the church was relevant. The church provided equality and dignity when the rest of the society wouldn’t. What lifted these people out of the ghettos was the educational opportunity provided by Catholic schools.

Those two instruments or methods worked with European immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. During the civil rights movement, the bishops may have thought these methods would be effective again with African Americans. I think they thought African Americans would want to become Catholics because the church provides a view of equal human dignity, and African Americans would want to attend Catholic schools.

But here is where I think the bishops misread the signs. During the civil rights movement, church leadership didn’t personally struggle with the people, so what they had to offer—no matter how good it was—was not going to be received by the African American community in the same way it was received by European immigrants.

Because the church wasn’t in the midst of the civil rights movement—individuals were but the church itself overall wasn’t—we failed to resonate with the African American community. We still haven’t learned that lesson today.

That’s what is missing still today. Even though the church might have wonderful teachings, wonderful resources in print, if we’re not willing to struggle with these communities, how do we attract them or say that we’re relevant to them?

Are the bishops doing anything now to address racism?

They are in the process of creating another document on racism. In November 2016 they reviewed a preliminary report and formed a committee, of which I am a part, to write this document. They hope the final draft will be approved by the USCCB by the end of 2018.

By the time something like this comes out, we might have moved on from the Black Lives Matter movement. Another incident might push us in a different direction. But the bishops want to be able to respond to recent social issues. A unified stance on racism is a good start. I think it’s important because it shows what the Catholic Church believes.

The pastoral response for this document uses a top‑down model: what the bishops think is needed for the church. Previously grassroots movements have fueled ideas and pushed them toward a pastoral document. For example before the bishops in the ’80s issued “Economic Justice For All,” they would have town hall meetings and gather input. Documents like that one were so powerful because, even before they were printed, they were being lived out.

Will the top-down approach to addressing racism be as powerful? Maybe in the future, maybe when the activities of people’s lives and the documents reach the same point, but it doesn’t parallel what I think made previous pastoral letters powerful in the past.

What effect would a document like this have?

A pastoral document is not going to solve racism. It’s also not going to affect whether priests are willing to preach on racism or not. Individual bishops have their own autonomy. A pastoral letter includes more suggestions than concrete action items—­individual bishops can choose to accept those suggestions or not.

But if you don’t have a collective body putting out a pastoral document, many bishops will never say anything about racism. They don’t think it’s an issue or they don’t think it’s their issue. They might think it’s a social ill that we already have dealt with religiously.

If a pastoral document addressing racism isn’t effective, what is?

We need to raise awareness that we are an intercultural church. That’s a big struggle. Everyone talks about the next generation of the church, but we’re still working out of the framework of a European immigrant church. But that’s a vision of church that doesn’t exist anymore.

There was the European immigrant church, but the next generation was more of an intercultural church. But we didn’t see it that way. The Irish were marrying the Polish, the Polish were marrying the Germans, Italians were marrying Irish, etc. But all the babies came out with the same skin color.

We never thought to go from an immigrant church to an intercultural church because based on skin appearance, everyone looked more or less the same. The environment didn’t change, so we could stay in that immigrant mode. We’re still in that model.

Today, as we’re trying to revive the Catholic Church in America—recommitting the church or growing the parish—we are hearkening back to that immigrant model. But to reach the next generation, we really need to become an intercultural church.

How can we become an intercultural church?

We need to get out of our pockets of isolation. Pastorally, part of the difficulty is neighborhoods. As long as we’re geographically isolated by demographics, we’re hindered. Parochial boundaries and parish boundaries don’t work anymore. No one goes to church in the parish where they live; they go to where they want to be.

The other thing is that the way we talk, the way we preach, and the ways we welcome people at our parishes are very culturally similar. We might think we’re just doing things in a natural way without realizing it’s geared toward the white, English-speaking cultures.

We need to start using some other cultural ways of being church. For example, it’s OK to have children running around all over the place during Mass. Likewise, it’s OK not to schedule everything a year in advance. It can be month-to-month.

We have to adopt not the most efficient way but the most welcoming way within the parish. Sometimes the welcoming way is the most inefficient way, but it makes people feel at home.

What’s keeping parishes from adopting this intercultural model?

I think that often white congregations don’t understand what a lot of other ethnic groups experience. If they could see the other side of it, I think these transitions would be easier.

Growing up, I didn’t speak Korean all that well, and so when I went to a Korean church, I didn’t know what was exactly going on. But that was OK. Today, when I’m in an environment where I don’t understand everything being said, it’s OK. I think a lot of times English-speaking communities have a need to understand everything that’s going on. If they don’t understand, they stop the process. I think that’s one of the barriers to this multicultural church.

I also think there’s a lot more fear within the white, English-speaking community. When my mom and dad feel fearful about something, they won’t react to that fear in a public way. They internalize it. Whereas I see English speaking Americans, when they’re fearful, they react. The way this discomfort and fear is expressed is very different between the cultures. White, English-speaking Americans have to realize that when they feel uncomfortable and fearful, others feel the same way. Rather than lashing out or trying to secure their own comfort, others are moving through it. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Finally, we have to stop playing this numbers game and asking, “Who has the biggest population?” We have to start allowing all communities—regardless of size—to feel welcome.

Growing up in the Korean community, whenever we were sharing a parish, we always had the lousiest Mass times. It’s still the same in a lot of parishes—if you look for a Spanish Mass, it’s weird hours. We have to be willing to share our best worship space, gathering space, and hall space with those who are considered minorities to make sure everyone feels welcome.

This article also appears in the May 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 5, pages 18–22).