A painting of George Floyd is seen on a business in south Minneapolis May 30, 2020. (CNS photo | Maria Wiering, The Catholic Spirit)
By Renée K. Gadoua | Contributing writer, and Katherine Long | Editor
Outrage, shock, and pain over the killing of George Floyd have refocused attention on the Catholic Church’s responsibility to address racism in the Church and society.
“We are broken-hearted, sickened, and outraged to watch another video of an African American man being killed before our very eyes. This is the latest wake-up call that needs to be answered by each of us in a spirit of determined conversion,” several U.S. bishops said in a May 29 statement.
“Racism is not a thing of the past or simply a throwaway political issue to be bandied about when convenient,” chairmen of seven U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) committees said in their statement. “It is a real and present danger that must be met head on. As members of the Church, we must stand for the more difficult right and just actions instead of the easy wrongs of indifference. We cannot turn a blind eye to these atrocities and yet still try to profess to respect every human life. We serve a God of love, mercy, and justice.”
The bishops’ statement followed the May 25 death of Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis police custody. A widely viewed video showed Floyd, whose hands were cuffed behind him, call for help as a white officer pinned him to the ground with a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes. “Please, please let me stand,” Floyd could be heard saying. “Please, I can’t breathe.”
Floyd’s death is “now embedded in our consciousness,” Bishop Douglas J. Lucia said in a May 31 statement that cites God’s words in Genesis 4:10: “What have you done? Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
At the heart of the incident “is a central teaching of God’s law of love that all life is sacred from conception to natural death; and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves,” he wrote.
Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, USCCB president, called Floyd’s death “senseless and brutal, a sin that cries out to heaven for justice,” in a May 31 statement. “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?”
Floyd’s death ignited protests in dozens of cities — including several in the Syracuse Diocese, Binghamton, Cazenovia, Oswego, Syracuse, and Utica among them. Protestors marched, sang, and chanted over police brutality, the disproportionate health and economic burdens the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed in communities of color, and the country’s history of racism.
Some protests turned violent, with some people destroying property and setting fires. Protesters in many cities have accused police of brutality, and television and social media showed some police appearing to directly target some demonstrators and journalists.
Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests highlight racial inequality in a country already on edge from the fallout of the global pandemic. Many Americans are reeling from health problems, grieving the nearly 104,000 COVID-19 deaths, and worried about jobs and bills after the pandemic closed businesses and services for nearly three months. These challenges disproportionately affect people of color, religious and government leaders say.
The violent protests and police response — illustrated in many U.S. cities by fires and lines of police wearing riot gear — are reminiscent of the civil unrest after the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Demonstrations over Floyd’s killing have taken place in at least 140 cities, and the National Guard has been activated in at least 21 states, the New York Times reported.
On a second day of local protests May 31, a small group gathered at Syracuse’s Columbus Circle, near the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Protesters were later outside the Onondaga County Public Safety Building, where windows were broken the night before. “No justice, no peace,” people chanted in a video posted by CNY Central TV. Protesters also stood outside Syracuse city hall.
In Binghamton, WBNG TV reported about 1,000 people called out racial inequities in a May 31 march. At one point, hundreds “took a knee,” mimicking the action of football players including Colin Kaepernick. The former NFL player knelt during games’ national anthem to draw attention to police brutality and racial inequality.
Hundreds protested in Utica, Spectrum News reported. “Say his name,” they chanted. “George Floyd,” others responded. About 200 people protested in Oswego, according to news accounts.
Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh and Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon declared states of emergency and imposed an 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew after hours of peaceful protest escalated May 30. They lifted the curfew June 1, although the county and city states of emergency remained in effect June 2.
Seven people were arrested in Syracuse, charged with offenses including burglary, disorderly conduct, and inciting to riot. Broken windows and break-ins were reported at about 18 Syracuse businesses. Police response included use of “less lethal” tactics — pepper balls and rubber bullets — Syracuse Police Chief Kenton T. Buckner said during a May 31 press briefing.
About 100 people protested in Syracuse June 1. More local protests are planned, including a June 6 Black Lives Matter demonstration in Syracuse.
Peaceful protests urged
Bishop Lucia called the protests “expressions of sorrow and frustration” and “sadness at an unconscionable act that took the life of a young man in middle America despite the valiant attempt of other citizens to intervene.”
He also called for peaceful protests, urging people to “work peacefully together to support one another and put an end to injustice and racism,” he said in a May 30 statement.
“As a religious leader… I have to work in my own community to try to eradicate racism and the injustices that accompany it,” Bishop Lucia said in an interview with the Catholic Sun. “I also want to make greater effort to make sure people understand why all that has happened is wrong and what we can do as individuals to help change things.”
“We need to get more involved in our local communities. We need to work at getting rid of injustice and racism. We can’t just talk about it. For me, as Catholics we have to walk the talk…. We need to be more involved in eradicating this, in tearing down the walls,” he also said.
For Catholics to address the sin of racism, the first step is “recognizing our own prejudices, our own sins, and [asking] ourselves, is there racism involved?” Bishop Lucia said.
The bishop also recommended Catholics read and learn from the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love”; the Church’s teaching on the sin of racism, explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church; and the Church’s social teaching, which has “at its core… the sanctity and the dignity of every human life.”
“This Sunday we’re going to celebrate the community of our God as we celebrate Trinity Sunday. Since we’re made in the image and the likeness of God, we’re called to be a community — and a community looks out for each other, a community watches out for each other,” Bishop Lucia said.
The National Black Catholic Congress called for a transparent investigation into Floyd’s killing.
“We grieve with the family of Mr. George Floyd, for Minneapolis, and for our nation,” the Baltimore-based group said in a statement. “We renew our call for a nationwide and sustained examination of conscience. Our nation must decisively confront and correct the conditions which allow violations of the inherent dignity of the human person. Our nation must have a firm purpose of amendment so that this centuries-old pandemic of racism is eradicated.”
The National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC) cited Ida B. Wells, the black activist and journalist, who in 1895 published the number of lynchings in the United States since the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation.
“Black Americans still scream in horror. We still cannot breathe,” the group said in a statement. “One hundred and twenty-four years later and we are still writing the same story! … The NBSC condemns the viral disease of systemic racism that America has legitimized and practiced for over 400 years!”
Archbishop Gomez said he “shares the outrage” of protesters across the country. “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,” he said. “It should not be this way in America. Racism has been tolerated for far too long in our way of life.”
Open Wide Our Hearts
In their May 29 statement, U.S. bishops cited “Open Wide Our Hearts,” their November 2018 pastoral letter against racism. “Although our nation has moved forward in a number of ways against racial discrimination, we have lost ground in others,” the 32-page document says. “Despite significant progress in civil law with regard to racism, societal realities indicate a need for further catechesis to facilitate conversion of hearts.”
Many “good and faithful Catholics remain unaware of the connection between institutional racism and the continued erosion of the sanctity of life,” the document continues. “We are not finished with the work. The evil of racism festers in part because, as a nation, there has been very limited formal acknowledgment of the harm done to so many, no moment of atonement, no national process of reconciliation and, all too often a neglect of our history.”
The pastoral cites the words of Pope Francis in accepting the work of eliminating racism: Let no one “think that this invitation is not meant for him or her.” All need “personal, ongoing conversion,” it continues. “Our churches and our civic and social institutions are in need of ongoing reform. If racism is confronted by addressing its causes and the injustice it produces, then healing can occur.”
“Moments like this cause people of good will, who believe in the value, respect and dignity of every human life, to wonder if and how we can move on from here. The horror of George Floyd’s death, like all acts of racism, hurts all of us in the Body of Christ since we are each made in the image and likeness of God, and deserve the dignity that comes with that existence.”
— Statement from Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C.
“The history is clear and tragic: George Floyd was an African American man who died at the hands of a police officer. This is a narrative which has been repeated often and in multiple locations across the country. The history is well documented, but it is known experientially in the African American community in a way that is not widely shared. … This gap between different communities in what is one country, one civic community, is the broader reality which this week’s events force any of us to reflect upon.”
— Statement from Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston
“The video of George Floyd in police custody Monday evening is gut-wrenching and deeply disturbing. The sadness and pain are intense. Let us pray for comfort for his grieving family and friends, peace for a hurting community and prudence while the process moves forward. We need a full investigation that results in rightful accountability and veritable justice.”
— Statement from Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis
“Community is created by human beings, by our choices and actions. Together we can change things. As we enter into this Pentecost season, we join in prayer that God’s Spirit will lead us to deep conversion of heart and equip us with the wisdom, insight and courage to reject hatred and racism and lead us all to heal our broken nation and our broken hearts. We pray most intently for our black and brown sisters and brothers in this time of extraordinary suffering.”
— Statement from Sister Donna Markham, OP, Catholic Charities USA president and CEO
“His death — and the deaths of so many People of Color year after year — exposes the historical reality that Black lives don’t matter in our country. Our church should be at the forefront of changing that reality and asserting that Black lives do matter.”
— Statement from Pax Christi USA
“Come, Holy Spirit! Fill the hearts of your faithful. Enkindle within us the fire of your love. Come, Holy Spirit! Breathe into us a fiery passion for justice. Especially for those who have the breath of life crushed from them. Amen.”
— Conclusion of a National Catholic Reporter commentary by Father Bryan N. Massingale, a theology professor at Fordham University. The same words conclude Father Massingale’s book, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (2010).