What Does Catholic Sisters' Apology for Racism Mean? | Sojourners

What Does Catholic Sisters' Apology for Racism Mean?

Sister Elise García gives the presidential address at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious 2021 conference. Screenshot by Sojourners. 

Every year the Leadership Conference for Women Religious, an association made up of leaders of institutes for Catholic sisters in the United States, hosts an international assembly. This year, it opened with an apology.

“Before God and all who have been grievously harmed through the generations by Papal Bulls that sanctioned the African slave trade, which led to the chattel slavery of 12 million Black people, and the colonization of Native peoples and land, resulting in the genocide of up to 20 million Indigenous, I, Elise García, President of LCWR and a Dominican Sister of Adrian, Mich., — on behalf of our conference and members — acknowledge these sinful acts of our church, offer a profound apology, and pray for forgiveness,” García said on Zoom in front of over 800 Catholic sisters and guests.

The assembly, which took place between Aug. 11-13, was entitled “The Realm of Transformation: Creating Space for the Future.”

The president-elect, past president, and executive director of LCWR all followed García with similarly structured apologies while a segment of the Black spiritual “Were You There?” played intermittently. The apology segment lasted for around 10 minutes.

The conference has about 1350 members, who represent nearly 80 percent of the approximately 38,000 women religious in the United States. Founded in 1956, the conference “assists its members to collaboratively carry out their service of leadership to further the mission of the Gospel in today's world,” according to its website.

As part of their work, LCWR commits to “calls,” which are initiatives for prayer, learning, and action over the course of multiple years. In 2016, the conference affirmed a resolution committing themselves “to examine the root causes of injustice, particularly racism, and our [their] complicity as congregations, and to work to effect systemic change.”

The 2016 call was intended to spur individual congregations to take action against racism. In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, LCWR encouraged members to “participate in LCWR’s efforts to name and eradicate racism within themselves, their congregations, their ministries, and LCWR as an organization.”

Shannen Dee Williams, a historian and author of the upcoming book Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle (April 2022), commended the apology and “steady work of the (LCWR).”

“Like priests and members of the laity, sisters were never innocent bystanders in the brutal histories of colonialism, slavery, and segregation in the modern world,” Williams told Sojourners in an email. “Nuns were violent and often unrepentant colonizers, slavers, and segregationists … It is heartening to see many white sisters, individually and collectively, taking the crucial first steps in acknowledging and apologizing for their sin histories of racism, especially anti-Blackness.”

But Williams said that apologies should be just the beginning of anti-racism work for Catholic sisters. While some congregations such as the Georgetown Visitation Sisters and the Religious of the Sacred Heart have begun to confront their history as enslavers, “many congregations (including those that are LCWR members) with documented histories of slavery and segregation have not individually apologized for their histories of exploiting, excluding, and harming people of color,” Williams wrote.

Anthea Butler, chair of religious studies and associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, also questioned what the ritual of repentance by LCWR really meant.

“This is a start.. but what does this apology/liturgy really mean? Does it get to the harm that was done? Are they directing it to Black Catholics and Black Nuns?” Butler wrote to Sojourners in an email. “I don't have enough information here to ascertain if this does anything at all.”

In response to Sojourner’s request for an interview, LCWR declined to interview on their anti-racism work or say whether their efforts would include reparations in any form.

Williams hopes LCWR will mandate the teaching of Black and brown history and incorporate the best practices of anti-racism in all Catholic institutions such as schools, seminaries, and formation programs. She named efforts to combat voter suppression, mass incarceration, and racial inequalities in public sectors as goals LCWR ought to pursue.

“The question remains whether or not the Catholic Church can become a truly anti-racist institution,” Williams told Sojourners.

Gloria Purvis, a Catholic and host of The Gloria Purvis Podcast, said that she would encourage Catholics to pay spiritual and financial reparations.

“I would like to see them really take on walking in the steps of the people who suffered, both white and Black people,” Purvis told Sojourners. “We should also be reading about the loveliness of Black people, the resilience of Black people: there’s a lot of wonderful, beautiful things about Black people that they’ve been denied knowing. White sisters need that kind of education, too.”

When confronted with people who claim that financial reparations aren’t possible, Purvis said such arguments are not “motivated by love.”

“Give me a break,” she said. “We put a man on the moon. We can do plenty when we put our minds to it — we can do it.”

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