January 07, 2021
Pope Francis and Cardinal Wilton Gregory

Photo Credit: Fabio Frustaci/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In 1938 Pope Pius XI congratulated Catholic University on its 50th anniversary with a very specific mandate. Nazism, fascism, and communism were spreading through Europe, and he was worried. 

“Christian doctrine and Christian morality are under attack from all quarters,” he wrote in a letter to the U.S. bishops. “Dangerous theories which a few years ago were but whispered in conventicles of discontent are today preached from the housetops and are even finding their way into action.” 

Pius XI asked Catholic University to undertake with seriousness its “traditional mission of guarding the natural and supernatural heritage of man.” And, he said, it must “give special attention to the sciences of civics, sociology, and economics” in a “constructive program of social action.”

Thus the Commission on American Citizenship was born. The University undertook to prepare textbooks, curricula, and other materials for instructing Catholic elementary and secondary school students in citizenship and Christian social living. The Commission’s work, informed by nearly every one of our schools and departments, educated generations of Catholic school students throughout the United States well into the 1970’s.

In 2021 Catholic University continues to face a world in which “Christian doctrine and Christian morality are under attack.” Some causes for concern are external to the University and the Church. Our society is more secular and heedless of, even antagonistic to, claims of faith. The old, infirm, and unborn are sacrificed to the convenience of their families. The family itself is a threatened institution. As the events of this past summer remind us, though, and as the U.S. bishops stated in their 2018 letter Open Wide Our Hearts, the sin of “racism still profoundly affects our culture, and it has no place in the Christian heart.”

Catholic University is committed to addressing this evil on campus, in our Church, and in our nation. We take to heart the bishops’ call to go beyond the eradication of racist attitudes and actions, and “to make room for others in our hearts.”

Last fall we launched the Sister Thea Bowman Committee because of the work Sister Thea did to erase this stain and to promote the identity of the Black Catholic community. The Committee is studying all facets of University operations, with an eye toward making recommendations to the University leadership. It is composed of University faculty, students, staff, administrators, alumni, and parents.

And because we understand our mission to extend beyond the campus, the committee is charged with evaluating the University’s engagement with the local community and its contributions to the nation and the world. 

Sister Thea, the first Black member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, is an alumna of Catholic University (M.A., 1969; Ph.D., 1972). She is also the founder of the National Black Sisters’ Conference and a candidate for sainthood. She was declared a Servant of God in May 2018.

The year before she died Sr. Thea asked the U.S. bishops to make room for Black Catholics in the Church. “What does it mean to be Black and Catholic?” she asked. “It means that I bring myself, my Black self. I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experiences, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as gifts to the Church.”

When our chancellor, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, became the first African American named to the College of Cardinals in November, he told The Washington Post, “It’s about time.” This was not an observation about his own election; rather, he saw the occasion as “an important recognition that the African American, the Black Catholic community, is an important component within the larger, universal church.” 

We couldn’t agree more. There is a tendency in our culture to shirk responsibility for the causes adopted by one’s political opponents. The left ignores the right to life and religious liberty. The right sees racial equality as something achieved in the 1960s. All these issues deserve our attention, the last not least because the American Catholic Church has not been as prominent in its defense as we might wish.

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