(AP/Bryan Woolston) Don Wegman, a Trump supporter, and Guy Jones, a Native American, meet during a gathering in front of the Catholic Diocese of Covington in January.

On January 18, Pope Francis addressed participants of the World Meeting of Indigenous Youth in Soloy, Panama. In comments via video, Francis urged his audience to “be grateful for the history of your peoples and courageous in the face of the challenges that surround you, to move forward full of hope in the building of another possible world.” The same day, in Washington, D.C., another contingent of Catholic youth made headlines for their interactions with an Omaha elder named Nathan Phillips while he sang and played a drum in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The mostly white students were part of a delegation from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, who travelled to Washington to participate in the annual March for Life, an event that coincided with the Indigenous Peoples March that brought Phillips to town.

Since then, the internet has exploded over videos of the incident, with different factions arguing about whether the students’ behavior—which included performing a “tomahawk chop”—was racist or misunderstood. Several cycles of media recrimination, mostly written by and for white people, have eclipsed Indigenous perspectives on the incident. Soon after the first video when viral, the Diocese of Covington and the school issued a brief joint statement condemning the students’ behavior as “opposed to the Church’s teaching on the dignity and respect of the human person.” That statement was subsequently removed, and replaced by an open letter from Covington Bishop Roger Foys, apologizing to the students and expressing regret over their unfair treatment. This comes as the diocese still awaits the results of an independent investigation. Regardless of how the diocese ultimately responds to the incident, the students’ behavior and the responses (or lack thereof) from Church officials offer a reminder that the Catholic Church in the United States has long lacked adequate resources to address the “dignity and respect” of Indigenous peoples.

In recent years, Indigenous activists across the Americas have staged protests against the Roman Catholic Church, demanding that it atone for its role in the colonial systems that have organized life here for 500 years and produced the violent and ongoing dispossession of Native peoples. The Church’s response has been uneven. Pope Francis made headlines in 2015 when, at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia, he implored forgiveness for the “grave sins” committed by the Church as part of colonialism. Last year, however, the pope disappointed activists by refusing an invitation from the Canadian government to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in running residential schools that separated 150,000 First Nations children from their families.

Last fall, the U.S. bishops had a special opportunity to deal with the tangled Catholic and American histories of violence and discrimination against Native peoples. When they met at their General Assembly in Baltimore in November, the leaders of the U.S. Church approved a new statement on racism. “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love” is the first U.S. pastoral letter devoted to this topic in nearly 40 years. In the 32-page document, the bishops declare it “especially instructive” to examine Native American experiences of violence and discrimination, alongside those of African Americans and other racialized groups, as a way toward “empathy” and the promotion of justice.

While the U.S. bishops deserve some credit for turning their collective attention (however briefly) to the problems that Native communities face, this attention also makes “Open Wide Our Hearts” a good gauge of the U.S. Catholic Church’s inability to talk about colonialism—including as the irreducible context for racism experienced by Nathan Phillips and other Native Americans in the United States in the twenty-first century. On one hand, “Open Wide Our Hearts” is a document that signals at least nominal interest among the Church’s leadership in combating violence against marginalized groups, following in the footsteps of communities like Black Lives Matter and the Standing Rock water protectors. On the other hand, the letter’s treatment of race and racism not only hides but legitimates the United States’ colonial history and present by offering an account of racism that stresses individual—and not structural—depravity. In this way, the bishops’ letter not only overlooks the structural dynamics that directly form white disrespect toward Indigenous peoples, it also fails to attend to the responsibility that church as well as state bear in their maintenance.

“Open Wide Our Hearts” is the fourth letter on race composed by the entire body of U.S. Catholic bishops; the first three pastorals appeared in 1958, 1968, and 1979. As a collection spanning 60 years, these documents conjoin U.S. melting pot romanticism with natural law moral theology, and in doing so they imbue American liberal fantasies about racial harmony with an eschatological imperative. Each of the letters sets out to judiciously evaluate the “signs of our times,” and they all beckon readers towards a more perfect realization of just society. “Open Wide Our Hearts” is unique among the four texts in that it includes a section dedicated to the “Native American experience.” The bishops in this letter also, and to their credit, admit lack of competence on the subject of racial justice, perhaps appreciating the current wintry season of their moral authority. The U.S. Catholic Church—let alone the nation as a whole—is more diverse than they can comprehend, and the bishops show humility while facing this challenge. They know, too, that antiracism is inherently ecumenical work, and that structural change is tectonic stuff.

The arc of “Open Wide Our Hearts” begins and ends on the theme of personal conversion, and across it the emphasis is on interior dispositions, which get expressed through social structures. The letter tells us that racism happens “when—either consciously or unconsciously—a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior, and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and unworthy of equal regard.” The bishops say it clearly: Acts of racial discrimination are sinful. But because they rely on individual sentiments as their stepping-off point, instead of questions about structural power, their talk about racism carries a “colorblind distortion” that universalizes complicity. Although all of the examples of racism they offer are incidences of white supremacy, the bishops don’t name them accordingly. Eschewing the structural in favor of the individual undercuts “Open Wide Our Hearts” as a social diagnostic tool. Moreover, the bishops’ prescription of personal conversion as a “fix”—de rigueur in modern Catholic magisterial exhortations—ends up the same for both the perpetrators and victims of institutional racism. While it might be pastorally unremarkable to suggest that spiritual conversion is a lifelong process, we know that blame for racism in the U.S. is not equally shared. Neither then should the remedy be.

This flattening of racism to “our” common American prejudice also betrays a presumptive whiteness on behalf of the letter’s authors and its readers. Even as the racial composition of the U.S. Catholic bishops and laity is as diverse as it’s ever been, “Open Wide Our Hearts” conveys that the “U.S. Catholic” lens on race is perpetually a white one. The trio of “races” who the bishops identify as historically dispossessed by U.S. racism—Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics—are always the letter’s them, never its us.

This reading of racism—as a matter of malformed interior disposition—also precludes any real response by the bishops to colonialism. While “Open Wide Our Hearts” is specific when it recalls historical abuses, where “Native Americans were killed, imprisoned, sold into slavery, and raped,” and while it is right when it names the “poverty, unemployment, inadequate health care, poor schools, the exploitation of natural resources, and disputes over land ownership” that Native communities face today, the letter remains stubborn about locating sin within episodes of deviancy. But colonialism, like white supremacy, is not deviancy; to the contrary it’s always been the order of things. In other words, the dispossession and marginalization of colonized subjects, including through racialized violence, has been a prerequisite for the United States and allows for it as a possibility.

This dispossession has also been foundational to the Catholic Church that grew up here. But the bishops don’t say this. Their silence about colonialism and how it works allows them, in “Open Wide Our Hearts,” to fall into an old and hard-to-break Catholic habit of contrasting American histories of institutionalized violence against communities with individual cases of Catholic heroism in their defense. While “U.S. policies toward Native American communities were often violent, paternalistic, and were directed toward the theft of their land,” the bishops write, “there were missions that stood as a barrier to the abuse of indigenous peoples and provided a form of protection.” They go on to assert that a “number of missionaries heroically defended Native Americans as they sought to bring the Good News of Christ to many who had yet to hear it.”

But here’s the thing: The Catholic Church has influenced and cooperated with the United States in plenty of ways that are paternalistic and that have abetted theft. Consider that Catholic religious orders acquired property directly via treaty cessions. Or that Catholic doctrine of discovery underlies U.S. jurisprudence that still sanctions seizure of Indigenous lands. Or that the Catholic Church was, during the assimilation era of U.S. Indian policy, the largest recipient of federal money to manage Indian schools. And white Catholics who settled North America have always relied on state paternalism directed toward Indigenous people; it’s allowed them to move in and around this country “freely.” The bishops’ letter does not take stock of colonialism as a structure that has benefitted, and benefitted from, the institutional Church and white Catholics, while it has formed racism against Native peoples.

Native Americans are a racialized group, and they’ve received brutal treatment from white Americans as a result. Because the U.S. bishops don’t take up colonization alongside race, however, “Open Wide Our Hearts” errs in relegating Native peoples to the status of a “racial minority” contributing to the diversity of the United States. This is itself a troubling colonialist move; it erases the present sovereignty of Native nations and, importantly, ignores longstanding demands of Indigenous people to be recognized differently. “When the remediation of the colonization of American Indians is framed through discourses of racialization that can be redressed by further inclusion into the nation-state,” Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd writes, “such discourses [..] reinscribe the original colonial injury.”

Pope Francis’ apology in Bolivia three years ago for Catholicism’s violence against Indigenous peoples did not, it turns out, correspond with a radical pivot in critical self-reflection within the U.S. Church. While “Open Wide Our Hearts” pledges to hold “listening sessions,” the Church in the United States demonstrates in the letter that it has not, as yet, heard. The bishops’ optimism at the transfigurative power of education is itself tethered to a notion that racism is a figment that will evaporate through exposure—that if only students like those in Covington received better diversity programming, these problems would go away. But this is altogether inadequate. Transformation won’t happen without dismantling the systems that form their biases. Recognizing that colonialism, like white supremacy, is baked into the DNA of the United States, and of the Church that grew up here, is the necessary precondition to imagining any future beyond such structures and the racism they create.


Jack Downey is associate professor of religion and theology, and affiliate faculty in American studies, at La Salle University. He is author of The Bread of the Strong: Lacouturisme and the Folly of the Cross, 1910-1985.

Kathleen Holscher is associate professor of American studies and religious studies, and holds the endowed chair in Roman Catholic studies, at the University of New Mexico. She is the author of Religious Lessons: Catholic Sisters and the Captive Schools Crisis in New Mexico.