By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
Statement of the Most Reverend Richard O Gerow, Bishop of Natchez-Jackson July 3, 1964 immediately following the promulgation of the Civil Rights Act:
The Civil Rights Act has been passed by the Congress of the United States. The people of our beloved Mississippi have the historic opportunity of giving to the world an example of true patriotism in a Democracy. Each of us bearing in mind Christ’s law of love can establish his own personal motive of reaction to the bill and thus turn this time into an occasion of spiritual growth. The prophets of strife and distress need not be right. Dear Christian Catholic people, your bishop calls upon you to accept the action of Congress as loyal Americans and to make a positive contribution to our state by rejecting the spirit of rebellion and by standing for justice, love, and peace.
In my short time (five months) as the 11th Bishop of Jackson, following Bishops Gerow, Brunini, Houck, and Latino, I have been inspired time and again to learn of the vigorous and courageous legacy of the Catholic Church in Mississippi against the blight of racism in our state and nation. Bishop Gerow’s statement spoke to the violence and strife that surrounded this plague on society, and the rightful participation of the Church in society on behalf of the common good.
In the document entitled Faithful Citizenship (2007) the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops articulates the case for Bishop’s Gerow’s statement 50 years ago. “The Church’s obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith, a part of the mission given to us by Jesus Christ. Faith helps us see more clearly the truth about human life and dignity that we also understand through human reason. As people of both faith and reason, Catholics are called to bring truth to political life and to practice Christ’s commandment to ‘love one another.’”
Once the early Church grew from a small sect of disciples into a significant presence in society the responsibility to address the social needs of each age became central to the mission that Jesus Christ entrusted to us. In reality the prophets of the Old Testament, the conscience of Israel, had opened this door centuries before Jesus Christ, ultimately thrusting the Church deeper into the fabric of society. The words of Amos, the prophet of social justice, resound in every age. “Let justice surge like water and goodness like an unfailing stream (5,24).” The power in Amos’s words permeates the statement of Bishop Gerow during Freedom Summer.
Catholic Bishops and many in the Church in the United States, laity, religious and clergy, have been a voice for justice and peace for many generations, with the conviction that “our nation’s tradition of pluralism is enhanced, not threatened, when religious groups and people of faith bring their convictions into public life. The Catholic community brings to the political dialogue a consistent moral framework and broad experience serving those in need.” (Faithful Citizenship)
In every age and in every place it is incumbent upon the Church to labor for greater justice and peace, to inspire her members and all people of good will to do good and avoid evil. The Faithful Citizenship document courageously addresses contemporary society. “There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. These intrinsically evil acts must always be rejected and never supported. A preeminent example is the intentional taking of human life through abortion. Similarly, direct threats to the dignity of human life such as euthanasia, human cloning, and destructive research on human embryos are also intrinsically evil and must be opposed. Other assaults on human life and dignity, such as genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified. Disrespect for any human life diminishes respect for all human life.”
The Faithful Citizenship document continues. “The basic right to life implies and is linked to other human rights to the goods that every person needs to live and thrive — including food, shelter, health care, education, and meaningful work. The use of the death penalty, hunger, lack of health care or housing, human trafficking, the human and moral costs of war, and unjust immigration policies are some of the serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act.”
Bishop Gerow’s statement at the 40 year mark of his lengthy episcopacy as the Bishop of Natchez-Jackson (1924-1967) was backed up by well more than a century of pro-active work by the Church against racism in Mississippi, most notably in the Catholic School system. The Catholic Church defiantly educated the Black population in the face of Jim Crow Laws since before the civil war, and this mission of education for all citizens of Mississippi did not waver with desegregation. Bishop Gerow exercised remarkable leadership on this front throughout his long tenure.
We can be certain that he issued that July 3, 1964 statement with a clear conscience because he had walked the walk, and his words flowed seamlessly from the heart of the Catholic Church in Mississippi with the passion that justice surge like water and goodness like an unfailing stream.
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz