Pope Francis called George Floyd by name two times in a speech last week. And he offered support to an American religious leader who knelt in prayer during a Black Lives Matter protest.
Normally, the Vatican government might have shown a less direct reaction to killings by police officers and protests against racism and police abuse. But the intense support for the protests clearly signals where the Vatican wants American Catholics to stand before the November election in the United States.
Anthea Butler is a presidential visiting fellow at Yale Divinity School, a religious school of Yale University in Connecticut. She said Pope Francis “wants to send a very clear message” to Catholics who support President Donald Trump that “this is just as much an issue as abortion is."
Butler, who is African American, said the Vatican is telling Catholics “to pay attention to the racism that is happening and the racism that is in your own church in America.”
The Vatican has long spoken out about racial injustice. And popes dating to Paul VI have voiced support for the civil rights movement in the U.S. and Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of nonviolent protest. Francis spoke King’s words at length during his historic speech to the U.S. Congress in 2015. He also met with King’s daughter, as the pope before him had done.
Alberto Melloni is a church historian in Bologna, Italy. He said the attention that Francis and the Vatican have given to Floyd’s killing is unusual. It suggests it is a planned message aimed at Catholic churches in the U.S. that the Pope has long criticized for its political and ideological partisanship.
During his speech, the pope said, “We cannot close our eyes to any form of racism or exclusion,” while acting as if we are defending the value of every human life.
Francis has been unhappy that the American church is “obsessed” with abortion, birth control and gay marriage while ignoring church’s teachings on racism, immigration and poverty. And U.S. President Donald Trump is reaching out to Catholic voters with his anti-abortion policies.
The Pope spoke out after Trump had his picture taken in front of an Episcopal church near the White House. The picture happened after law enforcement had used tear gas to push protesters away from a nearby park.
A day later, the highest-ranking African American bishop in the U.S., Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., denounced Trump’s visit at a religious place honoring St. John Paul II.
Last week, the pope called Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas after seeing a picture of Seitz kneeling in prayer at a Black Lives Matter protest. Seitz has also taken a leadership role in demanding fair treatment for migrants attempting to cross the southern U.S. border, a cause Francis supports.
The Vatican would likely not want to be viewed as choosing sides before the U.S. election. But Francis was not alone in making the Vatican’s views known.
The Vatican City newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, had three Floyd-related stories on its front cover last Sunday. They were about peaceful protests, aggressive policing methods and injustices suffered by black Americans.
Natalia Imperatori-Lee is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York. She told the Associated Press that the Vatican’s message is having an effect on American Catholics.
A poll from a religion research organization last week found a sharp drop between this and last year in the percentage of white Catholics with a high opinion of Trump. It was at 37 percent near the end of May 2020 compared with 49 percent across 2019.
Imperatori-Lee said the test will be if Catholic religious leaders are still speaking publicly about racism six months from now and what happens when Catholics vote in November.
I’m Anna Matteo.
The Associated Press reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English.
Words in This Story
kneel - v. to move your body so that one or both of your knees are on the floor or ground
fellow - b. an advanced student at a university who is given money to pay for food, housing and other things
abortion - n. a medical procedure used to end a pregnancy and cause the death of the fetus
church - n. A building that is used for Christian religious services
partisanship - n. The act of strongly supporting a particular leader, group, or cause
poll - n. an activity in which many people are asked questions to get information about what most people think about something
obsessed - adj. to think and talk about someone or something too much
bishop - n. a Christian official who is ranked higher than a priest and usually in charge of church matters in a geographical area
migrant - n. a person who goes from one place to another, especially to find work