During 2020 and 2021, I joined a group of insightful St. Ignatius parishioners to study and discuss racism. After a year of reflection on what we learned, three things have become clear.

1. Past racism created unfair advantages that echoed forward to the benefit of contemporary white people like me.

This is just a fact. No need to feel guilty.

For example, my father was a white World War II Navy veteran who obtained a GI Bill loan in 1946 to buy the family’s first house. That created a wave of financial benefit that carried my siblings and me to Catholic high schools and then college, qualifying us for higher earnings so we could buy houses of our own and see the values climb.

Many Black Navy veterans were blocked from getting such financing. On top of that, cities like Portland made it almost impossible to obtain affordable home loans in certain low-income areas where Black families might be able to buy a house; that’s the notorious redlining that foiled homeownership for many. These systems of stymying Black veterans were set up by southern lawmakers, modeled on provisions that had made it hard for Black families to benefit from the New Deal. Long before that, President Andrew Johnson had nixed the plan to give land and livestock to recompense former slaves.

The unfair setups from the past have exacerbated modern poverty, crime and hopelessness. The average net worth of a U.S. white household is $656,000 while for Black families it’s $85,000.

2. The Catholic Church may not be the most racist of institutions, but has been too quiet about the problem.

Slavery was accepted by theologians in the church for 1,400 years, and the abolition movement, when it finally emerged, was rooted in Protestant communities after the Great Awakening of the 18th century.

Religious orders like the Jesuits flat out owned slaves when the United States was young. Georgetown University has made commendable moves at reparation, offering help to the descendants of slaves who built and worked at the college in the nation’s capital.

Still, Black Catholicism has shrunk in the past 50 years. Divine Word Father Kwame Assenyo blames the church’s weakness in condemning slavery and Jim Crow systems.

In Oregon, our sin fell largely on Indigenous peoples, whose land and resources we stole, even if it was for noble purpose. Bringing the Lord to people is unconditionally good, but in many cases we failed to respect human dignity as we evangelized and educated. Did the 19th century church in Oregon follow the times? For sure. Archbishop Blanchet was more gentle and open than the average missionary. But the followers of Jesus should have been aware that Christians are not made by erasing the traditions and spirits of a people created by God. Rather, the church should have evangelized through dialogue.

“When faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity,” writes Jemar Tisby, a historian who studied at Notre Dame. “The American church does not have a ‘how to’ problem but a ‘want to problem.’”

A model and sign for the modern church could be St. Martin de Porres, the 17th century mixed race Peruvian Dominican who cared for all, even going onto fetid slave ships to give medical care. His love and strength was so great that the Dominicans broke with racial convention of the time and allowed him full membership as a friar.

3. We Catholics should act boldly to address the problems of racism and inequity.

Some form of reparation is needed. Direct cash payments might be warranted, but the Black community would see longer term benefit from free Catholic education, free Catholic college and interest-free home loans from church agencies.

We Catholics in western Oregon already have several strong institutions that are taking a bite out of racism and inequity. St. Andrew Nativity School and De La Salle North Catholic High School, both in Northeast Portland, provide free or low-cost education and form many students of color in the best academics and Catholic values. Supporting these schools would be a good start on reparation.

When we Catholics go to confession, we not only speak our sins. We accept penances from the priest. God’s forgiveness is full but not without condition. Our freely chosen penitential acts serve to repair our damaged relationship with the Almighty. Reparation is like that.

Aid to the descendants of slaves and Indigenous people might help interracial relationships in America. But we can be sure that reparation will smooth our standing with God, who has a special love for the despised and who abhors the lukewarm who stand by and observe injustice.