CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — As the nation reacted with shock to the explosion of racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that culminated with a driver intentionally plowing his car into a crowd of people, killing a 32-year-old woman on Aug. 12, Catholic leaders denounced the “display of evil” that also left 19 injured. Two more people died amid the protests, as a Virginia State Police helicopter, which was helping to monitor the rally, crashed outside the college town, killing the pilot and a trooper.
“May this shocking incident and display of evil ignite a commitment among all people to end the racism, violence, bigotry and hatred that we have seen too often in our nation and throughout the world,” wrote Bishop Martin Holley of Memphis, Tennessee, in a statement in response to the news of violent clashes between white nationalist protesters who opposed the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the famed Confederate general, from a park in Charlottesville, and counter-protesters that included religious leaders and advocacy groups like “Black Lives Matter,” as well as a self-identified “Antifa” or anti-fascist organization.
“On behalf of the bishops of the United States, I join leaders from around the nation in condemning the violence and hatred that have now led to one death and multiple injuries in Charlottesville, Virginia. We offer our prayers for the family and loved ones of the person who was killed and for all those who have been injured. We join our voices to all those calling for calm,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galvestan-Houston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an Aug. 12 statement that underscored mounting fears about the escalation of political and racial divisions within the nation.
The cardinal added, “The abhorrent acts of hatred on display in Charlottesville are an attack on the unity of our nation and therefore summon us all to fervent prayer and peaceful action.”
The white nationalists, who were protesting the city’s plans to remove Lee’s statute, had gathered in the square on Aug. 11, waving Confederate flags, making Nazi salutes and chanting phrases such as: “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.”
By the following morning, hundreds of counter-protesters had gathered at the square. Violence soon broke out as protesters and counter-protesters began clubbing each other. Around noon, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat governor of Virginia, declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard helped local police dispurse the crowd. Then, at 1:42pm a car plowed into the remaining counter-protesters.
According to Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas, James Alex Fields Jr, of Maumee, Ohio, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder as well as three counts of malicious wounding, failure to stop for an accident involving a death and hit and run. Witnesses and video footage showed a Dodge Challenger, which is registered to Fields, accelerating into the crowd of counter-protesters and then reversing at high speed. Fields was arrested several blocks from the scene of horrific carnage.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in an Aug. 12 statement that the Department of Justice would open an investigation into the protests and all related acts of violence, which, he said, had struck “at the heart of American law and justice.”
President Donald Trump spoke out against the violence in a statement Saturday, saying he “condemned in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. … The hate and division must stop, and must stop right now.”
Over the weekend, other Catholics registered the Church’s strong repudiation of racism and extremist ideologies.
“We stand against the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-nazism,” read a second Aug. 13 statement issued by the USCCB, and signed by Cardinal DiNardo and Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, chair of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
“We stand with our sisters and brothers united in the sacrifice of Jesus, by which love’s victory over every form of evil is assured. At Mass, let us offer a special prayer of gratitude for the brave souls who sought to protect us from the violent ideology displayed yesterday. Let us especially remember those who lost their lives.”
Church leaders stressed the need for Catholics to squarely address the toxic legacy of slavery, and they viewed the lethal violence unleashed in the university town as a wake-up call.
“Racism is a poison of the soul. It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed,” said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia in an Aug. 13 statement.
“Blending it with the Nazi salute, the relic of a regime that murdered millions, compounds the obscenity. Thus the wave of public anger about white nationalist events in Charlottesville this weekend is well warranted.”
He said the violence that erupted in the square on Saturday is “a snapshot of our public unraveling into real hatreds brutally expressed; a collapse of restraint and mutual respect now taking place across the country.
“We need to keep the images of Charlottesville alive in our memories. If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts and an insistence on the same in others.”
That plea was echoed by other Church leaders who also offered their prayers for the dead, the injured and their famillies, and for the spiritual healing of a fractured nation.
“May we see the presence of Christ in each person and work together peacefully to build appreciation, compassion, mercy and love in our hearts and in our communities,” said Bishop Holley. “Let us pray for the repose of the souls of those who died tragically, including the officers, and for physical and emotional healing for all who were injured. May ours become a nation of peace, harmony and justice for one and all.”
Further Reading: Bishops across US condemn racism