In mid-August, I attended an online presentation by a Catholic nun on “Race and the Catholic Church.” The presenter—I’ll call her “Sister”—was a theology professor who had taught at a nearby Catholic university. I approached the conference with an open mind and heart, but was wary about the pre-event advertising. We were promised we would learn about the “eruption of racial pain after the death of George Floyd.” We were given “A Very Select List of Reading Suggestions,” mainly secular and rooted in what is known in academic circles as “critical race theory”— from authors including Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo and Bryan Massingale. Critical race theory—a viewpoint that society is inherently racist and constructed by whites at the expense of people of color—is a dangerous and unjust attempt to divide people.
As a Catholic, I believe its neo-Marxist and deconstructionist principles conflict with the Church’s teachings on human dignity. I hoped the Church wasn’t falling for this nonsense. But I came away from the presentation even more worried that this professor’s campus ideologies are now taking root in Oregon’s Catholic churches and schools. I will return to those broader themes below. But first let me describe the experience of Sister leading the charge against white supremacy during her presentation.
The Church and systemic racism
On the appointed Sunday afternoon, I joined two dozen other parishioners online in a “reflection on racism and the reign of God in light of our Catholic faith and the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching.” Sister grounded us in the present day unrest, explaining that “the eruption of racial pain after the death of George Floyd was in response to ongoing white supremacy terrorism.” She lectured on critical race theory and used the terms “systemic racism,” “institutional racism,” white privilege,” “white body privilege,” “black body trauma,” “white frame,” and “patriarchy.” She referred to Europeans as “conquerors” and to slavery as “our original sin.”
According to Sister—who happens to be white—the Catholic Church is complicit in systemic racism. “The Church is in it,” she said. “We are in it.”
Sister gave several detailed examples of racism. Her Dominican order has a sister community in South Africa. While she was visiting and providing training there this past winter, she said she saw the stark disparities in education and circumstance between blacks and whites. She insisted that the black nuns there continue to be victims of racism and that “apartheid, though illegal, is baked into the country’s fabric.” Then she introduced Professor James H. Cone’s Black Liberation Theology and recommended his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. In the book, the cross represents the “black life God” while the lynching tree represents “white power and black death.” Sister spoke about the book in the context of the horrific 1955 murder of Emmett Till and the significance of his death to the Civil Rights Movement. While I was grateful for the country insight report and history lesson, I wasn’t sure how these anecdotes justified her views about white supremacy terrorism in America today.
The discussion then shifted to the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ official statements on racism. Sister told us that while the statements were helpful, the bishops did not go far enough because the they “don’t want to make whites uncomfortable.” And she questioned the USCCB’s credibility on this issue given the predominantly white racial makeup of the group. After the presentation, I read through the two most recent pastoral letters. The documents are grounded in Christian teachings of justice, mercy and love. They explain that human persons are created in the image and likeness of God. Racism is sinful—it is a violation of human dignity. But I was surprised that the letters apparently assume that all economic, housing, welfare, and incarceration disparities are caused solely by racism.
The presentation ended with a Q&A session. The other participants’ comments all seemed to support Sister’s views. One parishioner asked how to make liturgy and music more “intercultural” and inclusive. Another attendee asked how police brutality fits in with all of this. Sister did admit that police had been helpful to her home-parish in a challenging Bronx, New York neighborhood. But she insisted that because police are “blue bodies,” they suffer from “body trauma” and engage in misconduct. She cited the example of black parents giving their sons “the talk” about police as proof that systemic police racism exists. Another participant asked how to move forward from “awareness” to “action.” Sister’s response, again, was: “The Church is in it. We are in it.”
Since that Sunday afternoon, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what I’d heard from Sister, and perhaps more importantly what I hadn’t heard from her. I wish the message would have been that sins such as racism are best addressed and overcome through turning toward Jesus Christ, the Gospel, the Church, and Catholic doctrine and practice. Catholicism and its human rights principles are based on authentic universality and supernatural unity, the antidote to the diversity message of chaos espoused in many of the secular resources that Sister was recommending.
Liberation theology is especially concerning. According to a 1984 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, it has been used to justify violence and has tendencies toward Marxism, which includes denial of the human person, his liberty and rights. While Marxism, as the document notes, has taken various forms over the decades, to “the extent that they remain fully Marxist, these currents continue to be based on certain fundamental tenets which are not compatible with the Christian conception of humanity and society” (#8). Supporting these sort of deficient and often-subversive ideologies is essentially support for destruction of the traditional family and unjust acts against people, property, and the Church. All of which we have been seeing far too often this year across America, not least here in Portland, Oregon. None of these were mentioned in the presentation I attended.
Are critical theory-inspired views becoming the norm in some Catholic schools?
I also thought about what this means for me personally, and for my family. As a mom, I think about how these messages will impact kids. Do I want kids to grow up believing that skin color is perhaps more important than treating people as individuals? Do I want white kids to be burdened with inescapable guilt? Do I want kids of color to feel the hopelessness that comes with permanent victim status? Some black scholars believe these views are dehumanizing and condescending to their kids. And how should concepts such as “white body privilege” and “white frame” be taught to children? It is reasonable to conclude that these ideas, for young people of any race, could result in unhealthy self-hatred for their immutable characteristics. Body-image issues can be toxic, especially for teens.
And some kids of color already feel they have to be “poster children” in advertisements for their schools and extracurricular organizations. I worry about teaching kids to believe there is a whole class of people that is an enemy—it’s corrosive to their futures, and to their souls.
It appears to me that these messages—in the form of diversity, equity and inclusion lessons—are becoming the de facto religion at my daughter’s Catholic high school in Portland. Over the summer, administrators told parents that “DEI” (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts were driving teacher trainings, English, and history department curriculum changes, and the newly scheduled homeroom class period was created so that “diversity, equity, and inclusion can be taught more intentionally.” The first lesson included a video that begins with an image of a raised clenched fist and a discussion in which my daughter’s teacher insisted that “white students at the school have more power and privilege than other students.” At the school’s virtual fall parent evening, the administrator in charge of diversity pointed out the resources available on the school’s website—and they are the same resources Sister had provided to our neighborhood parish.
At school, though, the term “critical race theory” has been replaced with the term “racial literacy.” What student or parent or teacher can argue with “literacy?”
Through its website and daily announcements, the school promoted “How To Be An Antiracist: 2020 Election & Beyond,” a talk to be given on September 10th by Ibram X. Kendi, one of the authors Sister had recommended in her parish presentation. I was curious and registered for the online event hosted by a Catholic university in the Midwest. Perhaps I would find that my concerns about Kendi and these theories were overblown. But I became even more disheartened while listening to Kendi speak—about anti-racism, Angela Davis, and abolishing police, prisons, and even capitalism. Kendi used nonsensical “Kafka trap” logic in saying that the only way to not be racist is to insist we’ll always be racist. He explained that our present-day resistance to the “elimination of police and prisons –that are based on slave-patrols” is just as regressive as pre-Civil-War-era resistance to the immediate emancipation of slaves. And he insisted that we “can’t separate capitalism from racism … they are the conjoined twins.”
I came away from the talk even more concerned. It seemed Kendi was using claims of racism, not in an earnest effort to fight real discrimination, but rather as means to advocate for the unabashed shakedown of America for cash—reparations and redistribution of wealth. And he seemed to be willing to spread radical and toxic views in order to do it.
I was surprised that my daughter’s Catholic school had promoted Kendi’s talk and recommended his books on its website. Why are Catholic schools tossing aside 2000 years of Catholic theological and intellectual tradition—and our Greek, Roman and Jewish heritage—for these unproven and divisive theories? Why are black authors with other viewpoints— John McWhorter, Glenn Loury, Thomas Sowell, Jason Riley, Shelby Steele, and others—being excluded from my daughter’s diversity lessons? Why is her school choosing to teach these topics through a secular lens? I wonder if academic rigor and pursuit of truth and beauty will be crowded out entirely. I wonder: will students begin to think that social-justice activism takes priority over eternal salvation?
The urgency of normalcy—and witness—in a time of unrest
I know Sister meant well with her presentation. Catholic teaching calls us to make a preferential option for the poor and marginalized. But the Church is in danger of replacing one form of marginalization with another, and in the process is becoming marginalized. In this year of divisiveness and unrest, our society and culture appear to be drifting even further from the Church and her teachings. And due to the pandemic, many Catholics have had to face these changes without access to Church life, the Mass, and the Eucharist. In September, Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s dicastery for liturgy and sacraments, sent a letter to bishops around the world, saying “it is necessary and urgent to return to the normality of Christian life.”
But will that normalcy return? In mid-September we went back to church and my daughter was able to receive the sacrament of Confirmation. But the sweetness of the celebration that evening was made bittersweet by the gravity of the archbishop’s homily message. He spoke aloud all of the worries that have been on my heart this year. He warned that “God was toughening us up for the difficult days ahead” as “the world was moving in a different direction” and that we must “read the signs of the times.”
I am convinced that the unrest we’re seeing in 2020 and responses such as “anti-racism” education—however well-intentioned—have little to do with actually ending discrimination. Rather, they are part of an attack on institutions including the Church and on religious liberty itself. But many Catholics have been afraid to defend our faith—about the goodness of physically attending church or the goodness of our beliefs, our practices, our history—for fear of offending or of being “canceled” socially or professionally. Worries about “religious tests” are real.
As another archbishop recently wrote, “If attacks on belief are an acceptable standard by which to impugn judicial nominees today, then tomorrow they’ll be used on the rest of us who uphold the teachings of our faith.” At Mass that evening, I prayed for the strength I would need to defend my faith as I was called to do at my own Confirmation—to start to speak out. The Church is in it. We are in it. Just not in the way that Sister meant when she lectured to us on that hot August afternoon.
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