Wokeness and Catholicism

In spite of the talk of equality and liberation, woke ideology ultimately means rule by a small number of people who have the superior knowledge, intelligence, and virtue needed to define what views are correct.

A Black Lives Matter protestor in Whitehall, London, UK. (Image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/Unsplash.com)

Many people have noted that “woke” ideology, which views inequality as an intolerable evil caused by pervasive racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like, has a religious quality: it defines good and evil, explains life and the world, and tells us what we should aspire to and how we should act.

It is also aggressive and intolerant, qualities that make it worrisome for Catholics. For the most part, the worry has more to do with its manner and ultimate logic than the basic concerns to which it has appealed. To the extent the latter have to do with actual injustice and the hope of improving people’s lives they, like many left-wing concerns, can easily be shared by Catholics.

As things are, wokeness has now attained a position of dominance, so that it seems that all significant social institutions, from the Department of Homeland Security to the American Mathematical Society must pay tribute to it.

An aspect of that (and part of its explanation) is the difficulty of contesting it in public discussion. Consider educational testing as an example. Currently, the mean SAT score is 1104 for white students and 924 for black students. What do such figures show?

According to prominent scholar Ibram X. Kendi, who is a university professor, Guggenheim fellow, National Book Award Winner, and New York Times best-selling author, they simply show the pervasiveness of racism. His explanation of the point presents the logic of the woke position with great clarity:

Either there’s something wrong with the test takers or there’s something wrong with the tests… There’s something wrong with the test … And to say there’s something wrong with Black and Latinx children is to espouse racist ideas.

Respectable mainstream people don’t dispute the point, and the result is a growing movement away from testing. The same kind of argument applies to grades, discipline, graduation rates, and other areas of school life where there are longstanding racial differences in result, so we also see attempts to transform these other areas. The burden is on educational institutions to make sure everyone ends up in the same place.

Similar arguments apply to all major social institutions and relationships. For example, the 2019 FBI figures give a black person as the offender in 56% of the murders for which information is available, even though black people are only 13.4% of the population. The figures for London, where most black people in Britain live, are remarkably similar.

But what does that show? Those who share Professor Kendi’s way of thinking would presumably say that the problem is with the police and their statistics rather than the facts on the ground. That line of thought has helped lead people to the view that the justice system is thoroughly racist, so that prison has to be rethought, policing transformed, cash bail abolished, common misdemeanors decriminalized, and so on.

Woke ideology extends to other traditional dimensions of human identity, such as sex. As with the Civil Rights Movement, race is initially the issue, but the same principles get adopted for other human distinctions. So it is now accepted that there are no significant differences between men and women, and all differences in result–in numbers of engineers or whatever—are a direct consequence of sexism. To say otherwise is misogyny.

On examination the theory and its application have some complications. It’s not clear, for example, how Asian-American SAT scores (average 1217 versus 1104 for whites) or the FBI’s attribution of 88% of murders to men rather than women fit into the narrative of white patriarchal oppression through educational testing and law enforcement. And so far the main result of Black Lives Matter, apart from burned and looted buildings, seems to be more dead black people (along with some others). People may feel compelled to defer to current social movements, in part because they want to keep their jobs, but reality feels no such compulsion.

However, the general view seems to be that such issues are distractions from the burning need to correct horrific social injustice. It is evident the remedy will involve rejection of history and abolition or transformation of inherited social institutions. History and existing societies display complexities that stubbornly resist change, such as unequal results for different people at the individual and group level, so everything that has happened and everything that exists is tainted.

It remains to be seen how all this will work, and whether the effort will be more successful than the twentieth century attempt to abolish economic inequality. But if no one stands up against a view, and a great many people push it forcefully, it’s going to prevail and people will try to put it into effect.

So, for now, Catholics must consider the effect of woke ideology and related developments on the environment in which they practice their faith.

One thing they should notice in that connection is its intolerant moralism. It sees itself as burningly righteous and opposition or even skepticism as beneath contempt. Consider, for example, the emotional charge words such as “racist” and “homophobic” carry, and their ever-broader range of application.

That intolerance goes with a need to control outcomes—what actually ends up happening—throughout society. How else can people be made equal? But that means enormous expansion of government and effective abolition of personal agency, since if people are allowed to make choices that matter they will choose unequally and the results will be unequal.

The controls are aimed, among other things, at beliefs and attitudes. Woke ideology requires suppression of forbidden thoughts and those who harbor them. These are defined in ever more far-reaching ways, so much so that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that people generally can’t be trusted with important decisions. In spite of the talk of equality and liberation, woke ideology ultimately means rule by a small number of people who have the superior knowledge, intelligence, and virtue needed to define what views are correct. As always, making abstract principles absolute means tyranny.

In that way and others woke ideology reflects technocratic society, both in goals and methods. It sets itself a single abstract and indeed mathematical goal, equality, and treats social institutions and human relations as technical means for maximizing that goal. Human beings and their lives are thus viewed as raw material and products of a social machine, and if the results are not what’s wanted then redesign and tighter controls are needed.

All these things mean no place for the Church as an independent authority and actor. The social machine becomes all in all, so the Church, as in communist countries, must assimilate or be crushed. She is an historical institution, and all historical institutions are tainted, so she like the rest must be radically transformed on ideological grounds.

And very likely many well-placed Catholics would be perfectly happy to have her assimilate. After all, how does it injure her organizational structure or the careers and rewards of those who make their living by her to line her up with the dominant powers and make their message her own? In an age of mediocrity, who can articulate and stand up for an alternative to the gods of the age?

All of which confirms yet again that now is no time for mediocrity or concern for worldly powers. We want to be Catholic, and that puts us at odds with attempts to reconstruct human life to realize a secular absolute. We have our own very different absolute and far more respect for human nature and particularities. But we also want to be comfortable and respected. A technocratic society won’t let us have both, so we must choose.


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About James Kalb 111 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

25 Comments

  1. Thank you for this article. I have been confused about the meaning of “woke.” I understand the concept better now. Apparently ‘woke’ is now the new ‘theology’ everyone must accept and conform. It is a terrible and oppressive substitute for Christianity. Thank you again.

  2. Paragraph 18, in which Mr. Kalb describes the “technocratic society,” quite elegantly also describes the Communist society. It is profoundly evil and profoundly anti-human.

  3. Sadly in Michigan. We have a “Woke” Soros elected Gov.AG.and SOS. The Queen and her Court so to speak. Pure evil personified. Of course the MSM trumpets her “Wokeness”daily
    as she destroys our beautiful state.

      • He is a newly crowned Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. He is also a supporter of homosexuality and an obvious supporter of the evils of the leftists. I cannot see that he follows the teaching of Jesus Christ at all. In other words, a perfect choice for Pope Francis to make a Cardinal.

  4. Kalb asks rhetorically: “How else can people be made equal?” If history and memory still exist, the woke answer is found in Jacobin France where anyone too tall by a head could be shortened by the guillotine “manner” of the day.

    ROBESPIERRE, a ringleader of the Reign of Terror, wanted to do the same thing to church steeples because they violated the radical equality of an equalized, flat-earth skyline. (The identical decapitation of church crosses is underway across Communist China today.) And natural fatherhood is replaced across the globe by the provider-state. Sugar-daddy “Uncle” Sam (think Uncle Ted!) has long-replaced George Washington, the “father of our country.”

    AND YET, Kalb also begins with this: “To the extent the latter [basic concerns versus the way wokeness advances them] have to do with ACTUAL INJUSTICE and the hope of improving people’s lives they, like many left-wing concerns, can easily be shared by Catholics.” Shared by Catholics…How, then, to deal specifically with “basic concerns,” rather than descend into the streets filled with what the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt in 1889 identified as the “terrible simplifiers”—barking their simplistic slogans and spray-painting their territory like rutting animals in the wild?

    In a very-superficially similar, but essentially very-unequal situation, the English EDMUND BURKE offers a fine-grained clue in his “Conciliation with the Colonies” (prior to the War for Independence, not a “revolution”). Rather than hobbling colonial expansion (like Pharaoh tried with the Israelites!), or militarily suppressing the colonies, he proposed a third option of specific conciliation on specific and “actual injustices” (Kalb’s term).

    Burke concedes that “refined policy [specifics] ever has been the parent of confusion” [think the federal domestic budget] and so, proposes that “genuine simplicity of heart is a healing and cementing principle.” He concludes: “All this, I know well enough, will sound wild and chimerical to the profane herd of those vulgar and mechanical politicians who have no place among us; a sort of people who think that nothing exists but what is gross and material, and who, therefore, far from being qualified to be directors of the great movement of empire, are not fit to turn a wheel in the machine […] a great empire and little minds go ill together.”

    Burke appeals to “the old warning of the church [!], ‘sursum corda’ [lift up your hearts]!” On this high note—as wokeness topples statues and test scores and eliminates all of history and memory, all of it—in answer to Kalb, we CATHOLICS are finally to assemble around (be assembled by!) the sacramental and Real Presence as extended through space and time. The commission from the incarnate (!) Christ given to the Apostolic Succession: “Do this in MEMORY [!] of Me”—now also in the path of juggernaut wokeness.

    This last “memory” left to us, from the Heart, even more than a surely specific USCCB committee on, what’s that slogan again, oh yes, “racism.”

  5. Someone who is better versed in UK law can explain this more clearly, but from what I’ve gathered from British news sources there’s currently a hate speech law proposed which would criminalize private conversations in one’s own home. If someone is offended by what they hear they could denounce you to the proper authority.

  6. Jamaica NYC depressed, largely Black, Latino home of Kendi. Sacred ground because those features are the bedrock of Wokeness. Although Ibram Kendi is not the source of Wokeness. That distinction belongs to the university academia Kendi accuses of responsibility for minority Black, Latino failure. “There’s something wrong with the test … And to say there’s something wrong with Black and Latinx children is to espouse racist ideas” (Kendi). Academics of the Left, the majority have long made Black minority failure the responsibility of the supremacist White majority. Leftist politics has fed that to depressed minorities for idealistic reasons but practically as an agenda to empower themselves by owning their vote, and fealty. What some enlightened Black intelligentia call, Keeping us on the plantation. Now some like Kendi are becoming ‘uppity’ faulting their former allies the academics for creating prejudiced testing as a means of the White supremacist culture for causing their failure. Kendi’s ideology rather than assume responsibility and the hard work required for success opens a much faster less rigorous pathway to upward mobility. Irresponsible. Entirely immoral. Rendering Whites who comply entirely stupid and accessory to evil. Ever insightful on social justice Kalb shows that abstract absolutes end in tyranny. Catholics he says have their absolutes yet want respect. Non possibile in a technocracy but the correct choice deserves a much loftier respect.

  7. James Kalb has described the woke habit of control and moral blackmail. It is a form of puritanism, the close relative of fanaticism. Once I realised woke existed, I became completely hostile to the ideology. It is not reasonable and it is certainly not intellectual, that is, appealing to the intellect. Woke appeals to the emotional, in particular to fear of exclusion, and is violently bullying in nature while proclaiming gentle and charitable love of man. To me, it is another expression of eugenics, the philosophy which led directly from the Enlightenment to Hitler. Woke corrupts the attitude of goodwill that people embrace through the Christian education of the West but goes further, to call the family itself into question, a foundation of human society worldwide. This is the point at which I have concluded that the demonic influences the path of woke and that it seeks the destruction of civilisation and humanity. Extraordinary how rapidly people have bowed to it, afraid of being condemned as inhumane; this makes me grit my teeth and positively insist on opposition, inhumane or not. One simply has to give up on ego and expose oneself to calumny without flinching – takes determination rather than is especially difficult, provided one consciously and conscientiously surrenders the desire for approval from others.

  8. “Many people have noted that “woke” ideology, which views inequality as an intolerable evil caused by pervasive racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like, has a religious quality: it defines good and evil, explains life and the world, and tells us what we should aspire to and how we should act.”

    How can anything be like a religion which has no idea (objectively true or false) of a supernatural being? There is one definition which is applicable (e.g. “A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion”), but this doesn’t necessarily match up with your description.

    “As things are, wokeness has now attained a position of dominance, so that it seems that all significant social institutions, from the Department of Homeland Security to the American Mathematical Society must pay tribute to it.”

    I don’t know about MUST. There is no real obvious reason (unless there are secrets being kept which shouldn’t) for it except to “virtue signal” or perhaps preemptively deflect any criticism that the institution is “un-woke.”

    “It is also aggressive and intolerant, qualities that make it worrisome for Catholics. For the most part, the worry has more to do with its manner and ultimate logic than the basic concerns to which it has appealed. To the extent the latter have to do with actual injustice and the hope of improving people’s lives they, like many left-wing concerns, can easily be shared by Catholics.”

    Intolerance isn’t bad as long as it is evil which is not being tolerated. Granted even then there are some lines which can’t be crossed.

    “Those who share Professor Kendi’s way of thinking would presumably say that the problem is with the police and their statistics rather than the facts on the ground. That line of thought has helped lead people to the view that the justice system is thoroughly racist, so that prison has to be rethought, policing transformed, cash bail abolished, common misdemeanors decriminalized, and so on.”

    False premises or conclusions (e.g. “justice system is thoroughly racist”) without evidence shouldn’t lead one into a rash judgement of police or their statistics.

    “So it is now accepted that there are no significant differences between men and women, and all differences in result–in numbers of engineers or whatever—are a direct consequence of sexism. To say otherwise is misogyny.”

    How is this proved? Unless it can be proved in a strong or sound argument, then it shouldn’t be believed.

    “It remains to be seen how all this will work, and whether the effort will be more successful than the twentieth century attempt to abolish economic inequality. But if no one stands up against a view, and a great many people push it forcefully, it’s going to prevail and people will try to put it into effect.”

    I doubt that it will work. Economic inequality is probably largely a function of employers, but even they have standards. Typically, one needs a college degree to do well, and that is probably not something that many people have. They could go into debt to obtain a degree, but this is not a path toward financial success, still less economic equality.

    “That intolerance goes with a need to control outcomes—what actually ends up happening—throughout society. How else can people be made equal? But that means enormous expansion of government and effective abolition of personal agency, since if people are allowed to make choices that matter they will choose unequally and the results will be unequal.”

    How are outcomes being controlled? Are poor black men with criminal records more likely than white men with bachelor’s degrees to obtain (high-paying) positions? For some, equality is simple – take a Robin Hood approach: steal from the rich and give to the poor. That isn’t acceptable, but raising taxes on the rich and giving more welfare to the poor appears to be something proposed. Of course, the real answer which is perhaps almost purposely neglected is to have minimum wage levels largely determined by a breadwinner’s needs, and set by law. Additionally, somehow a job must be guaranteed to breadwinners and this could mean classifying some adults (e.g. wives) as dependents and barring them from employment in most circumstances.

    “In spite of the talk of equality and liberation, woke ideology ultimately means rule by a small number of people who have the superior knowledge, intelligence, and virtue needed to define what views are correct. As always, making abstract principles absolute means tyranny.”

    Actually these people are ignorant. Any intelligence is largely irrelevant in anyone who is sufficiently ignorant. One must have a minimum of humility to be willing to seek and learn from others, and the intellectual honesty to follow and embrace the truth.

    I would say “apparent virtue” because objectively speaking they are vicious. It shouldn’t be that hard to see why. Perpetrating injustice on some while writing “blank checks” that excuse the behavior of minorities or “the oppressed” isn’t moral. The central sin to understand concerning woke ideology is FAVORITISM.

    “All these things mean no place for the Church as an independent authority and actor. The social machine becomes all in all, so the Church, as in communist countries, must assimilate or be crushed.”

    I would say that the true Catholic Church always has a place as the conscience and judge of state actions. Currently, there isn’t much active specific coercion (excepting unjust COVID restrictions) from Western governments towards any sect.

    “All of which confirms yet again that now is no time for mediocrity or concern for worldly powers. We want to be Catholic, and that puts us at odds with attempts to reconstruct human life to realize a secular absolute. We have our own very different absolute and far more respect for human nature and particularities. But we also want to be comfortable and respected.”

    Remember that we are to care more for our soul than our body and this applies to other people as well. As such, we shouldn’t shrink from being scorned by the world. Anyone who is sufficiently moral, and is trying to fight TPTB won’t be comfortable or respected. There are eternal rewards for those who have heroic charity. The fight for justice against the powers of darkness is one path of charity. What needs to happen is that people must realize that charity is not always nice. Jesus wasn’t nice towards the leaders of Israel. To that end, read the book “Liberalism is a Sin.”

    • “How can anything be like a religion which has no idea (objectively true or false) of a supernatural being?”

      Many great philosophers, theologians, and others have noted that Communism has deeply religious qualities, with The State as the deity. (Which is one reason the Soviet leaders spent so much effort reworking Christian holy days, rituals, beliefs, etc. into secular/Communist forms) In wokeness, the deity is more of a moving target, but it’s essential core has a neo-Marxism premise: the Oppressed vs. the Oppressors.

    • Shawn the noted English Catholic scholar and historian Christopher Dawson wrote the following: “Democracy bases its appeal on the sacredness of the People – the consecration of Folk; socialism on the sacredness of Labor – the consecration of Work; and nationalism on the sacredness of the Fatherland – the consecration of Place. These concepts still arouse transcendent religious values or sanctions. It is religious emotion divorced from religious belief” (Christopher Henry Dawson, Dynamics Of World History 1956). Dawson refers to “religiosity” in his works example the virtual religion of Soviet communism in its ‘worship’ like adulation of Lenin.

  9. “Wokeness” is a morally bankrupt and false piece of partisan political clap-trap. Many like myself, who are unafraid of being name-called a “racist”, will never accept it.It is a con game designed to wrest ever more public funds as some form of “reparation” for past slavery, to benefit those who were never slaves. To be punished: whites who never lived during the slavery period, nor owned slaves. I personally boycott businesses and sports who support wokeness, the BLM movement, or those who kneel during the national anthem. Anectdotal observations: During a recent hospitalization,I observed a VERY large number of minorities who were among those who worked at the hospital as nurses, admissions clerks, and anesthesiologists and other medical staff. These are not low paying, dead end jobs by any means. These are also jobs which require advanced degrees. How could they get this far in a “systemically racist” nation??? Answer: they could NOT. Because the US is not racist. While watching TV recently I decided to count the number of commercials which contained minority actors. I got to 7 commercials in a row containing minority actors before I hit one which happened to feature only white actors. How can that diversity be so obvious in a systemically racist nation?? Answer: It cannot. Because the US is not racist. Question: How many of the biggest names in music are Black??? Answer: too many to count. Also impossible to count: the number of their fans who are white.
    It is my opinion that leftist,self loathing whites attempting to atone for crimes they have not committed, are condemning themselves, their children ,and possibly our society to a future of resentment and continued violence.As for me, I will continue to oppose efforts such as the fake “1619 Project” which falsifies and demeans our history and damages our national accomplishments.I will not be attending any corporate lectures asserting my supposed racism or “white privilege” ( which would have elicited wild derisive laughter in the lower class neighborhood in which I was raised). I urge those being pressured to attend such classes to sue, or quit the job. “All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good people to do NOTHING.” I worry for the direction of the church in the wokeness arena. Priests who “take a knee” for anyone other than God will never have my support. Stand up for what you believe. Believe in the essential goodness of America. Reject the lies that tell you otherwise.

  10. This social virus started in San Francisco circa 1990, it got so bad that my wife and I had to leave as to not comprimise our Catholic faith. Now the woke disease has infected the entire nation. It is 100% due to the nation being so prosperous compared to the rest of the world that it has luxury of living what the Chinese used to call a “Pillow World” of courtiers and fobs. You know my son’s friend went to visit his cousins in Honduras last year and lost a lot of weight because his relatives ate meat only twice a week because it was so expensive and lived of a diet of mainly beans, corn and fresh fruit.

    • Yup. I think prosperity enables dysfunction. Being dysfunctional a la San Francisco in a developing country wouldn’t work. You’d starve.

  11. Wow! Thanks for this. My husband and I were just talking about the inevitability of tyranny in our country. Too many people going out and being irresponsible at large group gatherings and then spreading the virus leads to tighter control over those who cannot control themselves. Or, at least, that’s how the narrative plays out. The governor of Texas made a comment about how they had left it up to people to do the right thing, only to discover that they were “nincompoops”–and he’s supposed to be a conservative. Once it has been established that people cannot be relied upon to act in the “best interest” of society, then a governing body steps in to make people comply. When one cannot maintain internal control, one must be controlled externally. That’s the tyrannical mindset. Though, it bears mentioning that in a society that embraces personal liberty that allows anything so long as it “feels” right to them, and espouses ideologies such as “my body, my choice”, what exactly do we expect???

  12. Who knew that the veneer of civilization had worn so thin?

    Wokeness is so illogical, so irrational and — yes, Porter Girl — so racist that it could only have become the prevailing opinion in a society where the social “elites” are marching in lockstep: in our case, media, academe, the arts, tech, cinema, Democrats.

    In such a society, where the emperor regularly struts and preens his nakedness for the admiration of the masses, the relative merits of ideas are immaterial.

    Instead, in such a fetid atmosphere, ideas become mere fashions, worn not for their own utility, but rather to demonstrate one’s intelligence, one’s up-to-dateness, one’s superiority.

    And — voilà! — intellectualism becomes narcissism.

    It is all just so odd. And so, so, so, so dumb.

  13. FYI

    Note that the word “Catholicism” is NOT approved by the Catholic Church. I can’t easily track down where I read it, but I remember reading that Pope Pius XII indicated that it was (not a quote) an improper and insufficient description of Catholic belief.

    Substitutes, in my opinion, would be “Catholic doctrine,” “Catholic belief,” “Catholic teaching,” or “Catholic faith.”

    • If you’re talking specifically about Catholic doctrine it’s not the word, but I can’t think of another word to refer to the whole complex of doctrine, commitment, organization, practice, etc.

      The usage lines up with expressions like Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, animism, and so on. Do you have a better term for talking about the whole thing?

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