Catholic education offers a truthful and morally sound framework for considering issues of race, human dignity, and social justice. Yet cultural norms, historical developments, commonplace and novel assumptions, and associated passions all have some influence over Catholic education—sometimes for the good, but often distorting and even contradicting sound Catholic teaching. The human condition and social inequities and injustices can and should be addressed in Catholic education, with confidence in the Church’s wisdom and the ability of societies to respectfully unify around racial and cultural differences. In times of heightened concern and emotion, it is necessary that Catholic education inform and guide students’ understanding with great caution against divisive ideological and political influences.
Today emotional and heated discussions and protests focused on race seem to fill social media, endless news cycles, and opinion journalism. Concepts including “wokeness,” “intersectionality,” and “systemic racism” may be explicitly advocated or implicitly underlie conversation and classroom teaching. Terms such as “racist,” “hate,” “intolerance,” and “oppression” belong to the conversation, but they can at times be harmfully wielded as hasty moral judgments and powerful rhetorical weapons.
Some parents, including Catholics, are rightly surprised and concerned about false and hostile interpretations of traditional culture, values, and history that have been introduced—both overtly and covertly—into public and even Catholic schools and colleges. These come in the form of new diversity, equity, and inclusivity programs, approaches, and ideologies. Efforts like the 1619 Project in history, “anti-racist” science curricula, art classes focusing on “de-centering of whiteness,” claims of white supremacy in health classes, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusivity) clubs, cancelling of classical literature because of racism and bias, and even the banning of some whimsical Dr. Suess books for perceived insensitivity and racist content, seem to leave no class or subject untouched—even mathematics.
All are seemingly being re-written to restructure perspectives away from traditionally understood truths in a misguided effort to counter racism and bias against African Americans, other minorities, and others perceived to have been ill-treated by the dominant American culture, past and present. An example of such re-writing and re-framing is the 1619 project’s claim that the American Revolutionists fought for independence from Britain in order to protect the institution of slavery. In some cases, teachers are being pressured or even required to attend diversity and sensitivity training, to advocate for historical interpretations or political positions they believe are untrue, and to persuade their students to publicly advocate these positions.
Many Catholic schools and colleges are scrambling to find resources to address these issues, rather than relying on the solid foundation of Catholic moral and social teaching. Some have incorporated secular DEI programs, race-focused history programs, and anti-racist or cultural sensitivity training for teachers.
To appreciate the dangers introduced by such programs and influences, it is important to understand the forces that have inspired this paradigm shift. Chief among them is Critical Race Theory (CRT).
What is Critical Race Theory?
Critical Race Theory (CRT) asserts that America’s legal framework is inherently racist and that race itself, instead of being biologically grounded and natural, is a socially constructed concept that is used by white people to further their economic and political interests at the expense of people of color. It asserts that all non-whites in the United States are victims of racism, even when it is not apparent, and that even supposed legal advances against racism, even those during the 1960s civil rights movement, ultimately protect a system that benefits whites. The concept of color blindness, for example, rendered American society insensitive to the more subtle and systemic racism in our society.
The concept of “intersectionality” also plays a part in CRT. Intersectionality asserts that no person can adequately be identified in one group but must be identified as belonging to multiple groups. A woman, for instance, is not only female but also may be white or African American, lesbian or straight, Christian or non-Christian, and so forth. It is therefore possible for a person to experience multiple forms of victimhood or oppression, not just race. While there is jockeying of position for which victimhood status takes priority when making claims upon others, CRT is predicated on the belief that race is the fundamental pivot point of injustice and oppression in the United States, with whites as the oppressors and blacks as the oppressed.
Righting this wrong, according to CRT, requires a dismantling of current dominant societal norms and structures.
This, it should be noted, is a development of “critical legal studies,” which strive to identify evidence that the law is inherently biased in favor of the most powerful and wealthy members of society, and of “critical theory,” which rejects universal truths and asserts that many of the core beliefs of Western society about family, government, and God are intended to suppress the poor and marginalized. The overt Marxist roots of these academic movements, which began prior to World War II, suggest deep political and reformist intentions, with objectives that the Catholic Church has firmly rejected. Moreover, those intentions long precede the particular incidents that have spiked interest today in CRT.
Critical Race Theory vs. Catholic Education
There are aspects of critical race theory about which Catholics and non-Catholics can agree, including the importance of confronting racism, assisting the poor and underprivileged, addressing social and economic inequalities, and fighting human exploitation. These are all core elements of established Catholic social teaching and should already be addressed in Catholic education without embracing CRT. The crux of the matter is how to go about confronting such evils as educators and refuting and correctly interpreting ideological beliefs from a Catholic perspective.
Carefully defining terms is a good first step. It is important to be cautious about using terminology pushed by critical race theory—including “oppressor and oppressed,” “marginalization,” “systems of power,” “white supremacy and domination,” “colonial beliefs,” and “deconstruction”—as common parlance throughout the school or college. These terms, if ill-defined or used disingenuously, can be divisive and harmful to the minds and hearts of young people. Their use is encouraged as a means to political ends. Students taught with critical race theory materials can become racists in the literal sense of the word: they may treat others (the perceived oppressor race) unfairly because of skin color or background. Division into categories of good and bad based on skin color is a reversal of Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and antithetical to a Catholic understanding of human dignity and equality.
If these terms are used, they should be placed within the proper context of Catholic classroom instruction, avoiding the political and social ideology advanced by critical race theorists. Scripture, Tradition, and the Church’s social teaching should inform and inspire the discussion. Catholic social teaching promotes the solidarity of mankind as one human family (this is basic Christian anthropology), with the goals of justice and peace. This context is essential and helpful in proposing the preferential option for the poor and marginalized and situating decisions within the common good.
Catholic education is also Christocentric and based on the Gospel message of unity and communion, which Jesus taught when he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt 5:9) and “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt 5:7). Critical race theory harms the unity of all people that Jesus prayed for: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:21). St. Paul taught this in Ephesians 4:3-6, in encouraging all to “strive to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all.”
Some who push critical race theory call slavery America’s “original sin,” in an attempt to co-opt a fundamental Christian dogma. Traditionally, original sin describes the disobedience of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, which marks the whole of human history. It is the only “collectivist” sin in the sense that all people are born in a state of original sin which can be removed through the Sacrament of Baptism. Catholic educators should ensure that students understand that sins are committed by individuals through their own free will and must be acknowledged and repaired to balance social harmony and communion.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Sin is a personal act” (1868). St. John Paul II in Reconciliatio et paenitentia clarifies that, “A situation – or likewise an institution, a structure, society itself – is not in itself the subject of moral acts,” but the collective actions or omissions of individuals within certain social groups or even countries are the result of an “accumulation and concentration of many personal sins.” This is not to dismiss the incredible harm and evil that accumulated personal sins can effect, or the need for entire societies to challenge injustices and evils at work within their structures.
Catholic educators should also teach that the sin of one person does not extend to their progeny, since their progeny, too, have free will. “You ask: ‘Why is not the son charged with the guilt of his father?’ Because the son has done what is right and just, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live” (Ez 18:19). CRT improperly attempts to assign the responsibility and burdens for sins committed by others in the past to persons today who happen to share a skin color with a past sinner.
The restoration of a proper order
Still, Catholic social teaching calls on each Christian to care for victims regardless of personal responsibility for the sins committed, and CRT proposes reparations for past injustices. This complex request must be handled carefully in order to ensure that new injustices are not committed in the process of attempting to right a past wrong. The restoration of a proper order of equality and dignity of persons cannot indiscriminately target people based on the power they hold, the wealth they possess, their race, their nationality or place of birth, their religion, their family relationship, or friendship.
To distribute resources according to such criteria is considered a sin of the “respect of persons,” according to St. Thomas Aquinas. Distributive justice requires that resources are awarded based upon a person’s merits, ability, personal needs, or needs of the family.
While critical race theory might appear to be a timely theory that corrects societal wrongs through equity, some of its key, underlying assumptions are not in harmony with Catholic teaching. Catholic educators teaching authentic Catholic moral and social teaching as well as the practice of Christian charity should not need to appropriate elements of CRT, but instead should confidently retain the core influence of the Gospel in all of their efforts to educate and form young people.
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