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Why Critical Race Theory is contrary to Catholic Education

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.

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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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About Denise Donohue, Ed.D. 2 Articles
Denise Donohue, Ed.D., is associate director of K-12 education programs for The Cardinal Newman Society and manages its Catholic Education Honor Roll.

27 Comments

  1. Great article. I’ve been struggling with my children’s Catholic school seemingly turning away from the Catholic framework and teachings and embracing what looks like CRT although they aren’t using that label. Catholicism is adequate! No need to adopt other frameworks to learn how to be a better Christian. Thank you for writing this!!

  2. This article is a good example of conservative Catholic cancel culture. It also has a lot of misleading misrepresentations of what critical race theory is. This is a tactical move to scare people from fighting for racial justice and for transforming the political and economic system that perpetuate racial inequality.
    Critical race theory is an educational approach aimed at starting positive social actions to eradicate racial injustice. Its major premise is that the American political system was initially designed to benefit whites at the expense of other racial groups. Political actors at the time of the country’s founding and in the decades since created institutions which perpetuated an ideology that empowered whites and discriminated against minorities. These actions created political and economic disparities which are still present throughout society today.
    For example, political decisions made in the United States prevented Black people writ large from being able to develop wealth and political influence. There remain persistent racial gaps in life expectancy and in educational outcomes. In today’s job market Black people with the same credentials as whites get fewer job opportunities. Perhaps most strikingly, a Black American who commits the same crime as a white American is often sentenced to a longer prison term.

    Why the hyper opposition on the part of the rightist conservatives to the theory? Why the need to ban it? It’s not like critical race theory has crowded out conservative views. Plenty of conservative interpretations of events are taught in schools, even in Catholic schools. Many public schools in the South are taught that the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery. There is also the popular view of American exceptionalism: the idea that America is “uniquely virtuous” with political, economic, and social systems that are simply supposed to dominate the global order. This view is not only a fundamental piece the education of many American students, but for decades it ruled our foreign policy.
    At its core, the argument about critical race theory is a debate about power, part of a much larger debate about who has power in American society and which voices deserve to be heard. America has for nearly all of its history been politically dominated by white men. White men wrote the Constitution, they developed the early political institutions, and they crafted the worldview and political narrative from which America was understood.
    But in an increasingly diverse society with a rising multicultural class, there are more and more voices who are challenging existing power structures. And that is ultimately what this debate over critical race theory is: It’s about who gets to define what it means to be American, who gets to define how U.S. institutions work.
    That is what the discomfort exemplified in this article regarding the theory amounts to: It is a threat to those who have always had the power to define us as a country. They are now losing the power to shape that narrative, and the people gaining it—finally—are people of color.
    The author like the other critics of critical race theory allege that its proponents hate America, or they claim that the theory portrays all white people as evil. They claim that the theory encourages segregation, indoctrination, or Marxism. None of these claims are true: Critical race theory is not about hating white people or America. It is about acknowledging the structural and institutional biases purposefully created by the founding fathers, codified into the constitution, and then perpetuated by future generations.
    Critical race theorists believe that America can change; it’s why they are advocating for reforming institutions, to ameliorate biases and make the country more equal. These theorists don’t hate America; they want to make it a much more egalitarian version of what it currently is.
    Rightist conservatives have long argued that the government is supposed to stay out of the affairs of regular citizens. And more recently, they have become obsessed with the perception that free speech is under attack from Big Tech platforms and liberal media and publishing houses. Republicans like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz routinely call out cancel culture, mocking liberals for policing speech and decrying the power of Big Tech to deplatform views they don’t like.
    So what do you call banning critical race theory from schools?

    • You are deeply deceived about the foundational concepts of CRT and the motives of those who are peddling it. Marxism, the most murderous political philosophy in humanity’s history, is antithetical to and incompatible with the Christian faith, period. It cannot, therefore, be embraced as a framework for addressing the issues you discuss.

    • In the Anglo US perhaps what you said was true historically, but in French and Spanish North America people of color could be extremely wealthy landowners and a number owned slaves themselves.
      I really think we should look at status, not color. No matter what shade of complexion, even if we all eventually blend into one, there will always be those on the lower rungs of the status ladder.

    • Dress it up all you want, but Critical Race Theory is nothing more than the latest effort to redistribute wealth and power from one group of people to another group of people. It exploits the current politically-driven racial tensions in an attempt to achieve that power transfer. Always seems to be the way our flawed world works. There will never be a utopia on Earth…ever, because of us flawed human beings. There will always be a small subset of people who hate and who will use any excuse such as skin color, religious affiliation, culture, etc., to keep that hate burning. The best that we can do from a political standpoint was to set up a “Government of the people, by the people, for the people…” like the one that that was set up by those “dastardly” white people back then, that allowed us to address those human shortcomings…as people of good faith have done since the days of slavery, women’s suffrage, religious intolerance and the other prejudices experienced in the human condition. It’s not a perfect system, but what is when it involves human beings? Critical Race Theory drives us backwards by reestablishing, encouraging, and encoding racial divisions. Following the teachings of Jesus Christ as his Church is the best approach to addressing human failings as history has demonstrated.

      • But, Sir, this is no reason not to try! If good people do not speak out, the wrong side will have it’s way every time. Case in point, the homosexual movement. Ever read “Making Gay Okay” by Robert R, Reilly written in 2014? Slowly but surely, the homosexual movement has become “acceptable” These poor souls need our help not our approbation! Same thing with CRT

    • Walter, just wondering what your credentials are so that I might give some validity to your comments. When dealing with sinful broken man (human) only belief in a higher authority greater then man’s and specifically that authority of Jesus Christ can justice, equality, and the inalienable rights that our Constitution speaks so eloquently about be achieved. New inequalities that CRT represents can only make matters worse. Personally I believe a very small percentage of Americans will end up taking all of us down this dark I’ll convinced road.

    • Walter: Critical Race Theory is not so much about racism. It is first and foremost “ideological” (as opposed to empirical). It is a branch of applied postmodernism, and postmodernism has its roots in Nietzsche (not to mention Hegel). To really see how dangerous applied postmodernism is, you have to get a handle on these roots. According to genuine postmodernism, it is impossible to “know” anything at all (knowledge is impossible, all science is a construct). The reason is that reality is unknowable, it is absurd, and it is language that alone provides the illusion of permanency and stability. Knowledge is fundamentally about “power”. There is no “truth” per se, only power (the will to power). Foucault builds on this. Morality is nothing but a linguistic construct spun for the sake of power over weaker centres of power. Reality is fundamentally conflict.

      Ultimately, Critical Theory, whether that includes post colonial theory, critical race theory, disability theory, gender theory, queer theory, etc., refutes itself. It’s activist element functions on concepts like justice and equality, but all “knowledge is nothing more than a construct” erected for the sake of power–so there is no such thing as objective ‘justice’ or ‘equality’. There is no “truth” per se. It’s this foundation that is so incompatible with Catholicism. All that arises from this foundation may, in certain respects, appear to be compatible with Catholicism, but fundamentally it undermines it. If you are going to make claims about racism, that’s fine, but be sure you have evidence (and statistical consistency) for your claims. But even the demand for evidence, according to Critical Theory, is itself a form of oppression, an imposition of a “logic” that is western and oppressive, and nothing more than a construct. I don’t think you realize how insidious this ideology really is.

    • I simply point to the above propaganda piece as evidence of CRT theory. It’s always whitey’s fault, and we are gonna strip him/her of that “power” theyn hhave over us.

    • It’s already apparent, according to the news, how the crt is generating hatred, brutality and division. Let’s stick to the Christian viewpoint of MLK, “Man should not be judged by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.” Let’s form character in our youth through wise parenting, education and Christian evangelism.

    • Everything you said was invalidated by your use of the word” finally”.This is about revenge and not fairness. How could it be, when nobody alive in this country has been either a slave or a slave owner?? It is a colossal LIE to say “systemic racism” exists in the US. I see blacks and other non-whites in every possible job in both private and government work, from doctors and lawyers to the post office, to grocery store clerks, ministers and priests,astronauts, actors, musicians,teachers, sports figures.And EVERY other job in between, including Mayors, senators, and President of the US. Many of these positions pay well more than the jobs held by many whites.There is a small but loud “victim” class of people in non-white culture, egged on by spurious “leaders”, self-loathing white liberals, and the media. These people seem to feel they are entitled to free housing, college, Obamaphones, medical , child care, food and even jobs for which they are not qualified ( see Delta airlines recent announcement of plans to “diversify” their pilot corps,apparently irrespective of qualifications, to bring in more persons of color. Crash landings, anyone??). If this level of opportunity is oppression, much of the world would be glad to join them. These folks believe that racism isn’t racist as long as it is directed at Whites. They are wrong. I am white and grew up poor. Hand me down clothing was an ordinary part of my life. I worked at a minimum wage job beginning at age 16. Bogus screaming about supposed white privilege will never make it true to those who know otherwise. Some years ago I toured a large rural grammar school predominantly populated by white children, 2/3 of whom we were told, came from families living on welfare. So much for “white privilege”. What is so anti-american about this woke culture is that Americans of all colors have ALWAYS believed that they can be whatever they want if they work for it. It has proven true. Look at the successful blacks you see anytime you turn on the TV. Americans have never embraced victimhood as a real American value.It is for the weak. Americans need to stand up for real American history and values before it is too late. The Biden administration is now following the course of applying racist standards for government aid, allowing only Black farmers and restaurant owners to apply for covid aid.This is a huge mistake.If govt policies move further left, allowing only certain races in the US to live in certain housing, get an education, etc, I believe a major upheaval will occur. People can only be pushed so far. It took a bloody civil war to stop slavery.Recently the govt released the statistic that private citizens in the US own an astonishing 317 MILLION guns. Such a reality could make the Civil War look like a Sunday picnic. Pray God we reverse course soon.

  3. CRT curriculum is poison. Banning poison from school is not Cancel Culture.

    Teachers should feel free to have open discussions w/ students about race. That is not the same as imposing CRT curriculum.

    Teach kids how to think, not what to think. They are not soldiers in your revolution.

  4. The Jesuits of Georgetown juat paid reparations to families of slaves they sold. It sounds, based on this article, that was inappropriate from a Catholic perspective? As to CRT, it is a horrible secular humanist theory driven by Marx.

  5. Schools are there to teach truth, not ideology. Some idiots don’t believe that the Holocaust happened, or they believe 9/11 was an inside job, but we don’t indulge their fantasies by making it part of the curriculum. Same with CRT.

    • Oh my, Johann! You are exactly correct! Your simple and succinct summary is perfect. Thank you for your words of wisdom.

    • Johann, You are talking about history which is subject to relatively – but debatable – solid proof. CRT is about a new “morality” or injustice under guise of justice. There is infallible proof for the truths of morality. Therefore, CRT – unlike historical topics – shouldn’t be tolerated.

  6. Critical Race Theory (CRT) is just one example of what Critical Theory (CT) wants to accomplish, the coup de grace on whatever remains of Western Civilization, a civilization with roots in Classical Antiquity and Christianity. CT has its roots in a Marxism that goes beyond class struggle by promoting other struggles such as racial struggle (using CRT), sexual liberation, gender struggle, the acceptance of homosexuality as a valid alternative to heterosexuality, transgenderism, abortion on demand, and the abolition of the traditional family. One wonders whether CT is an example of the errors of Russia spreading to the world, errors about which Our Lady of Fatima warned us.

  7. Thank you Denise Donohue for the timely analysis of an important topic.
    Critical race theory has been advanced to explain the poor outcomes of blacks relative to whites.
    For example, blacks suffer from poor SAT scores and are much more likely to be incarcerated. This is a fact.
    According to critical race theory, poor outcomes are due to systematic racism. However, this is only supported by anecdotal evidence.
    There is no hard data to support detrimental systematic racism. There is plenty of data that demonstrates systematic racism that helps blacks. (affirmative action, college admission quotas, corporate hiring, etc)

    Critical race theory tells us that if we rewrite history and denigrate people like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, we will strike a blow against systematic racism, and therefore outcomes for blacks will improve. This is all nonsense. The goal is to overthrow America and replace it with an unspecified utopia. This sounds like the French revolution.
    Critical race theory has it all wrong. There is a lot of evidence that poor outcomes for blacks are due to the failed schools that they are forced to attend. Some graduates cannot read their diplomas. The growing minds of young students are starved of the nutrients they need to develop. They move to adulthood with none of the skills required for life in the modern world. They join gangs and participate in violence. Many end up in jail.
    Data shows that a black student, raised by a married father and mother, who attends a Catholic school and goes to church once a week, has outcomes equal to or better than whites. It is systematic racism not to allow parents the freedom to choose the school for their children.
    There is no data supporting the theory that our American culture is responsible for poor outcomes. There is a lot of data showing that failed schools are responsible for poor outcomes.

  8. I do believe when Catholics don’t know their faith, & don’t practice it, are the one’s who will fall for CRT.
    Can’t recall who said this but this quote is perfect for these times….

    “If you don’t believe in God, you will believe in anything…”

  9. Please ignore Walter Zimmerman. That is the most important point I’d like to make.
    Engaging in “dialogue” with Walter Zimmerman is unlikely to be helpful.

    Thank you for this well-written article, which will surely help many people as we confront (and we must) those who hate America, hate our founders and our Constitution, and wish to literally destroy it. That is no longer exaggeration. We must know who we are and denounce their Marxist endeavors. It is patently absurd to accuse America of racism, when we just had a two-term black president, elected by many, many white Americans. We have blacks in the highest positions of our land, and have had for decades. Many heads of corporations, government agencies, the Supreme Court, are black. Forty percent of business owners in the US are black. And we have thrown more money at programs aimed at lifting up black Americans than we have spent in ALL the wars America has been involved in. Ever. That “war on poverty” train never stops.
    Sanity and self-preservation must reign. They are after telling our American children lies, and if they are successful, they will turn our children against America, and Americans. They must not succeed. God help us as we confront the Marxists among us. This is something we must all take on.

  10. I have only recently heard about this new pseudo-movement a few days ago. I started hearing and seeing the word “Woke” all over the internet; i.e. people trying to claim that J.R.R. Tolkien was “Woke”. I had no idea what people were talking about, but now I do. In other words, this is just another band-wagon for people to jump on because it’s popular. And it sounds very much like what many have already been attempting to do, basically they are trying to rewrite history to suit themselves. What is ironic and even funny about the whole thing, is that these people do not know anything or they know very little about the actual history, and they even take what they have read or heard out of context. Another example is Abraham Lincoln. Now everyone wants to believe that he was same-sex attracted, or that he was a homosexual or something. This is ridiculous. Who do these people think they are, and who do they think they’re trying to fool. Isaiah 5:20

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