In recent years, controversies over police shootings and school curricula have brought racial tensions once again to the forefront of American consciousness. Astute Catholics have analyzed Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Critical Race Theory (CRT) and rightly pointed to serious concerns about the ideologies behind these movements. (Catholic World Report has published helpful assessments of BLM and CRT.)
These critiques are important, but they also raise another question. If the Marxism-inspired approaches of BLM and CRT are off limits to Catholics, then how should Catholics think about race? That’s a massive, multifaceted question, but we can narrow its scope somewhat by focusing attention where critical race theorists have focused much of theirs: on American history. One major pillar of the CRT edifice, after all, involves reconceiving the entire American project as a story of racial oppression, shifting the starting point from the freedom-themed Declaration of Independence in 1776, to the bondage-themed arrival of African slaves in 1619.
How, then, should American Catholics view their history with respect to the issue of race? Should we patriotically defend the traditional narrative, in which Americans have striven for and largely achieved “liberty and justice for all”? Or should we identify with those who have been marginalized throughout our history, adopting a revisionist narrative of oppression and injustice?
The Censorious Approach
There are at least two crucial dimensions to this question. The first concerns the basic attitude with which we approach history. One option is a censorious approach, which proceeds with condescension, suspicion, and judgmentalism. It combs through the past in search of moral failing. It seeks in the first place not to understand or appreciate but to eviscerate and condemn. It is closely related to what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”
This has become the dominant mode of discourse in American university history departments, and it has trickled down to many high school and elementary treatments. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is the exemplary censorious textbook, telling the story of how the nation has been dominated by “men who have no respect for human rights or constitutional liberties.”
The censorious approach is the handmaiden of victimhood. If the past is dominated by oppressors, then it is also filled with the oppressed. Peering through the lens of race reveals an obvious class of victims—people of color—whose grievances can be enumerated ad infinitum. When approaching the past with the attitude of censure, whites are viewed primarily as suspect, dangerous, and abusive.
The censorious approach naturally feeds upon itself, and no one is safe. Yesterday’s hero becomes today’s villain. George Washington, once admired for preserving the Republic by resisting monarchic temptations, is now reprimanded for owning slaves. Andrew Jackson, once the hero of “the little guy” for democratizing American politics, is likewise vilified for his involvement in slavery, with his treatment of Native Americans adding to his sins. Even Abraham Lincoln, long revered as “The Great Emancipator,” has been knocked off his pedestal for being insufficiently committed to racial equality.
The concerns of the censorious should not be dismissed out of hand. Most of this revisionist history is accurate, in the sense that it does not invent things that didn’t actually happen. It is to some extent a necessary corrective to mythological portrayals that skirted around ugly aspects of our national story. Recent scholarship on slavery has given us a deeper appreciation of how terribly degrading the system was for those who suffered under it, and how corrupting it was for all those touched by it.
Yet the censorious approach lacks balance. A healthier approach to the past forthrightly confronts the negative aspects of our history—as a Church and as a nation—but does so from a position of sympathy rather than superiority. It pairs righteous indignation toward the wrongs of the past with sincere gratitude for the achievements of those who went before us. When we evaluate the past, we should always keep in mind the question: “How would I want my life to be assessed by future generations?” We expect observers to give us the benefit of the doubt; to assume that by and large we do our best under the circumstances; and to treat our genuine failings with mercy rather than contempt. In sum, we should scrutinize our motives. When we investigate the past, we should be seeking truth. Are we instead searching for something else, such as ammunition for a partisan cause or a feeling of moral superiority?
The Catholic approach to racial history doesn’t mean ignoring evils or the faults of historical actors. It means seeking in the first place to understand the past rather than to judge it. Rush to judgment is the enemy of historical understanding. One indispensable task in avoiding rash judgment and achieving understanding is viewing individual historical data within a larger framework. This is where the first dimension of our answer (attitude) links up with the second dimension: historical context.
Accounts that distort the racial history of the United States tend not to err in matters of fact. Instead they present a misleading picture by inadequately addressing this second dimension: by failing to place people and events in context. Any effort to understand history necessarily involves not only ascertaining what happened, but also interpreting it—determining how it relates to the historical phenomena that surround it.
If we’re trying to understand the role of race in the American past, it is obvious that we must in the first place get the facts straight. There have been sensational cases of fabrication and distortion in the writing of American history: a notorious recent example is the later modified New York Times’ 1619 Project claim that “one primary reason” the colonies’ fought for independence from Great Britain was to protect slavery. But outright errors on substantive points are the exception. In polemical debates, antagonists will hurl charges of “falsehood” back and forth, but for the most part these are actually disagreements about how to understand what happened rather than disputes about historical facts. Most of the action in historical controversy is about how properly to understand the character and importance of what happened in relationship to the rest of history.
An illustrative case involving the Catholic Church is the controversy over Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. Historians who point out that Pius XII issued no clarion public condemnations of Nazism or defenses of Jews during World War II make an accurate claim. If we approach this fact with censure—inclined not to try to understand but to judge and condemn—then this “silence” of the pope appears damning.
But if we explore the context within which that silence took place, we discover that in July 1942 the Dutch bishops did issue a public protest against Nazi treatment of Jews in the occupied Netherlands. In response, the Germans intensified their extermination efforts, extending their pogrom to Jewish converts to Christianity. (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, exiled in a Dutch convent, was one casualty of this reprisal.) The public protest did not discernibly aid or protect a single Jew, but it did provoke further depredations against them. Vatican documentation has revealed that this event was a major influence on the pope’s decision not to issue public denunciations of Nazi practices.
We discover further that, while Pius XII was refraining from public statements he was simultaneously and privately encouraging Church personnel to do what they could to save Jews. (This is one detail that the otherwise excellent miniseries The Scarlet and the Black got wrong. For the fascinating story of Vatican involvement in anti-Nazi, pro-Jew activities, see Mark Riebling’s Church of Spies.)
With these vital pieces of context in place, the “failure” of the pope to speak out against Nazism and the Holocaust appears in an entirely different light. Interpretation of the episode shifts from suspicion about Pius’s motives (Anti-Semitism? Cowardice?) to admiration for his prudence in seeking the most effective way to help people in danger, disregarding the risk to his own public reputation.
Appreciating context, generally speaking, adds complexity to the narrative of race in American history. Attempts to tell simple morality tales populated by heroes and villains founder on the shoals of historical reality. Depicting a “good” North versus a “bad” South glosses over the facts that slavery was also practiced in northern colonies and states; that large sections of the South and its people were not slaveholding and were politically and culturally opposed to the slave interests; and that, in the twentieth century, Jim Crow and other forms of racial discrimination were at least as vicious across much of the North as they were in the South.
Spinning a narrative of “white privilege” versus “black victimhood” ignores the larger story of slavery, whereby many Africans were willing participants in the slave trade, capturing and subjecting fellow Africans; the incredible strides made by millions of black Americans in the face of discrimination; the challenges faced, the diverse responses offered, and the varying success achieved by other racial/ethnic groups such as Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans (not to mention the complexity of “whiteness” in an American culture successively absorbing, inter alia, Irish, east European Jews, and Italians); and the numerous other important dividing lines that crisscross and shape the character of American society: religion, family structure, politics, economic class, education, and so on.
The story of race and its lessons are not simple. Those who study them should be prepared to have preconceptions challenged.
A Catholic View of Race
With this methodological foundation in place, we now return to our original question: How should Catholics view race in American history? The first thing to get right is our view of race itself. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine states, “Any theory or form whatsoever of racism and racial discrimination is morally unacceptable” (#433). That much is clear enough. But beyond eschewing racism, we should look with skepticism on the very concept of race. It is less an objective biological criterion than a human construct used most commonly as a tool for self-aggrandizement. Character, personality traits, beliefs, and cultural influences are constitutive parts of the human person. In Christian anthropology, creation in the image of God, bodily existence, intelligence, and will are essential. In contrast, few things matter less than skin color. For those who profess a Church that is “one” and “catholic,” any concession to racial division should be anathema.
But we all know that race is important; indeed, it has played an enormous role in American history. Race is properly understood as one of the ideas that has shaped human experience. Even though it doesn’t capture anything essential about a human being, it is a powerful concept with the capacity to differentiate and divide. As Shelby Steele has incisively observed, “The allure of race as a human delineation is the very shallowness of the delineation it makes.” Race can be used to elevate those who deserve worse and degrade those who deserve better.
So it will not do to ignore the impact of racial ideas in American history, and Catholics have been part of that history. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age … are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ,” the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World begins, and the Church “realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.”
The history of American Catholics and race is a vivid illustration of these lines from Gaudium et Spes. The record of the Church is, like almost everything else in history, a mixed bag. Although popes had repeatedly condemned slavery and forbidden the enslavement of colonized peoples in the Americas and Africa, Catholics in the slave-owning regions of the United States participated in the institution much like their non-Catholic counterparts. (This included religious orders, some of which are now trying to atone for this past.) Few bishops defended slavery outright, and most viewed it as a deplorable institution, but in the antebellum era northern and southern bishops alike were more concerned with navigating the predominantly Protestant culture and denouncing discrimination against Catholics than with advocating abolitionism (a movement that often displayed an anti-Catholic streak). Much like their fellow Americans, some white Catholics were solicitous toward the needs of free and enslaved blacks, some exhibited prejudice or racism, and most were indifferent.
Black Catholics were part of American Catholicism from the start. Many slaves converted to Christianity—which sometimes meant Catholicism, especially in predominantly Catholic areas such as Louisiana. There were also free blacks, often from Caribbean backgrounds. Venerable Pierre Toussaint, a former slave from Haiti, was a prominent figure in New York Catholicism in the early nineteenth century. Another Haitian transplant, Servant of God Mary Lange, was instrumental in founding the Oblate Sisters of Providence in the 1820s, a congregation composed of women of African descent whose purpose was the education of black girls.
Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many black Catholic institutions were founded, including schools, universities, seminaries, and parishes. St. Katharine Drexel provided funding for many of these endeavors. Even so, there were differences of opinions among both white and black Catholics as to whether black Catholics were better served in separate “black” parishes or as members of integrated territorial parishes. Although the debate had unique elements in the racial context of the United States, it largely mirrored similar questions involving ethnic groups such as Italians and Poles.
Catholic opinion during the Civil Rights Movement was similarly divided. Priests and nuns were prominent participants in marches and protests, but these activists still represented a small minority of Catholic religious. Yet, increasingly forthright and vocal criticism of racist views by Catholic leadership had an impact. In one especially intense episode, Archbishop Rummel of New Orleans integrated the archdiocesan Catholic schools in the face of intense opposition from some of the faithful. The feud culminated in the excommunication of a small group of publicly intransigent Catholics.
American Catholic views, like those of most Americans, have continued to evolve. White Catholics have become more sensitive and averse to racial discrimination. Among black and white Catholics alike, there are strong differences of opinion concerning how important race is (or should be) in contemporary life and what kinds of ecclesial and governmental policies are most promising in the quest to improve race relations.
As on other issues, Catholics are tempted by the nearly irresistible force of American political culture to identify with “liberal” or “conservative” approaches to race. Regarding history, the tendency is to fall either into censure, as described above, or naïve patriotism, which minimizes the impact of race in history and ignores its contemporary fallout.
Those seeking the truth of the matter rather than political gain should avoid both errors. One of American Catholicism’s most penetrating contemporary writers on race, Ismael Hernandez, describes the way in which the past can be taken into account without overburdening the future. “A balanced approach that values what we can discover about the effects of antecedent factors while acknowledging personal responsibility is essential for racial progress,” he writes in Not Tragically Colored. “Antecedent factors may have a powerful formative effect, but they do not have absolute binding power over the human person; if they do, morality is nonsense.”
In other words, no matter how powerful or long-lasting its historical effect, race is not destiny. It behooves us to understand the country’s racial record, because it goes a long way toward explaining contemporary culture, economics, and politics. But we shouldn’t let that divisive past poison the present.
American Catholics should be especially disposed to appreciate the point. American history is tainted by a deep and damaging strain of anti-Catholicism. Our ancestors were discriminated against and were sometimes the victims of physical violence. And animus against Catholicism has not disappeared. Yet, the American experience for Catholics has also been characterized by extraordinary opportunity and religious freedom. We should be cognizant of the liabilities of American culture from a Catholic perspective, and at the same time grateful for the assets afforded by the American experiment and our forebears’ achievements in making use of them.
Catholics also know that human bondage, however degrading, is not the worst evil to afflict the human race. All people of every race are “slaves to sin,” unless we are “set free” by the saving power of Jesus Christ’s victory over sin and death (Rom 6:17–18). Spiritual bondage is always a danger, no matter how successfully we stamp out slavery and racial discrimination. Freedom, salvation, and eternal life are open to all, regardless of race. This good news always outweighs the bad news of human oppression and division and inoculates us against the virus of despair in the face the seemingly ineradicable “race problem.”
American Catholics can look into our own past for a model of a balanced approach to race. As others have noted, the life of Venerable Augustus Tolton presents an ideal worthy of emulation. As a young boy, Father Tolton escaped slavery with his family, but he continued to face harsh discrimination from white Americans, including Catholics, throughout the rest of his life. “Good Father Gus” almost never came to be, because no American seminary would accept the young black man from Illinois. After study and ordination in Rome, Father Tolton returned to the “mission field” of black America, where he continued to confront hostility from many parishioners and even fellow priests.
He didn’t pretend that racism wasn’t real, for he experienced it firsthand. Nor did he submit obsequiously to the indignities he encountered. When he deemed that opposition in his own diocese had become too intense and compromised his ministry, he sought and was granted transfer to the Diocese of Chicago where he could more effectively serve the Church and her people.
But he never succumbed to victimhood, nor did he ever embrace censure or despair at the expense of gratitude. “Above all,” he announced during his first Mass back in Illinois, “I want to thank my mother,” the woman who courageously led her family out of slavery by a daring escape. He was also grateful to priests who had befriended him and encouraged his vocation. “I was a poor slave boy,” he reflected, “but the priests of the Church did not disdain me.” It was those same priests, he recalled, “who taught me to pray and to forgive my persecutors.”
Similarly, the sisters who had taught him catechism deserved thanks, for they had introduced him to “the glimmering truth and majesty of the Church.” He was grateful for this experience at the College of the Propaganda Fide in Rome, where he discovered that the Catholic Church was composed of peoples from all nations. The seminary’s diverse group of seminarians were treated as equals: “The Church which knows and makes no distinctions in race and color had called them all.” Father Tolton endured insults, discrimination, and hostility from many Catholics, but he didn’t let those experiences overshadow the goodness he also witnessed.
Augustus Tolton favored mercy over condemnation, kept in mind the context of American Catholic prejudice—rooted in American culture, resisted by the priests and sisters who formed him, and in tension with the catholicity of the universal Church—and clung to faith in the liberating power of Jesus Christ. By so doing, he maintained his equanimity amidst the surrounding tumult. American Catholics striving to understand and improve race relations should do the same.
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