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If the George Floyd riots have taught us anything as Catholics, it’s that the Catholic discourse on race is severely lacking. It seems as though over the course of just a few weeks, with little to no resistance from the conservative Catholic media, the underlying premises of Black Lives Matter have become the default position on race for mainstream Catholicism. Part of why this is the case, I suspect, is because unlike issues such as homosexuality and abortion there does not seem to be a clear and definitive Magisterial formula to adjudicate issues pertaining to racial conflict. To average faithful Catholics, this makes them especially susceptible to cultural and social institutions who are bent on pressuring them into anti-racist activism. For Catholics who have a left-leaning ideological ax to grind, this magisterial ambiguity is weaponized to presume a natural alliance between, say, Catholic Social Teaching and the ideological wish-list of Black Lives Matter. Because their ideological commitment to anti-racism, which never refers to a broad desire for racial harmony but is always defined antagonistically toward whites in particular, is propped up and defended by the public orthodoxy, a Catholic who rightly feels uneasy with the shameless baptism of critical race theory we are seeing in Catholic media would likely find it difficult to effectively challenge their assumptions by appealing to the Magisterium themselves. For that reason, it is necessary to set the record straight on what precisely the Magisterium has to say about the value of race in a just human society.
In order to make sense of what the Magisterium has to say about the value of race, however, we should first establish a sensible conception of the ontological status of race as such. That racial differences are not reducible to social constructions should be uncontroversial for any devotee of scholastic philosophy, really. The soul, as per the Council of Vienne, is not a Cartesian ghost-in-a-machine but is the form, or immanent active principle, of the body. Because of this, hereditary characteristics that are passed on generationally diversify according to the disposition of matter receptive to the soul. Those material dispositions will therefore modify how the soul and its faculties, psychic and otherwise, will be expressed in concrete existing individual persons. One does not even have to appeal to experimental genetic science to establish a thoroughly Catholic philosophical framework to account for this. To imply otherwise would be to drive a wedge between the intimate unity of soul and body the Church has repeatedly insisted upon. Now what is true for the individual can also be applied to group dynamics, as is explicitly affirmed by Pope Pius XII in his Address to the International Society for Blood Transfusion, and this only follows logically from what has already been established. The more proximately related the group, the more similar their heritable material dispositions will be, and the more remotely related the group, the more dissimilar their heritable material dispositions will be. Not only can acknowledging the diversity and dignity of races be defended on the grounds of scholastic philosophy, it is also backed by the Magisterium itself. In the very encyclical where Pope Pius XI condemns the race idolatry of the Third Reich, he explicitly acknowledges in no uncertain terms the inherent value of race to the common good,
“Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community – however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things – whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the word planned and created by God” (Pope Pius XI, Mit brennender Sorge).
Thus here we have encoded within the cells of the Magisterium itself a recognition that race not only has extramental existence, albeit as an emergent property, but that it is a fundamental value to the human community. And if it is to be counted among the fundamental values of the human community then this necessarily implies the right to preserve and defend it as such. As South African theologian Fr. P Bonaventura Hinwood in his treatise Race: the Reflections of a Theologian has put it, explicating the wisdom of Pius XI,
“Since being and goodness are convertible, race, like any other human factor not inherently vitiated by error or evil, being a positive good, has the right to existence and identity. But race is not an end in itself, because it exists for the enriching of mankind, to which it is subordinate, and so necessarily relative. It is not, therefore, the immediate cause of the rights which accrue to it, but the occasion of them, for the sake of mankind as a whole. The fullness of which will be enhanced by these particular racial potentialities being brought to maturity. Since mankind has a right not to be mutilated by the violent destruction of any race, it is licit for a person even to lay down his life for the conservation of his race.”
Now if one’s immediate response is to write this off as the irrelevant ramblings of an obscure theologian, he is simply echoing the sentiments of what Popes Pius XII and John XXIII have said on the matter. In Pius XII’s encyclical Summi pontificatus, which was quoted by John XXIII’s Mater et magistra, he says, immediately following his explicit praise of national pride in one’s heritage,
“The Church readily approves of, and follows with her maternal blessing, all regulations and practical efforts that, in the spirit of wisdom and moderation, lead to the evolution and increase of the potentialities and powers which spring from the hidden sources of life of each race. She does, however, lay down one provision, namely, that these regulations and efforts must not clash with the duties incumbent on all men in virtue of the common origin and destiny of all mankind” (Pope Pius XII, Summi pontificatus).
Thus, quite far from the narrative proposed by left-wing pseudo-integralists that the Magisterium only chimes in on the question of race in order to condemn racism, what we have here are positive affirmations about race concerning not only its ontic nature but also its status within the hierarchy of social values in a just human society. Not only does the Magisterium under Pius XI, Pius XII, and John XXIII recognize the ontological status of race as a real emergent property recognizable in nature under the guiding hand of Divine Providence, but these Popes also recognize an intrinsic dignity to the diversity of races and the unique innate potentialities each race contributes to humanity spread all around the globe. Because of these unique innate potentialities, which, as Fr. Hinwood points out, vary among races across biological, psychic, cultural, and social dimensions of human life, civil society has a vested interest in ensuring and safeguarding the right for each race to preserve its existence; to foster environments in which each race can cultivate the flourishing of their unique potentialities, in a manner commensurate with the historic ethnic and cultural fabric of whichever nations they find themselves in. This is but a logical consequence of the Magisterium designating race as a fundamental value to be cherished within the due limits of the broader hierarchy of social values such as religion, the family, culture, economy, etc. It should not be difficult to, therefore, conclude from this that a nation with a historic racial and ethnic core should feel perfectly safe within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy to favor political measures that would ensure the preservation of that racial and ethnic core. Nor does Pius XI’s Instruction against Racism in any way run counter to what has been said. As Fr. Hinwood points out, the condemned propositions as implicitly recognized by Pius XI himself fully leave open for Catholics to hold to “the value or right of conserving the vigor of the race and the purity of its blood within the limits of the moral order”, as well as ”the cultivation of a balanced love of one’s race as among the many good things of creation with its proper place in the hierarchy of values.”.
What is condemned in these propositions is an exaggerated focus on race as the primary source of value within a society that would be defended at all costs even at the cost of the society’s moral integrity. It is also true that the Church condemns any lack of charity towards another person on the basis of race as well as the deprivation of due goods in the order of distributive justice on the basis of race, and it was, as Fr. Hinwood observes, to this end, for example, that Archbishop Rummel excommunicated the Citizens Council for interfering with his move to lift the imposed segregation of his Archdiocese of New Orleans. It was a prudential measure taken to ensure, in his mind, the prioritization of spiritual before material concerns applied to a particular historical context that happened to demand such an action. But given the magisterial statements quoted above, such papal condemnations nevertheless presuppose an intrinsic value to race as such which is along with all social values that are good in themselves susceptible to an idolatrous elevation. The Magisterium, for example, will condemn the idolization of wealth or sexuality but implicit in this type of condemnation is a recognition of the intrinsic dignity to these things that are being taken out of their proper order and thereby defiled.
Even in cases where there is a demonstrable violation of the moral law on part of a racial majority over a racial minority, the Church still demands an attitude of restraint, charity, and moral uprightness on part of the minority toward the rightful majority. Pope Leo XIII expressed this much in his encyclical In plurimis which is the very encyclical where he unequivocally condemns the institution of chattel slavery as a grave evil demanding of restorative justice. To those slaves who had just been emancipated or even to slaves still awaiting emancipation, Leo XIII warned against any temptations to violently agitate those who held power even if their exercise of power upon them was manifestly unjust. They were to remain free from envy, obedient to the laws, and even to show gratitude to their emancipators (In plurimis 22). If this was the Pope’s expectation for people suffering what could truly be called at the time systemic racism, how much more would this apply today? This is a time where the only concrete setbacks experienced by blacks in the United States today are inequities of outcome, all while receiving overwhelming and unwavering institutional support from virtually every corporate, cultural and governmental body. It should also be noted, of course, that clerics and even Popes are not endowed with the charism to discern whether or not, in fact, systemic racial discrimination is actually happening in a given land, so recent statements about systemic anti-black racism in the United States cannot constitute magisterial evidence to the contrary of what has been said.
The Church, therefore, condemns not only the biological materialism that would elevate race over and against the spiritual unity that binds all mankind in the Mystical Body of Christ in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek”, but also condemns a hyper-spiritualization of mankind that would erase the psychic, moral, cultural, ethnic, and racial distinctions of mankind over whose cultivation and flourishing Divine Providence has seen fit to oversee. Therefore, appealing to the Church’s universality as a justification of critical race theory is absurd and violates both the letter and spirit of the papal Magisterium of the Catholic Church. The Church as the Light of the Nations is meant to bring all distinct nations into harmony under one faith, one Lord, and one baptism, not under one blended tongue, culture and race. This includes, as per Pius XII, the racial fabric of these nations with their unique potentialities, into that harmony under one the One True Faith. The unity of the Church as a Body composed of diverse members ought to respect the diversity of those members precisely in their distinction. The unity of Christian brotherhood is not an undifferentiated unity, but insofar as race is concerned this unity is best served in the rightful ordering of these diverse members among themselves, which must include the preservation and cultivation of each diverse racial identity so that they can flourish as themselves in their own proper modes of existence, unmolested. Only insofar as diverse members of a unity are rightly ordered among themselves in the manner described above can they fully partake of the perfective unity of the whole, and it is for this outcome we must pray.
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