[The seventh in a series on inclusiveness.]
The Catholic view of the world has lasted a long time and supported many good things, so the Catholic view of antidiscrimination and inclusiveness ought to matter to anyone interested in those topics.
But what is “the Catholic view”? The phrase can refer to anything from the view that best fits the overall Catholic understanding of the world to the average view of all Catholics at a particular time and place. As a day-to-day matter, people mostly take it to be the view expressed by Catholic functionaries. If the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops puts out a statement, that’s the Catholic position.
Day-to-day pronouncements by Church officials on discrimination and related issues often seem generally consistent with the advanced liberal view. That view takes the lead, and situations where Catholic doctrines and traditions make deviations necessary are played down. Or so it seems.
The advanced liberal view, of course, is that racism and other forms of bigotry and exclusion, which include any concern by the majority population for its own identity, culture, and interests, is pervasive, shameful, destructive, and evil, and fighting it in all its forms is a fundamental social and moral imperative. The effect is that the dominance of any particular kind of person—and therefore the authority of any particular people, culture, or family form—must be destroyed in every setting as a matter of simple justice.
But does such a view fit the Catholic view of the world? Is there something wrong with the existence of inherited practices and cultures associated with particular peoples and authoritative in particular settings? Do they all have to be disrupted and rendered nonfunctional in the interests of equality?
Such propositions seem bizarre. As I’ve argued in this series, the advanced liberal view is based much more on the interests, concerns, and preconceptions of Western ruling elites than on serious moral and social thought—which would include what’s normally found in authoritative statements of Church teaching.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the view operative among Church officials should sometimes align with the interests of secular ruling elites. When those elites claim to stand for the interests of the disadvantaged their views can become quite seductive. And when they claim to embody reason and progress as well as irresistible power, even well-intentioned people may find it hard to oppose them. Who wants to fight against a future that is both inevitable and better than what we have now?
Perhaps in response to such influences, the way Catholic bishops and other spokesmen for the Church talk about political and social issues has changed over the years. As the Church modernized, centralized, and bureaucratized after Vatican II pronouncements by bishops (and professional staff) have tended to draw less on Church tradition and more on what amounts to the outlook of functionaries in a centralized welfare state. They have become more pleasing to today’s New York Times, but perhaps less consonant with Catholic thought as a whole.
A further trend that has confused matters is that since Vatican II the Church has made great efforts to engage the world by emphasizing points of agreement and using the world’s language—expressions like “rights” (scroll down for a discussion) and “discrimination”—to express its own thoughts. Many have asked whether the effect has been to communicate or to obfuscate the Church’s actual positions. Even when the substance of a pronouncement is at odds with anything The New York Times might say, as it most often is, the differences often seem less important than they should.
So bishops and bishops’ conferences can’t always be relied on for a clear statement of Catholic teaching, and even papal pronouncements can be misleading. But if that’s so, where do you look? It’s an awkward question, since the hierarchy are authorized interpreters of Catholic belief, and I (like many others) am not. Life poses awkward questions, though, and in any event Catholicism doesn’t claim to make thought unnecessary. Rather, it claims to make it possible and productive by revealing man and the world in their basic principles.
Catholics believe simply as Catholics that authoritative Church statements—e.g., statements from popes and general councils that are intended to establish a particular teaching—are reliable. Since the Church is generally very careful when it makes general statements intended to be authoritative, those statements should be of interest to non-Catholics as well. Intelligent and responsible men who care about the long-term effects of what they say have thought them through.
At that high level, there aren’t a lot of clear general statements about discrimination and related topics. That’s not surprising, since most statements about those topics by anyone anywhere are indefinite, specialized, contradictory, tendentious, or mindlessly dogmatic. It’s to the Church’s credit that it has said so little on the subject that is authoritative for Catholics. Human distinctions and societies are infinitely varied and complex, so worthwhile categorical statements are hard to come by, and the ones that are made are often of low intellectual quality.
In general, though, the view evident in authoritative Church statements is that race, culture, religion, sex, and so on do not determine human worth, and have often been applied abusively, but are nonetheless legitimate human distinctions that can legitimately affect how we treat people. If that’s the conclusion, it doesn’t lend much support to the advanced liberal view or the current antidiscrimination regime.
The most basic statements, of course, are found in the Bible, and here the part everyone refers to is Galatians 3:28:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
People often treat those words as if they were a manifesto for contemporary left-wing egalitarianism. They aren’t.
Paul’s making a point about the unity of Christians. He makes that point as forcefully as possible by saying that it trumps the most basic human distinctions. So the claim that he’s saying there’s something specially wrong about distinguishing people by race, class, and gender (as compared with other distinctions) can’t possibly be right. To the contrary, he’s implying that race, class, and gender are the distinctions that are most enduringly important—if they weren’t he would have mentioned the other more important distinctions instead.
He’s saying, of course, that the trio don’t affect ultimate human worth, but the same is true a fortiori of other less basic distinctions. So the verse lends no support to the view that there’s something specially toxic about different treatment based on distinctions like sex and ancestry.
On that practical day-to-day point, I Timothy 5:8 is more relevant:
“But if any man have not care of his own, and especially of those of his house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.”
Particular connections matter, and charity begins at home.
Moving forward 1900 years, the most comprehensive, authoritative, and relevant nonscriptural statement relating to discrimination and equality is probably section 29 of Gaudium et Spes, one of the documents of the Second Vatican Council:
“The basic equality of all must receive increasingly greater recognition … With respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent … fundamental personal rights are still not being universally honored….
“Therefore, although rightful differences exist between men, the equal dignity of persons demands that a more humane and just condition of life be brought about. For excessive economic and social differences between the members of the one human family or population groups cause scandal, and militate against social justice, equity, the dignity of the human person, as well as social and international peace.”
So the Church opposes discrimination with respect to fundamental rights based on sex, race, and indeed anything whatever. It also favors basic equality and opposes excessive inequalities while recognizing rightful differences.
People often talk as if those principles support antidiscrimination and inclusiveness as currently understood. They obviously don’t. Not all inequalities are excessive, and if something is a fundamental right of the person, then we have it just by being persons regardless of what else we might be. We have it if we are men or women, and also if we are illiterate laborers, Tahitian bodybuilders, Catholic archbishops, or any other social condition. In each case we have an equal right not to be robbed or murdered, to a fair trial if someone’s going to toss us in the clink, and to many other things.
We obviously don’t have to be treated the same in all respects. There exist, as the Council Fathers note, rightful differences. To all appearances, then, race, culture, sex, religion, and the like remain for the Church real human distinctions that can have legitimate effects just as other human distinctions can.
The point comes out most clearly with regard to the position of women. Women can’t be discriminated against with regard to fundamental rights, and
“access to employment and to professions must be open to all without unjust discrimination: men and women, healthy and disabled, natives and immigrants.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2433)
Nonetheless, women can’t be priests. That’s not an unjust discrimination. Nor is the restriction of the ordained priesthood to men some strange rule that’s at odds with everything else that’s right and good in human relations. The Church recognizes that
“women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive.” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 99)
So “equality” and “nondiscrimination” don’t mean there’s no difference in the function and social position of the sexes. Indeed, the Church insists on the contrary:
“The Church can and should help modern society by tirelessly insisting that the work of women in the home be recognized and respected by all in its irreplaceable value … Possible discrimination between the different types of work and professions is eliminated at its very root once it is clear that all people, in every area, are working with equal rights and equal responsibilities … Society must be structured in such a way that wives and mothers are not in practice compelled to work outside the home, and that their families can live and prosper in a dignified way even when they themselves devote their full time to their own family … Furthermore, the mentality which honors women more for their work outside the home than for their work within the family must be overcome.” (Familiaris Consortio, n. 23)
So the kind of discrimination the Church opposes is very different from the kind the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids. What it means by “discrimination” is not difference in treatment as such but abusive discrimination that does not serve the common good or respect those subject to it. Promoting recognition of a distinction in function between the sexes is not that kind of discrimination, and in fact is a good idea that we should all favor.
The Church, then, doesn’t support anything like what is normally called feminism. From an actual feminist point of view, it’s incurably sexist. And from a Catholic point of view, actual feminism is wrong. That’s why in Evangelium Vitae John Paul II called for a “new feminism” that would respect the “true genius of women.”
Liberals consider such statements evidence of the incoherence of an official Catholic position that both favors and opposes “discrimination.” What they show instead is that the Church doesn’t agree with liberals on equality issues, even though it tends at present (wisely or unwisely) to use similar words.
Ethnic and similar discrimination
The evidence as to discrimination related to ethnicity and culture is less specific, but the same principles evidently apply. The Church says it’s against “racism,” which has an extremely broad meaning in public discussion today. Nonetheless, Christianity is not Islam, which merges the nations into a single Ummah conforming to a single law. Perhaps for that reason, the Bible accepts the existence of different peoples as normal and legitimate. It’s OK from a Catholic perspective for Jews and Poles, and Israel and Poland, to exist and function, each in a distinctive way, even though their existence and functioning requires distinctions, boundaries, line-drawing, and exclusions, and even though ethnic loyalty and nationalism sometimes lead to abuses.
More generally, Pope Pius XII noted that
“There exists an order established by God, which requires a more intense love and a preferential good done to those people that are joined to us by special ties. Even our Lord has given the example of this preference towards the country, when He cries on the destruction of Jerusalem.” (Cited here, ultimate source not yet identified.)
That view is solidly supported by Thomas Aquinas:
“Man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one’s parents and one’s country.
“The worship due to our parents includes the worship given to all our kindred, since our kinsfolk are those who descend from the same parents … The worship given to our country includes homage to all our fellow-citizens and to all the friends of our country.” (Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 101, Article 1)
So blood ties, including extended blood ties and communal ties generally, are entirely legitimate. It’s wrong to ignore them. Saint Thomas also notes that after duties toward God, we owe most to those to whom we are most closely connected, notably including parents and other blood relatives. See Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 26, Articles 6-8.
So the Church recognizes that it’s right to have a preferential option for your own people. In other words, it accepts that some degree of discrimination based on ties like blood and culture is normal and good.
The point is strengthened by the very high value placed on particular community and culture, including national community and culture:
“By receiving and inheriting faith and the values and elements that make up the culture of your society and the history of your nation, each one of you is spiritually endowed in your individual humanity. Here we come back to the parable of the talents, the talents which we receive from the Creator through our parents and families, and also through the national community to which we belong.” (Apostolic Letter Dilecti Amici, n. 11)
“Man is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes towards the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work and death. At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence.” (Centesimus Annus, n. 24)
If particular cultures and national communities have such importance for the way we become human and connect to God, then an understanding of diversity and inclusion that abolishes legitimate boundaries between them and so makes them nonfunctional can’t be acceptable, and multiculturalism, which deprives every culture of any setting of its own in which it can function as authoritative, must be wrong.
It’s evident, then, that the Catholic view of issues such as ethnic distinctions is not at all the same as the advanced liberal view. From the former standpoint, actions necessary or helpful in maintaining the identity and functionality of national or ethnic cultures are in general OK and indeed praiseworthy, as long as they don’t involve contempt and abuse for other people.
There’s no reason that principle should apply to aboriginal or minority cultures but not others, and it appears to apply quite generally. After all, in a globalized world every culture and people is an endangered minority with an identity and specific way of functioning that is threatened by current trends.
It is therefore relevant that John Paul II noted in Dilecti Amici, addressing the youth of the world:
“In regard to this inheritance [of faith, culture, and national history] we cannot maintain a passive attitude, still less a defeatist one … We must do everything we can to accept this spiritual inheritance, to confirm it, maintain it and increase it. This is an important task for all societies, especially perhaps for those that find themselves at the beginning of their independent existence, or for those that must defend from the danger of destruction from outside or of decay from within the very existence and essential identity of the particular nation.”
It’s obvious that such statements are relevant to issues relating to immigration, diversity, and inclusion, and they don’t favor the liberal position. The Catholic view provides a useful background for realistic discussion of such issues, and its implications are not necessarily what they are thought to be.