It has become fashionable in some Roman Catholic circles to attack critical race theory as if it were an overarching ideology that threatens to destroy the Church, the university, and society as a whole. . These attacks risk plunging the Church into a divisive culture war instead of inviting us to reflect on racism as a form of social evil that Pope John Paul II called “structures of sin.”
Critical Race Theory is a bogeyman constructed by some people to define the political enemy in the ongoing culture war in the United States. Since the 1960s, the culture war has been a means of mobilizing people at the extremes of the political spectrum – those on the left and right who are already politically motivated and who seek opportunities to take a stand on social and cultural issues.
Unfortunately, the American culture war too often sets the tone and terms of the Church’s engagement in America and Canada on important social issues, including racial justice.
In the legal field, critical race theory attempts to uncover how systemic racism has become embedded in American laws and institutions, and how those laws and institutions continue to promote racial inequality. Its intellectual founders were 1970s lawyers, jurists, and civil rights activists deeply concerned about the lack of progress on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States.
In the early 2000s, a group of scholars, including scholars from various academic disciplines, argued that culture in the United States could never completely change if laws and institutions continued to promote racial injustice, even in the absence of overt racial hatred or segregationist laws like Jim Crow.
There is nothing immeasurable about Catholicism and critical race theory’s attempt to identify and transform structural injustices in our laws or institutions. In accordance with the condemnation of racism by the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium and Spes number 29, Nostra Aetate number 5, for example), popes, pontifical commissions and episcopal conferences have condemned racism in all its forms.
Moreover, Pope John Paul II, in his 1987 encyclical Solicitudo Rei Socialis (“The Social Concern of the Church”), says that it is appropriate to speak of “structures of sin”, which “reinforce themselves, spread and become the source of other sins, and thus influence the behavior of people” .
He writes: “’Sin’ and ‘structures of sin’ are categories rarely applied to the situation of the contemporary world. However, one cannot easily gain a deep understanding of the reality we face if we do not give a name to the root of the evils that afflict us.
This official position is enshrined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In other words, Catholics should not hesitate to label systemic racism a “structural sin” and an “evil”. Nor should we shy away from asking ourselves whether we have benefited from the harms of racism even if we hold no grudges against people of color or Indigenous peoples. If we don’t engage in this critical self-reflection, we will continue to participate in the collective blindness that allows the sin of racism to fester.
Much of the current backlash against critical race theory is tied to the 2020 deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African Americans at the hands of police and former police officers in the United States. Many have asked legitimate questions about the role of racism in policing methods, including detentions, “no knock” warrants and racial profiling in traffic stops. Universities have played their part as a place where society can engage in difficult discussions about racial bias, not just in policing, but in all of our major institutions.
In Catholic universities in Canada, we have framed these initiatives not in terms of critical race theory, but in terms of Catholic social teaching. While sensitive to the issue of anti-black racism and discrimination against people of color, we also address racism directed at Indigenous peoples, including victims of the racist residential school system run in part by the Catholic Church. Our commitment to Catholic social teaching means that we assume that humans are created with inviolable human dignity, that we belong in community, that the gospel calls us to give preference to the poor and marginalized, and that in the midst of our diversity we are committed to solidarity.
No theory is perfect. But if critical race theory opens our eyes to hidden, systemic forms of racism, if it makes us more faithful followers of Christ, we should embrace it, use it, and avoid engaging in war. culture that serves neither the Church nor society.
(Scott Kline is an associate professor at St. Jerome’s University and currently a visiting researcher in ethics at St. Mark’s College and Providence Healthcare in Vancouver. David Seljak is a professor at St. Jerome’s and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Waterloo.)