On the Question of Racism
G. K. Chesterton says that every heresy is the exaggeration of one point of Catholic doctrine to the detriment of other truths. In this sense, liberal egalitarianism, which is the belief in a uniform equality of all individuals and peoples, can really be called a Christian heresy. It takes an element of truth out of context and stands it on its own. As such it is an error of defect, which understates human differences, just as racism, an error of excess, exaggerates these same differences.
To set the discussion of equality in its proper context, one must recall that prior to Christianity, no civilization acknowledged egalitarianism. Clear social distinctions, inclusive of slavery, were universal—be it in Europe, Africa or Asia. In ancient Greece and Rome, the majority of slaves were of the same racial background (for instance, European barbarians captured in battle) but it was still slavery nonetheless. Considering the historical presence of slavery, modern neo-pagans should note such facts when contending that the arrival of our religion "ruined" some pristine New Age Eden. Similarly one finds that slavery and the harshest class systems are still to be met with in non-Christian areas of Africa and India.
As against pre-Christian views, which could treat whole classes of men as chattel, the Church taught that all men and women were morally equal. Every person had the same opportunity, and the same right, to salvation. Concomitant with this was equal access to the things necessary to personal sanctification. But this spiritual equality was never a denial of natural differences or social hierarchy. It can be seen how the ameliorative effect of Christianity gradually transformed existing institutions to give rise to a new social order. The slaves of late Rome evolved into the serfs of the early Middle Ages and finally the independent yeomen of the later Middle Ages, under the continuous moral and political pressure of Christian doctrine. Obviously, there were exceptions and anomalies. Such is the fallen nature of man that confronts us in every generation.
A precise definition of racism is important, since it is a word that is even more misunderstood than egalitarianism. According to the Dictionary of Moral Theology:
Racism is a doctrine which asserts that race is the essential and initial factor in man's refinement and in the historical and cultural evolution of all peoples.1
What is condemned by traditional theologians is not the recognition of "psychic and morphological differences between races" but the idea that posits something other than Jesus Christ and His Church as the basis of human culture. Every person has a soul worth saving, and baptism puts us all on a level playing field as far as spiritual and moral potential are concerned. Therefore, by stripping the word "racism" of its contemporary emotional baggage, it becomes clear that this race-based outlook, in its strictest sense, means more than just crude bigotry. It is a fundamentally materialist view of creation. Thus there cannot be a "good" form of racism any more than there can be a "benign" form of socialism.
As regards anthropological and genetic findings, the Church passes no judgment on scientific inquiries into race so long as they do not stray from the role of empirical observation and pass into ethical matters beyond their purview. Given the continually shifting views of scientific "doctrine" such an attitude is judicious. At one time racial diversity was held to be mainly the product of environment. In more recent generations, scientific hypotheses have favored genetics. Yet the latest findings suggest that genetics can actually be influenced by repetitive behavior. But whatever the cause of observable physical variations, the fundamental Catholic belief, as to the primacy of spirit and rejection of materialism-racism or egalitarianism-remains inalterable. This is because we are all descended from the same first parents. In this respect science actually comes to the rescue of traditional theology, positing that all human beings are related to a single common female ancestor (i.e. Eve), thereby vindicating the Biblical account of human genesis.
Slavery, which had been successfully suppressed with the growth of Christian Europe, saw an unfortunate reprise during the Renaissance. This was due to two factors. First were the wars against the Turks, in which both sides enslaved captives for use on the galleys in naval combat. Turkish slaves did, however, have recourse to baptism, in which case they had to be freed. The second factor was the Age of Exploration, beginning in the late 15th century. What made this slave institution different from the ancient model is that the enslaved were now exclusively of a different race, rounded up and placed in captivity solely for servile labor (unlike Turks who were simply prisoners of war). During the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the New World, Indian and Negro enslavement was widespread, though it was constantly opposed by the Church, with varying degrees of success.
Clearly there were shortcomings amongst individual Catholics. But to hold the Faith responsible for such disappointments is like blaming Moses for the failure of the Hebrews to obey the Ten Commandments. If Catholics have tried and occasionally failed, more can be said for them than for those who never tried at all. As noted above, no culture prior to Christianity recognized slavery as a sin. As early as 1462, Pope Pius II called slavery a "great crime" and pontiffs continued to inveigh against the institution through the reign of Leo XIII in the late 19th century. It was under him that the last instance of slavery in a Catholic country (Brazil) was peacefully eliminated in the 1880s. It is interesting to contrast this with the bloody and destructive end of slavery in the South during the American Civil War, which cost nearly a million casualties. Even where slavery existed in the Spanish colonies, it was always more of an economic institution rather than a racial one, since marriage between different races was common and did not carry the stigma it did in Protestant lands. Also, in the 1700s, American blacks frequently escaped from their masters in Georgia and the Carolinas to find refuge as free men in Spanish Florida. Some of these served as uniformed soldiers in the frontier posts.
Like many errors of our age, the problem of racism is wrongly attributed to traditional Christian culture. On the contrary, historian George L. Mosse explains that it is a relatively recent development in Western culture, growing out of the secular "Enlightenment" of the eighteenth century. Among these freethinking proto-racists he includes Voltaire and Kant, who were the leading lights of anti-Catholicism. Viewed philosophically, the development of racism was a "rational" substitute for the teleological and philosophical supports of religion. People need a sense of purpose as well as a way of understanding themselves. Mosse explains that
Traditional religion can satisfy human longings by promising a heaven after death. Racism, being a pseudo-religion, has to deliver its promises here and now.2
Racism united two strains of thought in our irreligious society: the basic sense of ethnic separateness and friction, which becomes exaggerated without the transcendent grace of Faith; and a purely materialistic philosophy of human society. Racism, therefore, is not an isolated problem so much as the symptom of a greater error. This also explains why there is so much overlap of "racial" thought and other secularist movements, including utopianism, socialism and romanticism, though liberals usually shy away from making such connections.
Pure "rationalism" involved a denial of objective supernatural truths and men soon found they had to supply the wants of limited materialism with "spiritual" (e.g. emotional or pantheistic) motifs. Johann von Herder spoke of a Volkgeist or "racial spirit." This was part-and-parcel of the wider nationalist and liberation movements that emerged from the French Revolution of 1789. Men rejected God and demanded a new god in His place—be it the state, the national group or the individual.
The development of racial thinking, always a pseudo-science and always, it should be noted, advanced not by reputable scientists but writers and political dreamers, simply underwent further evolution throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Prominent racial thinkers like Comte de Gobineau, through to Houston Stuart Chamberlain and Alfred Rosenberg were all biased against Catholic religion and culture. Their influence was weak or non-existent in countries like France and Italy, but far stronger in Protestant Prussian dominated Germany. Linked with nineteenth century racialism were the anti-Semitic movements of Germany and Austria. (Anti-Semitism means the hatred or persecution of Jews on a "racial" basis, as opposed to the purely religious criticism of Judaism.) Just as racialism was a post-Christian phenomenon, so there was a close tie between anti-Semitism and anti-clericalism, as in Schönerer's Los von Rom (Away From Rome) movement of the late-1800s which advanced "Aryan" ideals and pan-Germanism. These views eventually inspired Hitler. Though Mosse is hardly sympathetic towards the Church, he admits that for Catholic conservatives of this period, the "emphasis was always on shared Christianity, and not a shared race." 3
In the United States the most evident form of racial hatred or supremacy in the past century was that directed by whites against blacks. There can be no doubt that blacks were, as a group, mistreated and denied fundamental rights—human rights as understood from the perspective of Christian charity, not naturalistic social contract theory. But if it is true that prior to desegregation in the fifties and sixties blacks were generally the victims, from harassment to brutality and lynching, it is equally obvious that "reverse racism" is now the norm.
Partly this is due to the vicious cycle of hatred which will go on indefinitely unless short-circuited by Christian charity, as one group takes continual revenge on the other. Partly it is due to a calculated cynicism on the part of the liberal establishment to use blacks and other racial minorities as a political bloc to achieve long-term aims. In order to do so, they continually agitate minorities by tales of oppression, hatred and injustice, even as minorities commit these same acts against whites by unfair quotas, social engineering and, in the worst instances, anti-white violence.4 Such incidents are not uncommon. An editorial from the Boston Herald on black racist, Al Sharpton, provides a glimpse of a much wider phenomenon:
[Sharpton] backed the hoax of 15-year-old Tawana Brawley in 1987 that she had been raped by white men…. In 1991, he organized anti-semitic demonstrations in Brooklyn after a young black boy was accidentally killed by a car driven by a Jew. In 1995, he whipped up crowds against a "white interloper" with a store in Harlem. That episode ended in the death of eight people when the store was set afire. 5
But too much attention to such bigotry would expose establishment hypocrisy. Liberals can spout insulting claptrap about blacks being "people of the sun" and whites being "people of the ice." It is simply a reversal of what European quacks were saying a century ago, i.e., that whites were "day people" and Negroes were "night people." The irony of this comparison, however, would be lost today.
To state such controversial facts is not to indulge in another round of finger pointing, engendering more racial enmity. If anything, blacks remain the primary victims of liberal race programs which have been in place since the mid-20th century. Being a minority, they are easier to manipulate than more numerous whites. Injustice against blacks is exploited by liberal egalitarians in the same way that worker dissatisfaction was long ago exploited by socialists. The political left has held out false solutions to real problems. Nor should it be forgotten that blacks in this country, as well as non-whites in Third World nations, are merely practicing the "liberation ideology" which obsessed whites in America and Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They sought freedom at any cost, including the erosion of political, religious and familial authority. Few whites are willing to second-guess the liberation movements of the past, so it is not surprising that blacks should be equally reticent to disown their "black power" heritage. There are some brave conservative leaders like Clarence Thomas who want to get beyond the contemporary victimization cult, but for now they are sidelined and vilified by liberals.
The mainstream media tells us that there is a historical shift in race relations, saying that racism has been replaced by anti-racism. This new phase, however, involves virulent racism or, more accurately, ideological hate-mongering in a new guise. Though the phenomena have changed, the underlying secular motivations have not. In this sense, the liberal approach to race is hardly different from that of the old bigotry. Both extremes view race as something to be exploited, in the same way that classical Marxism used aggravated social tensions between capitalists and proletarians in order to advance its own socialist centralist state. Racists, as the new "class enemy," justify government intrusiveness and expansion, all funded by taxpayers who are motivated by a sense of fighting some grave social evil, from tobacco use to "unsafe sex."
Modern policies, whether "racist" or "anti-racist," have their roots in the same mindset—the idea that human relations must be forced to fit a procrustean ideological model. Sadly, the denial of the supernatural results in a denial of even the most blatant natural facts about relations between the races. What has the Catholic response been? Unfortunately, the spiritual hiatus of Vatican II short-circuited what might have been a sensible as well as peaceful resolution to modern race issues. While Catholic ethicists prior to the Council were balanced and restrained, by the 1960s, many in the Church unthinkingly aligned themselves with all aspects of the "anti-racist" or "desegregation" movement, not only positive elements but highly dubious ones as well. By contrast, the traditional axiom that should still be invoked today is that the Church favors neither forced segregation nor forced integration.
The instinctive tendency for most individuals is to associate with others of the same racial background. We should not artificially force intermixing in such a way that fosters social strife and, in the process, destroys beneficial social supports that people have built up over generations. This is the case with desegregation in this country where blacks have undoubtedly gained in some areas, yet many have bemoaned the loss of a tight-knit and supportive community life that existed even in the worst days of slavery. Clearly the hypersensitivity about racial differences, the often brutal enforcement of "multiculturalism" and the fear that a racial slur lurks behind the most casual remark, has no part in Catholic thinking. Nevertheless, any secular theory of "racial classification" and strict separation becomes impossible when applied to daily life as, for example, in the case of people with mixed ancestry. Finally, any supposed benefits of racial segregation are belied by the ethnic tension in areas like the Balkans where the contending parties are racially indistinguishable. The deeper factors at work are, and have always been, culture and religion.
As with slavery in the classical world, the resolution of racial problems must be gradual and prudential. Though speculation as to the future of race-relations is difficult, one should keep in mind that there may also be events which would completely alter our priorities. A restoration of the Church and traditional teaching, for instance, would unite men in a cause that would quickly leave political, national and ethnic rivalry well behind us. One may certainly hope so.
1 Msgr. Pietro Palazzini, ed, Dictionary of Moral Theology (London: Burns & Oates, 1962). See also: Austin Fagothey S.J., Right and Reason, Ethics in Theory and Practice (St. Louis: C.V. Mosby Company, 1953).
2 George L. Mosse, Toward the Final Solution, A History of European Racism (New York: Howard Fertig, 1978). See also: Arthur Hertzberg, The French Enlightenment and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968).
4 Charley Reese, "Race War Will Continue Until We Can Talk About it Honestly," Orlando Sentinel (November 5, 1998).
5 "Gore Courts Sharpton," Boston Herald, Tuesday, February 15, 2000.