Since the tragic murder of George Floyd, leaders of many independent private schools across the country—including those at Jesuit secondary schools—have been challenged to respond to growing demands from two groups of their alumni, parents and students. The conflict within these schools has played out publicly, on national outlets such as Fox News to local media sources in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City.

Here is how it all happened. Last summer, many Black alumni, parents and students from these schools came forward to express their experiences of sustained, personal and systemic bias. They reflected the larger movement of racial reckoning across institutions and sectors simultaneous with last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations and protests. On Instagram accounts and in petitions demanding change, school communities heard painful stories ranging from neglect in some cases to outright disrespect and targeted, racist bigotry in others. Their preponderance and similar texture and character give credence to the veracity of these stories and the collective harm done over several decades and generations of students.

The ongoing conflicts over critical race theory have followed a predictable pattern of polarization. For Catholic and Jesuit schools, this division is inimical to our mission and damaging to the body of Christ. 

Many school leaders formally apologized for this harm, but this group understandably desires more than words. They demand that their schools implement curriculum, student formation, hiring and programmatic measures to promote greater diversity, equity and inclusion (D.E.I.). They want to see accountability and progress in meeting measurable goals in these areas. In response to these grievances and claims, school leaders have adopted and announced various new D.E.I. measures and resources during this school year.

These changes led to a backlash from other groups of parents and alumni, who often expressed their opposition through anonymous letters directed to school leaders. They criticized classroom exercises and lessons that segregated students on the basis of race, seemed overly reliant on racial identity or promoted conceptions of white privilege. They argued these exercises reveal a kind of essentialism that reduces everything to one’s racial background. Some who oppose these measures believe they are the result of critical race theory, which focuses on the structural aspects of racism. Critics charge that this theory finds racism omnipresent and creates a binary zero-sum game of winners (the “oppressors”) and losers (the “victims”). In Catholic school communities, they warn that critical race theory is Marxist and therefore anti-Catholic. Many who are opposed to proactive D.E.I. initiatives offer an alternative approach that teaches that race is a social construct. They want schools to either downplay, ignore altogether or transcend race in order to recover and emphasize the common humanity that unites us.

School leaders are placed squarely in the middle, trying to respond to the demands of both groups and looking for support from their boards and other stakeholders.

The conflict between those who favor solutions from critical race theory versus those who prefer a common humanity approach has followed a predictable pattern of polarization. It mirrors the secular political discourse of the day, pitting cultural conservatives and progressives against each other. This struggle has engulfed several independent and Jesuit schools and has unfortunately divided communities into opposing and hardened camps. For Catholic and Jesuit schools, this division is inimical to our mission and damaging to the body of Christ. School leaders are placed squarely in the middle, trying to respond to the demands of both groups and looking for support from their boards and other stakeholders.

A powerful resource: Catholic Social Teaching

As Catholic and Jesuit schools develop strategies to address this conflict, they have a distinct advantage over their non-Catholic counterparts in the independent school arena. Catholic social teaching (C.S.T.) provides a powerful resource and tool that affirms aspects of these opposing perspectives while offering, in its own right, a unique way forward based on well-established theological principles.

Gaudium et Spes” encourages Catholics to engage the human and social sciences as they strive to promote human dignity and justice in society (No. 54). This engagement rejects an approach in which Catholics would appeal solely and simplistically to scriptural injunctions, such as “love thy neighbor as thyself,” as an adequate response to racism. A truly Catholic inquiry into racism—its history, its impacts and methods to oppose it—requires that we rigorously interrogate schools of thought, such as critical race theory and appeals to our common humanity, evaluate their claims in light of the Gospel and C.S.T. and teach our students to do the same.

Pope Francis and Catholic social teaching enjoin on us a responsibility to actively reverse systemic injustices that we have sadly inherited.

Despite being derided and wholly dismissed by some as too “woke,” dangerous or even anti-Christian, C.S.T. affirms at least one significant element of critical race theory—namely, its claim that racism exists in systems or structures, as opposed to consisting merely of private acts of bigotry committed by individuals. Likewise, since the 1971 release of “Justice in the World” by the Synod of Bishops, the church has taught explicitly that sin and evil manifest themselves in social structures. In 1987, Pope John Paul II referred to “structures of sin” over a dozen times in his encyclical “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.”

In his papal teachings, Francis looks through a structural lens to detect systemic injustices and calls on people of faith to dismantle them. This position is critical of a common humanity or “color blind” approach to race, insofar as the latter fails to account for the historic remnants of racism that continue to perpetuate injustice. In Mercy in Action: The Social Teachings of Pope Francis, Thomas Massaro, S.J., examines Francis’ teaching in this area. Francis and C.S.T enjoin on us a responsibility to actively reverse systemic injustices that we have sadly inherited as effects of past racist practices and policies rather than simply performing individual works of charity or generosity.

In fact, Francis expresses impatience with “weak responses,” a phrase he uses throughout his encyclical “Laudato Si’” in reference to measures to reduce climate change. Although Francis and C.S.T. deviate from critical race theory in other areas, their approach to systemic racism is similar: White people don’t get a moral pass by simply refraining from overtly racist acts. Rather, they must examine racial biases within systems; reflect on how they participate in and benefit from these biases; and then take deliberate action to change them.

Catholic social teaching invites Jesuit educators to foster the capacity of our students to recognize racism in all of its forms.

By the standards of John Paul II and Francis, we can identify examples of structural or systemic racism throughout society at large as well as in Catholic Jesuit education. Some of the most extreme examples can be found in the criminal justice system, housing, economics and health care. We see systemic racism in higher rates of incarceration, longer sentences and capital penalties for equal crimes for Blacks as compared to their white counterparts. The impact of historic redlining and unjust real estate practices throughout urban neighborhoods has led to lower levels of generational wealth for Blacks as opposed to whites. Covid-19 mortality rates reveal disproportionate victims among Black people and unequal access to health care.

In our Jesuit schools, we can—and should—analyze the representation of Black people in several areas: the presence of Black authors in our curriculum; of Black students who enroll in higher-level courses or those who serve in leadership positions in clubs and other student organizations; and of Black faculty and administrators. If the application of our student conduct policies disproportionately sanctions Black students, this, too, requires our attention. If, despite equal levels of academic performance with their white peers, Black students are disproportionately steered to apply or enroll at lower-ranked colleges and universities, this might indicate systemic racism. In addition to recounting times when they were the targets of direct bias, Black alumni pointed to many of these systemic realities of their student experience.

Catholic social teaching demands that we teach students what racism is and why and how to oppose it.

C.S.T. invites Jesuit educators to foster the capacity of our students to recognize racism in all of its forms—both in their personal implicit biases and in systems and structures that perpetuate unequal opportunity still today—and to oppose them vigorously through concrete action. This is neither optional nor tangential to our Catholic Jesuit mission; rather, it is at the very core of a Jesuit school’s identity. Catholic social teaching demands that we teach students what racism is and why and how to oppose it.

Made in the image of God

But there is another powerful teaching in the Catholic social tradition even more foundational than its affirmation of structural sin and evil. Known in C.S.T. as imago Dei, it holds that each human person is created in the likeness and image of God and is therefore deserving of dignity and respect. Tracing this teaching to its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures and the creation story, imago Dei insists that, despite superficial differences, each person is an inherent repository of divine presence. It places on us the moral obligation to consider every person as our brother or sister, our sibling or neighbor, regardless of social constructs such as race. Therefore, it approaches racial differences similarly to those who prefer that we emphasize our common humanity. It favors universalism and trusts in our human and God-given capacity to relate to others outside our identity group.

The notion of the imago Dei is woven throughout the Christian Scriptures. Jesus teaches it in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which ancient religious differences and animosity are overcome through an act of mercy by the stigmatized Samaritan who sees the other as his neighbor. In the Pentecost story, at the very birth of the Christian church, each bystander could understand the utterances of the other, even though they were expressed in the tongues of different and unknown languages. As the Rev. Bryan Massingale observes in Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, when the Holy Spirit descended upon that crowd, differences of race, language and culture were not canceled or annulled, nor were they obstacles to unity. Rather they were both preserved and transcended at the same time.

Insofar as critical race theory relies on racial essentialism, Catholic social teaching renders it untenable.

We see the imago Dei in St. Paul’s controversial embrace of Greeks and Gentiles, insisting that these outsider groups were equally as worthy as Jewish Christians to hear and accept the Gospel message. We find the imago Dei in the church’s hymnody when we sing “In Christ there is no East or West, in Him no North or South,” and at the Eucharist when we ask God to “gather people of every race, language, and way of life to share in the one eternal banquet with Jesus Christ the Lord.”

Imago Dei makes possible the language of Francis’ invitation to encounter Christ in one another—especially in the marginalized—that we hear echoed in the Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus. Specifically, Walking with the Excluded, the second preference, calls us “to walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice”; and the third preference, Journeying with Youth, invites us “to accompany young people in the creation of a hope-filled future.”

The imago Dei strain of Catholic social teaaching calls out the evils of racist rhetoric as well as the extremes of what has come to be called “cancel culture.”

In practical terms, the imago Dei strain of C.S.T. calls out the evils of racist rhetoric as well as the extremes of what has come to be called “cancel culture.” For example, Catholic educators should question those who assume that because Black students cannot see themselves literally in the classic and ancient texts of the Western canon, we should abandon them altogether. It can guide school leaders to resist overly zealous efforts to expunge from syllabi novels such as To Kill A Mockingbird because they use offensive language, rather than understanding the higher value of the universal theme and moral lesson that this literature teaches. Such efforts to remove or censor this literature ignore and even insult the capacity of students to recognize the good, the true and the beautiful in cultures, identities and social backgrounds different from their own.

Finally, appropriate attention to imago Dei may reveal shortcomings in critical race theory, at least from a Catholic perspective. Insofar as critical race theory relies on racial essentialism, C.S.T. renders it untenable. A full appreciation of imago Dei also challenges a view of white privilege or supremacy that simplistically reduces all social relationships to power dynamics along racial lines. This kind of move was explicitly rejected by Pope Paul VI in his critique of Marxism’s conflict theory in “Octogesima Adveniens.”

A “both/and” approach

As is often the case, one rarely arrives at a truly Catholic position through “either/or” thinking. Rather, through careful discernment and thoughtful reflection on the entirety of the church’s social tradition, Catholic positions often embrace a “both/and” mindset and produce solutions that incorporate seemingly opposing perspectives. As such, C.S.T. eludes easy categorization along the ideological spectrum of “left” and “right” or according to the secular political labels of “liberal” and “conservative.”

The same should be said in evaluating the responses of Catholic school leaders who must negotiate competing claims by two important and valued groups within our community: One wants our schools to more clearly embody dignity, belonging and justice for marginalized groups. The other expects us to help our students transcend superficial differences and racial constructs by emphasizing our common humanity. A faithful reading of the Catholic social tradition cannot claim to hold one element—that is, a true reckoning with systemic racism—without the other one: namely, a genuine recognition of our common humanity as created in the likeness and image of God.

When necessary to resolve conflicts within our school communities, we should recognize that each of these two elements of C.S.T. can correct any extreme tendency or blindness of the other one. Most important, this understanding provides Catholic and Jesuit educators an opportunity to ensure that we are fulfilling the demands of our ministry. Solutions faithful to C.S.T. emerge when we help our students recognize the tension between these elements and reconcile them. Rooted and grounded in our tradition, we will more effectively advance our Catholic Jesuit mission to form leaders committed to the common good who, aided by God’s grace, may strive to overcome and eradicate all forms of discrimination, which are contrary to God’s intent.

Jesuit School Spotlight is a new monthly feature focusing on Jesuit middle and secondary schools from around the country. It is underwritten in part by Jesuit high schools of the USA East Province of the Society of Jesus.

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