Catholic critics of ‘woke’ ideology risk repeating the church’s Modernist crisis of over 100 years ago
The recent comments by Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles to the Congress of Catholics for Public Life in Madrid elicited criticisms for his characterization of social justice movements in the United States as attempting to usurp the place of Christianity in society. Writing for America, Alessandra Harris argued that Archbishop Gomez’s statements dismiss Catholics working for social justice and “erase” the voices of Catholics of color. Also in America, Stephen White offered a more sympathetic reading: Archbishop Gomez wants the starting point for social justice to be human fraternity grounded in a common humanity, and he rejects those movements that outright reject the bonds of human fraternity.
While I certainly hope Mr. White is correct, Archbishop Gomez appears to foreclose Catholic dialogue and collaboration by describing these movements for social change as “pseudo-religions.” Two things stand out in the archbishop’s assessment.
Archbishop Gomez appears to foreclose Catholic dialogue and collaboration by describing these movements for social change as “pseudo-religions.”
First, it suggests a conspiracy. Archbishop Gomez claims there is “an elite leadership class” populated by those in power in “corporations, governments, universities, the media, and in the cultural and professional establishments.” The implication is that this shadowy elite is conspiring—if not through real coordination, then at least in spirit—to replace Christianity with a secular vision of humanity.
Second, in his criticism of “pseudo-religions, and even replacements and rivals to traditional Christian beliefs,” Archbishop Gomez is unspecific about which movements he has in mind, though he has plenty of descriptors such as “social justice,” “wokeness,” “identity politics,” “intersectionality” and “successor ideology.” He also uses the terms Pelagian, Manichaean and “Marxist cultural vision.” This string of ideologies, theories, pejorative labels, hashtags and historical heresies explains little. Instead, it functions merely to define what he sees as Christianity’s “others.”
In Archbishop Gomez’s interpretation of social justice movements, I see ghosts of the church’s Modernist crisis of over 100 years ago. This was a moment in Catholic history when the hierarchy, feeling the pressures of external forces, found enemies everywhere. To be sure, when Pope Pius X criticized “the doctrines of the Modernists” in the encyclical “Pascendi Dominici Gregis” in 1907, the church was facing serious challenges to Catholic doctrine and church authority. The annexation of the Papal States by Italy beginning in 1870 signaled the end of the structures safeguarding the close ties between religion and civic life. Scholars such as Alfred Loisy in France challenged traditional attributions of biblical authorship. Historical scholarship proposed developmental understandings of doctrine. These were real challenges.
I see ghosts of the church’s Modernist crisis of over 100 years ago. This was when the hierarchy, feeling the pressures of external forces, found enemies everywhere.
But “Pascendi” cast a wide, indiscriminate net, identifying developments in biblical studies, philosophy and historical studies as all part of a modernist “system.” Pius wrote that the “number of the enemies of the cross of Christ has in these last days increased exceedingly, who are striving...to destroy the vital energy of the Church, and, if they can, to overthrow utterly Christ’s kingdom itself.” Declaring Modernism to be the “synthesis of all heresies,” he called for dismissing seminary faculty, censoring books, reining in priests and establishing “Councils of Vigilance” to root out Modernist sympathizers and fulfill “the duty of overlooking assiduously and diligently social institutions as well as writings on social questions so that they may harbour no trace of Modernism, but obey the prescriptions of the Roman Pontiffs.”
The absurdity of anti-modernism was overshadowed by its tragedy. The casualties included devout intellectuals like George Tyrrell, S.J., Maurice Blondel, Maude Petre and Friedrich von Hügel. Father Tyrrell, an opponent of neo-Scholasticism and a spiritual writer, was later expelled from the Jesuits and deprived of receiving the sacraments and Catholic burial. Anti-modernism also cast a shadow over Marie-Joseph Lagrange, O.P., a giant of Catholic Scripture scholarship in the early twentieth century, depriving the church of someone who could credibly respond to new methods of interpreting the Bible. Moreover, the Vatican condemned Christian Democratic newspapers in France and suppressed Le Sillon, a French organization that sought rapprochement between Christianity and French labor movements. Anti-Modernists saw only enemies where they should have recognized potential allies, pushing them to the margins or expelling them from the church entirely. Ultimately, the Modernist crisis eroded the capacity of the Catholic Church to respond to modernity’s true threats.
Today, the most aggressive reactions against modernity may be coming from civil society rather than religion. Some states are banning teaching “divisive concepts” in public school classrooms, including racism, and we still see stories about communities restricting access to certain books. The U.S. bishops as a whole have not followed this road; they have neither embraced reactionary movements nor advocated the suppression of Catholic social movements. But Archbishop Gomez’s conspiratorial rhetoric points to the danger.
Perhaps we should recognize that theories of inequality derived from social science and law contain tools that can deepen Catholic social teaching.
The temptation is to again fight the ghosts of Modernism by denigrating those working for social justice, critical race scholars, scholars of decolonization and broadly defined “elites” as anti-religious co-conspirators. But this would ultimately be a disservice to the truth and to the church.
Instead, we might follow the path of Origen of Alexandria, St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas, who adopted a strategy of “plundering the Egyptians”—that is, drawing from the tools of the broader intellectual culture to articulate and illumine the depths of the Christian mystery. Perhaps we should recognize that theories of inequality derived from social science and law contain tools that can deepen Catholic social teaching. For example, an opportunity is lost if we cannot recognize in critical race scholarship resources for Catholic understanding of law and the common good. Another opportunity is lost if these tools for understanding our world are not refined in the light of faith. Contemporary social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter contain openings for Catholic forms of solidarity and opportune sites for the new evangelization today.
Thankfully, more than a few Catholics continue to bear witness to Christ in the struggle against social injustice.