What’s Religious About Being Woke?
This article is part of The Conversation with America Media, offering diverse perspectives on important issues in the life of the church. Read another perspective on social justice movements here.
We are two years into the pandemic and the calls for racial justice after George Floyd’s murder. A little more than one year has passed since the election of the second Catholic president and the violent insurrection that sought to prevent the ratification of his election. And there has never been a moment in the history of the American Catholic Church where the public voice of the church has been more fragmented.
Who speaks for the church in this moment of fragmentation and conflict? What does the church stand for? Is its most important public witness about recognizing human dignity in the womb or at the border? Is the main threat to the church an attack on religious liberty or the misuse of the tradition to reject vaccines? Ought we fight harder to defend the Judeo-Christian moral tradition against its post-modern detractors or to defend the bodies of our Black brothers and sisters from historical and systemic racism?
If these questions seem awkward and artificial, that is because they are. They do not arise from the church’s own self-understanding, but instead as scripted responses from the drama of the culture wars. As soon as the questions are asked they are reduced to another rendition of “Whose side are you on?”
The church’s passion for justice arises not only from its moral certainty, but even more from its solidarity with those who are suffering.
What is causing these seeming dichotomies, these “either/or” divides striking at the heart of the famous Catholic “both/and”? These questions do not represent actual dilemmas about the church’s moral teaching, because the church’s moral teaching calls for Catholics to engage vigorously in the promotion of justice in all these areas. Instead, we propose that these seemingly interminable dilemmas are in fact surface-level symptoms of a deeper struggle over how the church can best evangelize a world that is often not listening.
Yet in practice, even when Catholic leaders embrace all these commitments, they are perceived—the church itself is perceived—as standing publicly on one side or another of the culture wars. And so the public articulation of what it means to be Catholic has become a source of the very division that pains us, an ongoing experience of rivalry and ideological warfare that drives people away from communion.
As painful as this diagnosis is, it points us in the direction of a remedy. The evangelization the church can offer is not a better ideology, but the practice of communion. The church’s passion for justice arises not only from its moral certainty, but even more from its solidarity with those who are suffering. And the church can speak credibly to a fragmented world only after taking the first steps along a path of reconciliation itself.
But this is a map of division seen from 30,000 feet. How does it look from the trenches?
The Terms of Discourse
Last November, José H. Gomez, archbishop of Los Angeles and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gave a video address to a meeting in Spain on Catholics and public life, arguing that the church needs to understand “new social justice movements” arising after the murder of George Floyd as “pseudo-religions, and even replacements and rivals to traditional Christian beliefs.”
Responses to Archbishop Gomez’s publication of the transcript of his speech were swift—and for the most part entirely predictable. For some, there was outrage that a key member of the hierarchy had seemed to set the church in tension with prophetic calls for racial justice while for others, there was vindication that a leader of the church was standing up to these “dangerous substitutes for true religion.”
What was missed—both by those who were outraged and by those who felt vindicated—was Archbishop Gomez’s recognition of why these movements are attractive: because they respond to “real human needs and suffering. People are hurting, they do feel discriminated against and excluded from opportunities in society.”
In fact, the reality of this response to human suffering is why so many invested in the racial justice movements found Archbishop Gomez’s criticism of them hurtful. This hurt was not caused by his theological analysis of these movements as “pseudo-religions,” but because the choice to label these movements as idolatrous rivals seemed to reject, rather than value, their willingness to stand up for people who are oppressed and suffering. Indeed, these movements are often felt to be some of the only public voices willing to do so.
These movements’ willingness to take racism seriously offers a public response to real human needs and suffering.
This is not because Archbishop Gomez could not acknowledge their good intentions. Indeed, he went on to say: “We should never forget this. Many of those who subscribe to these new movements and belief systems are motivated by noble intentions. They want to change conditions in society that deny men and women their rights and opportunities for a good life.”
But the depth and importance of this insight—and its connection to why these movements sometimes function quasi-religiously—was lost because they were engaged as competing ideologies, as “wokeness” or “identity politics” or “intersectionality” understood as antithetical to religion. How did this focus on ideological incompatibility come to outweigh what seem to be very similar motivations for justice and the common good?
Writing in America last fall in response to the controversy over Archbishop Gomez’s address, Stephen White pointed out that the archbishop has a long history of speaking out against racism. Mr. White highlighted Archbishop Gomez’s consistent analysis that racism constitutes a failure to recognize our common humanity and that “the only sure foundation for our common humanity is our universal fraternity as sons and daughters of God.”
Such an analysis aims to secure and universalize religious foundations for public moral claims. But it does so at the expense of making the operative question the acknowledgement of the universal foundation, rather than the practice of the costly justice it requires. And under the conditions of our fragmented public discourse, those who assent to the religious truth become allies, while those outside the faith who critique the failure to put that truth into practice become enemies.
At their best, these shared practices produce precisely the kind of gratuitous, generous and consoling energy so often associated with religion.
A reduction of these movements calling for justice to ideologies opposed to Christianity elides perhaps the most important way they are religious. Just like a religion—and often far more visibly than many actual religions—these movements’ willingness to take racism seriously offers a public response to real human needs and suffering. They meet people where they are hurting, tend to their wounds and provide a language in which they can articulate their pain. And they embrace a mission to change the conditions of an American society that all too often rejects and denies the human dignity of Black Americans and other people of color.
These are precisely religious actions. Even more, at their best, these shared practices produce precisely the kind of gratuitous, generous and consoling energy so often associated with religion. Archbishop Gomez was in fact correct to recognize something religious in the attractiveness of these new movements.
That is why he may also be right about their potential to function as institutional “rivals” to the Catholic Church. To the extent that they are providing the kind of coherent community, organized practices and inspiring vision of the good life that religions have long provided, it is fair to see them as quasi-religious institutions. And to the degree that adopting those practices and identities may involve a rejection of the practice and community of Catholicism—often because Catholicism is experienced as deaf to the calls for healing and justice to which such movements attend—they are indeed in tension with it.
But this tension is inevitable only to the degree that these movements are treated as rivals to Catholicism, rather than potential partners in the work of justice to which faith calls us. There are profound differences between the church and some of these movements about how to explain the ultimate moral foundations of justice, but there are also profound parallels in our commitments to respond to the suffering of the marginalized and work for human dignity. The church ought to approach these tensions less as proof of how much these movements get wrong and more as grounds for hope because of how close they are to getting it right—and with an openness to learning from them.
A Different Mode of Engagement
A more accurate map of the trenches, from either 30,000 feet or ground level, still leaves us surveying the battlefields of the culture war. We do not want to argue that a different trenchline would serve the church better in the culture war but rather to propose a different mode of engagement: a disarmed entry into no-man’s land.
By beginning with an observation of the current fragmentation of the public voice of the church, we do not lay the blame for that fragmentation on any “side” in these debates. Rather, we are describing the practical and sociological reality in which the church exists, ministers and evangelizes at this point in history. Properly understood, the challenge the church faces is not so much secularism as it is secularity: not an ideological denial of religion but instead the social context in which religion can no longer be taken for granted as the ultimate source of meaning.
The challenge the church faces is not so much secularism as it is secularity.
That is why the fragmentation of the public voice of Catholicism—indeed, the fragmentation of public discourse overall—is the necessary frame for understanding the church’s encounter with the new social justice movements. It will help us understand not just why the church’s engagement with these movements is so fraught, but also why internal Catholic divisions around these questions are so painful. In this debate, the church is not just working out an evangelical strategy for how to apply the timeless answers of the tradition to the moral questions of the day but is in fact continuing to work out the church’s own self-understanding in the modern world.
Earlier this year, the theologian Joseph S. Flipper argued persuasively in America that describing these new movements as “pseudo-religions” risked replicating the church’s early 20th-century anti-modernism, becoming skeptical of anything “woke” as automatically heretical and closing off necessary and healthy theological developments in the process. We would further point out that such a reaction threatens not only to chill theological inquiry but also to choke off efforts at pastoral outreach to people in these movements and to the communities in which these movements are rooted by treating them as inimical to Catholicism itself.
The temptation the church faces at this moment is to accept the fragmentation of the public witness of Catholicism in practice even while it vigorously rejects the causes of that fragmentation in theory. Hostility toward new social justice movements as ideological opponents to religion falls prey to just this temptation. It implicitly positions the church as one more ideology competing for adherents in the fragmented public space of secularity, and then preaches itself hoarse trying to convince people that the church has the most coherent answer to questions so abstract that most people are not conscious of asking them.
To put this more concretely: We entirely agree with Archbishop Gomez that “we can only build a just society on the foundation of the truth about God and human nature.” The church does, in that sense, have the most coherent answer to the crises we are facing. But all too often we in the church make the tragic mistake of forgetting that the coherence of our answer comes not from the unassailable logic of our doctrine but from the trustworthiness of our teacher. As Pope Benedict XVI said in an address to American seminarians and young people in 2008: “Truth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules.… In seeking truth we come to live by belief because ultimately truth is a person: Jesus Christ.”
We do not need to treat everyone who begins seeking a more just society on immanent, or even avowedly secular, grounds as unreservedly opposed to transcendent foundations for truth.
We do not need to treat everyone who begins seeking a more just society on immanent, or even avowedly secular, grounds as unreservedly opposed to transcendent foundations for truth. Doing so most often answers a question they have not asked, responding to their calls for social justice by offering to debate them about metaphysics. Worse yet, it misrepresents their passion for justice—which is at root a religious motivation, a response to God speaking in the depths of their conscience—as an ideological hostility to the idea of God.
When the church responds in this way, it is often perceived as rejecting not only these new social justice movements as ideologies, but also their call for justice itself. While this perception is not entirely fair, it is both understandable and predictable. It is an ongoing pastoral crisis. A critique of “pseudo-religion,” no matter how trenchant and insightful, will never be a sufficient response to those who criticize religious persons and institutions for our often-anemic response to the call for justice.
To some degree, this unfair perception arises because the church inevitably speaks within a fragmented public discourse. When we try to defend the church by arguing that its metaphysical grounds for justice are the most coherent, we only reinforce a fragmented secularity in which the church is merely another ideological contestant with its own jargon and intellectual framework. This kind of defense by church leaders only deepens our divisions, especially when it adopts rhetoric already associated with the culture war, thus speaking mainly to those who already share their presuppositions.
Certainly church leaders are not the only public figures who fall into this pattern of division, nor is it restricted to any particular side of the political spectrum. Such deepening tribalization is only accelerated by social media and “filter bubbles” and a thousand other maladies of our age. To return to the image of a battlefield in the culture war, these hostile responses to ideological opponents serve primarily as signal flares. They summon one’s own forces to the fight and reassure those behind the lines that the trenches are well-manned. But they do not engage the “enemy,” and they are not really meant to do so.
Healing Our Open Wounds
Recognizing the problem of fragmentation and understanding it not just as a sociological reality but also as an open wound in the body of Christ offers the possibility of responding to it in new ways. Rather than presuming that the primary need is the correction of error, that the problem is primarily ideological and can be fixed by accurate ideas, it suggests that the primary need is healing because the problem is a wound. And this means that what is necessary is an effort at reconciliation and dialogue. This reframing challenges us to ask where we can establish common ground for doing so.
This is a daunting task. But we are not without resources to imagine how to take it up. Sixty years ago, in the opening words of the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” bishops from around the globe described a vision of a church that was capable of and desirous of sharing “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” of contemporary humanity. Pope Francis famously described his vision of the church as a “field hospital” binding up the wounded from battle—a vision that calls on the body of Christ, which is to say the pilgrim people of God—to come out of the trenches and onto the dangerous and vulnerable terrain of no-man’s land. It is only there, after all, that we can mourn those who have been killed and be in solidarity with those who feel most deeply their loss.
The primary need is healing because the problem is a wound.
Perhaps this can be more easily applied to a situation other than the tension between the church and various new justice movements. Bishop Robert Barron, who has himself critiqued “wokeness” as undergirded by “postmodernism, indeed a fairly nasty strain of it,” also said in the same essay at Word on Fire that “a shared passion for justice” might be a bridge between the church and these movements. But at other times he has described “wokeness” as “vile,” which was felt as a wound by some Catholics who already share such a passion for justice. In an essay reflecting on the challenge of religious disaffiliation, however, Bishop Barron mapped out a different approach to those who might be presumed to be opponents of the church.
Recommending Tara Isabella Burton’s book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, Bishop Barron argues for a fairly positive appraisal of the religious impulses motivating the “nones” to embrace a whole panoply of “sometimes wacky contemporary quasi-religions.” He offers these impulses as evidence that even in the West, the naïve “secularization thesis” promising the inevitable decline of religion does not hold. And he calls on Catholics to “eagerly engage” these religious instincts “with the liberating challenge of the Gospel.”
It is this same generous recognition of authentic religious desire that ought to motivate the church’s engagement and dialogue with social justice movements, even when their philosophical frameworks are not fully compatible with Christianity. Such generosity expresses a hope for encounter and reconciliation, confident that the church’s communion, doctrine and tradition are coherent enough that the offered bridge will not collapse when those who disagree with us set foot on it.
What is needed, in other words, is a church that is less afraid: Less afraid of being misunderstood. Less afraid to refuse being drafted into the culture wars, lest it be co-opted by one side or ignored by the other. Less afraid that the world has so thoroughly rejected God that grace can only be found within the church. Less afraid of tending to the wounded. Less afraid of being wounded ourselves.
The hope we should hold onto is that, in conforming us to the woundedness of Christ on the cross, these efforts at reconciliation will also help embrace the suffering of Christ in our sisters and brothers wounded by injustice. If the church can incarnate that example, it will go further in evangelizing people within the new social justice movements, and healing divisions in the church itself, than any critique of their philosophical anthropology ever could. The way for the church to speak credibly in public is not to attempt to win an argument, but to offer the witness of being willing to risk itself in mercy.