What happens when social movements are at odds with Catholic teaching?
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.
One of the great difficulties for any thoughtful Catholic is to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff in assessing secular social movements and causes, particularly those whose leaders often make accurate observations about the moral failings of our society. You may find, as I have on occasion, your natural inclination for justice stirred—while at the same time recognizing, or not wanting to recognize, flaws in the way in which those who champion these causes frame their advocacy (or issues attendant to that advocacy).
It is not easy being a conscientious Catholic in an age of political tribalism. I confess that I sometimes find myself drawn to views and positions simply because it seems that the “wrong people” hold the opposite ones, and I suspect that I am not alone in harboring that secret shame.
A couple of months ago I was telling a progressive colleague that if Donald Trump had come out in April 2020 as supporting mask mandates, she would have likely called the policy fascist, especially if right-wing entrepreneurs had begun manufacturing and hawking masks with images of American flags and guns on them and implying that detractors were unpatriotic. We both laughed. For we both realized how easy it is for anyone to uncritically succumb to the pieties of their political tribe.
But what is a conscientious person to do when one’s natural inclination to see justice done is offset by serious concerns about the moral or logical underpinnings of any particular advocacy for a secular cause? I have two examples in mind. In the case of the #MeToo movement, a righteous cause that does not go far enough in examining root causes; as for the more complicated case of critical race theory, a concept that offers an explanation of continued social injustice nevertheless clashes with other long-held values of Catholic social teaching.
#MeToo and Market Logic
Consider first the #MeToo movement. It began in 2006 with a grassroots movement founded by Tarana Burke, a survivor and activist. In October 2017, the movement went viral after a few courageous actresses and others in the film industry leveled charges of sexual misconduct against the very powerful movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. It did not take long for others to start telling their own stories of harassment and assault in the entertainment industry. As these stories increased exponentially, the #MeToo movement was born. It became an international phenomenon on social media, and by October 2018 the hashtag #MeToo had been tweeted over 19 million times.
As Catholics, we should stand in solidarity with these victims of assault and harassment, offering our support, encouragement, care and counsel. There is a valuable lesson here that the church itself has had to learn concerning its own abuse crisis: Powerful people whose souls are not tempered by lawful oversight, social custom or cultivated virtue are unlikely to treat those over whom they have authority with dignity or respect. This is why Pope Francis, in a striking letter dated Oct. 8, 2018, refers to this wickedness as “the abuse of conscience and the abuse of power.”
The popular culture, infused with the sensibilities of much of popular entertainment, continues to treat sex as a purely transactional activity.
And yet the popular culture, infused with the sensibilities of much of popular entertainment, continues to treat sex as a purely transactional activity, as if it were a mere commodity like an automobile, a house or a flat-screen TV, subject only to the strictures of adult consent. This contractual model of human intimacy seems incapable of capturing the depth of the evil of sexual assault and harassment.
Although we would not think well of Mr. Weinstein if he had awarded a movie role to an actress on the condition that she cook a gourmet meal for him every Friday evening for a year, we would surely not think of it as akin to exchanging sexual favors for the same role. Why is that? My hunch is that it is because we know down deep that there is something sacred about our sexual powers—that they are, in a sense, set apart, since they are ordered toward a marital love whose end is to bring new life into being.
For this reason, “the excessive importance given to market logic” in our culture’s understanding of sex, as the 2014 synod of bishops observed, is relevant to why our society’s contractual libertinism is inapt in accounting for our moral revulsion to the sexual misconduct that the #MeToo movement has exposed. Contrary to what our conservative friends may think, market reasoning is sometimes not an unalloyed good.
Critical Race Theory and Parenting
Consider also the social movement among some parents that has arisen as a result of conflicts over controversial public education curricula that address race relations. It came to national attention during one of Virginia’s September 2021 gubernatorial debates when the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, remarked, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” He was referring to parents who, at school board meetings throughout the state, were forcefully objecting to curricula that the parents argued had been significantly shaped by critical race theory.
If you are a disciple of conventional liberalism, as a large majority of Americans are, hearing the gospel of critical race theory for the first time can be quite jarring and disorienting.
Having its roots in the 1970s in the work of several American law professors, critical race theory is a social philosophy that argues that the legal application of conventional and long-held liberal beliefs about justice, due process, equality, merit, color-blindness and individual rights cannot eradicate systemic racism (and may help to perpetuate it) because American institutions were founded on white supremacy and are irredeemably racist in their composition unless they are radically transformed.
Virtually all of those parents in Virginia and other states, like many of us, came of age under the influence of the traditional civil rights narrative, which taught that the chief accomplishment of the civil rights movement was to extend the promises of our nation’s founding to those who were entitled to them from the beginning but had been unjustly denied them. For these parents, the social achievement of racial justice ultimately depends on the equitable application of those conventional liberal principles that their children’s school curricula now tell us we should reject for the sake of racial justice. In other words, it appears to them as nothing short of a reversal of the moral lodestar that guided the original heroes of the civil rights cause, that justice demands that our laws and policies be applied impartially without reference to a citizen’s race, creed, or sex.
If you are a disciple of conventional liberalism, as a large majority of Americans are, hearing the gospel of critical race theory for the first time can be quite jarring and disorienting. This is why the reactions to it are so visceral, and understandable. Nobody enjoys being told that their deepest moral intuitions, instilled in them by institutions and figures considered eminently respectable the day before yesterday, are an unconscious cover for the perpetuation of oppression and marginalization.
And yet, from a Catholic perspective, critical race theory is not without merit, insofar as it draws our attention to the real possibility that a legal system, even if it were founded on unassailable principles of perfect justice, is only as good as the institutions responsible for enforcing it and the virtue of those who hold the public trust. This is why, as Pope Francis notes in “Fratelli Tutti,” there are those who “may be citizens with full rights, yet they are treated like foreigners in their own country.” In “Evangelium Vitae,” St. John Paul II laments the fact that “the various declarations of human rights and the many initiatives inspired by these declarations… are unfortunately contradicted by a tragic repudiation of them in practice.” Both pontiffs are trying to make the point that there is more to the execution of justice than the textual content of national and international legal instruments.
Modern Customs and Moral Theology
Our customs, practices, background beliefs and inherited prejudices—often taken for granted and rarely subjected to critical analysis—could very well be sources of injustice, even if in a strict sense we are innocent of evil intent. Just as the church throughout the ages has appropriated insights from non-biblical and non-Christian sources, such as Plato and Aristotle, in order to illuminate its own doctrines, the church most certainly can take what is good from critical race theory without compromising Catholic anthropology or moral theology.
We have to be careful to not fall prey to modern enthusiasms that ignore or repudiate the theological grounding of our analysis.
On the other hand, we have to be careful to not fall prey to modern enthusiasms that ignore or repudiate the theological grounding of our analysis. Suppose, for example, you are a Catholic and a progressive and you are convinced that critical race theory has great explanatory power and that academic lessons informed by it should have a place in every public school curriculum. Consequently, you conclude that the parents in Virginia overreacted, that their concerns should not be honored, and that the American Civil Liberties Union is right in combating curriculum transparency laws proposed in several states.
Although you are motivated by what you are convinced is central to social justice—anti-racism—and you believe that the government is obligated to advance that cause, your policy prescription seems to ignore an aspect of natural justice that the church maintains must be accorded great deference in our public life: the rights of parents to direct the religious and moral formation of their children.
As Pope Pius XI states in “Mit Brennender Sorge,” “Parents who are earnest and conscious of their educative duties, have a primary right to the education of the children God has given them in the spirit of their Faith, and according to its prescriptions. Laws and measures which in school questions fail to respect this freedom of the parents go against natural law, and are immoral.” And in “Rerum Novarum,” Pope Leo XIII tells us that the church understands the family as having “rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature.”
Suppose one were to gainsay this aspect of Catholic social thought by arguing that to acquiesce to the demands of parental oversight on the matters of diversity, equity and inclusion impedes the securing of social justice in our public space. After all, you may reason, all children, regardless of their parents’ beliefs, are entitled to a rightly ordered self, which surely must include the inculcation of the noble and defensible ends of critical race theory and its curricular offshoots.
The problem with this analysis is that it comes perilously close to sounding like the unsound reasoning that motivated Pope Pius IX when he defended the church’s kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish child baptized by his family’s domestic servant without his parents’ consent. According to Pio Nono, because Edgardo’s Jewish parents refused to bring up their baptized son as a Catholic, and because the young man’s eternal destiny hung in the balance, the Papal States—the government under which the Mortaras lived—had no choice but to place the child in the custody of someone who could accomplish that noble and defensible end, Pius IX himself.
But the demands of natural justice, as St. Thomas Aquinas argued, cannot be trumped even by human laws whose good end seems unassailable to those in political power.
But the demands of natural justice, as St. Thomas Aquinas argued, cannot be trumped even by human laws whose good end seems unassailable to those in political power. To quote a famous U.S. Supreme Court opinion that sounds eerily Thomistic, “The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations” (Pierce v. Soc’y of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 535 ). To put it another way, the same moral reflexes that tell us that it is wrong for the U.S. government to separate immigrant parents and children at our southern border are the moral reflexes that animate the outraged parents and their allies in Virginia.
The competing moral claims and theological convictions that come into play when we try to assess the validity and the flaws of secular social movements and causes can make it a difficult exercise in discernment to separate the wheat from the chaff. As I mentioned above, it is far easier to instead succumb uncritically to the claims of one’s political or religious tribe.
For this reason, we owe each other, for the sake of our common good, the sort of intellectual and spiritual modesty one finds at the end of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “If I have said anything…that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.” But for the grace of God go I.