Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, kneels at El Paso’s Memorial Park holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign on June 1, 2020, a week after George Floyd was killed by a policie officer. CNS photo/Fernie Ceniceros, courtesy Diocese of El Paso

The Church condemns systemic racism as sinful

By  SCOTT KLINE and David Seljak
  • March 3, 2022

It has become fashionable in certain Roman Catholic circles to attack critical race theory as if it were an all-encompassing ideology that threatens to destroy the Church, the university and the whole of society. These attacks risk plunging the Church into a divisive culture war instead of inviting us to reflect on racism as a form of social evil that Pope John Paul II called “structures of sin.”

Critical race theory is a bogeyman constructed by some people to define the political enemy in the ongoing culture war in the United States. Since the 1960s, the culture war has been a way to mobilize people on the extremes of the political spectrum — those on the left and the right who are already politically motivated and looking for opportunities to take a stand on social and cultural issues.

Unfortunately, the American culture war too often sets both the tone and terms of engagement for the Church in America and Canada on important social issues, including racial justice.

In the legal field, critical race theory attempts to uncover how systemic racism has been embedded in American laws and institutions, and how those laws and institutions continue to promote racial inequality. Its intellectual founders were lawyers, legal scholars, and civil rights activists from the 1970s who were deeply concerned by the lack of progress on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the US.

By the early 2000s, a group of academics, including scholars from various academic disciplines, argued the culture in the United States could never fully change if laws and institutions continued promoting racial injustice even absent open race hatred or segregationist laws like Jim Crow.

There’s nothing incommensurate with Catholicism and critical race theory’s attempt to identify and transform structural injustices in our laws or institutions. In keeping with the Second Vatican Council’s condemnation of racism (Gaudium et Spes number 29, Nostra Aetate number 5, for example) popes, pontifical commissions and bishops conferences have condemned racism in all forms.

Moreover, Pope John Paul II, in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (“The Social Concern of the Church”), says it is proper to speak of “structures of sin,’” which “grow stronger, spread and become the source of other sins, and so influence people’s behavior.”

He writes, “‘Sin’ and ‘structures of sin’ are categories which are seldom applied to the situation of the contemporary world. However, one cannot easily gain a profound understanding of the reality that confronts us unless we give a name to the root of the evils which afflict us.”

This official position is enshrined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In other words, Catholics should not shy away from naming systemic racism as a “structural sin” and as an “evil.” Nor should we hesitate to ask whether we have benefited from the evils of racism even if we harbour no ill will towards people of colour or Indigenous peoples. If we do not engage in this critical self-reflection, we will continue to participate in the collective blindness that lets the sin of racism fester.

Much current backlash against critical race theory is tied to the 2020 deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African Americans at the hands of police officers and former police officers in the United States. Many asked legitimate questions about the role of racism in policing methods, including restraint holds, “no knock” warrants and racial profiling in traffic stops. Universities played their proper role as a place where society can engage in difficult discussions about racial bias not only in policing but in all our major institutions.

In Canada’s Catholic universities, we have framed these initiatives not in terms of critical race theory but of Catholic Social Teaching. While sensitive to the issue of anti-Black racism and discrimination against people of colour, we also address racism aimed at Indigenous peoples including the victims of the racist residential school system run in part by the Catholic Church. Our commitment to Catholic Social Teaching means we begin with the premise that humans are created with an inviolable human dignity, that we belong together in community, that the Gospel calls us to prefer the poor and the marginalized, and that in the midst of our diversity we engage one another in solidarity.

No theory is perfect. But If critical race theory opens our eyes to hidden and systemic forms of racism, if it makes us more faithful followers of Christ, we should embrace it, use it and avoid jumping into a culture war that serves neither the Church nor society.

(Scott Kline is an associate professor at St. Jerome’s University and currently Visiting Scholar in Ethics at St. Mark’s College and Providence Healthcare in Vancouver. David Seljak is a professor at St. Jerome’s and chair of the religious studies department at the University of Waterloo.)

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