Americans have a “bleak outlook” on race relations, and the concern is higher among the young, particularly regarding the treatment of African-Americans. These social concerns provide the Catholic Church a great opportunity to evangelize modern society, given the Church’s fundamental teaching that all men are created in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27).
As the Catechism says, “The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it” (1935). It continues by citing Gaudium et Spes:
Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design (29 § 2).
When I speak to groups about the Church, I often refer to it as the truly original “Rainbow Coalition,” since making disciples of all nations is at the heart of the Church’s God-given mandate (Matt. 28:18-20). Everyone, including those of all ethnicities and skin colors, is welcome in God’s kingdom. Because the Church has a “catholic” (i.e., universal) view toward humanity, its members—properly formed—should not be as vulnerable to ethnocentrism as Protestant and Orthodox Christians.
Bigotry and racism might be attributed to rash judgment (CCC 2477-78), but their staying power reveals deeper roots—a contempt for God’s created order that reconfigures that order accordingly:
Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (CCC 2113, citing Matthew 6:24).
Unsurprisingly, this idolatry expresses itself not just in racial bigotry but religious bigotry as well. The Ku Klux Klan, for instance, was not simply the violent “defender of the white against the black” and “Gentile against Jew,” but also “Protestant against Catholic,” in part because the Church disagreed with the Klan’s doctrine on “race mixing.”
The Klan and its like-minded supporters drew on their disordered religious tradition to segregate schools and enact laws against interracial marriage (see Mark 7:6-8); however, in some cases their animus against Catholicism has been more enduring.
For example, Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC, finally opened its doors to blacks in 1971, ended its policy against interracial dating in 2000, and formally repented of its racist heritage in 2008. Its founder, Bob Jones, referred to the pope as the Antichrist and Catholicism a “Satanic counterfeit” in the 1920s, and upon the death of Paul VI in 1978, his son called that pope the “archpriest of Satan, a deceiver and an antichrist,” who “has, like Judas, gone to his own place.”
(We’re waiting for Bob Jones University to repudiate this blasphemous calumny and its other historical manifestations of anti-Catholicism. Neither has the Klan formally renounced its deep-rooted anti-Catholicism.)
Yet contrary to these American religious traditions, the unifying view of humanity rooted in Genesis 1 is otherwise solidly rooted and applied in Scripture. For example, God punishes Miriam and Aaron for wrongly protesting Moses’ marriage to a Cushite—an African outside the Israelite clan, pun intended (Num. 12:1-16). (This biblical account was obviously not given much credence when many U.S. states crafted their anti-miscegenation laws.) In addition Ruth, a Moabite, declares to her Israelite mother-in-law, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
Happily, in Catholic history there are plenty of counterexamples to racism. For example: the many Irish Catholic immigrant men who intermarried with Mexican Catholic women in the 1800s, because what united them in faith was paramount and their ethnic differences were seen as something to celebrate, not divide—a perspective much less common in the America to which they first migrated.
Another example is Father Augustus Tolton, who is often recognized as the first African-American priest, given the discrimination he suffered en route to his ordination and because there was no mistaking his ethnic heritage. That he was welcomed for seminary studies in Rome, the heart of worldwide Catholicism, speaks volumes. Father Tolton was actually preceded in America by the Healy brothers, Patrick and James, the sons of an Irish-immigrant father and a mixed-raced African-American mother. While the Healys could more easily “pass” in the more racially tolerant north, given their lighter pigmentation, they openly acknowledged their African ancestry.
More recent examples include Cardinal Joseph Ritter, who integrated St. Louis Catholic schools in 1947, overcoming opposition with an efficacious threat of excommunication, and also Catherine de Hueck Doherty, who helped to integrate Fordham University a decade earlier.
Some might argue that these examples show the inadequacy of Catholic institutions, given that such problems as segregation even existed. I would counter that although Catholics have never been immune from being “of the world” while living in the world, the Church has been ahead of the curve in American history in fostering racial harmony. This speaks well of the Church’s foundations, doctrine, and authority to guide society. Same with the Church’s historical teaching and record on slavery, as distinguished from individual Catholics who flouted that teaching.
The Klan is, thankfully, no longer the force it once was, yet concerns about race relations and immigration remain in America and around the world. In resolving conflicts, the Church reminds us that man cannot replace God, deifying himself and demonizing others, and so any real and lasting resolutions must recognize the dignity of every human person—not make arbitrary appeals to authority and freedom. For these just replace one form of unjust discrimination with another (see Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1934; 2433).
Consequently, the genuine gospel, at the heart of which is the incomparable unity Jesus prayed we would all share with him and his Father (John 17:20-23), must be our guiding principle.