First came the COVID-19. Then came the death of George Floyd. Now the United States is dealing with racial tensions and issues that go beyond his death. In this post, we will consider the groundwork for the Catholic Church’s teaching about racism because general principles can often be more useful amidst passion and anger. We will leave the reader to draw his (or her) own conclusions regarding recent circumstances. This piece is not intended as a comment on the death of George Floyd, but rather a call to treat each human life as sacred and worthy of respect and to return to prayer and continual conversion of heart in how we act toward each other.

Webster defines racism as “[1] a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that [2] racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” It should come as no surprise that the church has always taught that both aspects of racism (1 and 2) are wrong (despite what Wikipedia claims). For the Church has always taught, even if Catholic individuals have not always acted accordingly, that each man [and woman] is created in the image and likeness of God. This is the basis for equality and dignity among men. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this perennial teaching thus:

1934 Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity.”

https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c2a3.htm

1935 The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it:

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.40

https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c2a3.htm

At the same time, and immediately following this quote, the church finds it important to reiterate that inequalities and differences exist necessarily in this world due to living in a material world. For if they did not, man would not need anyone else to love or help him to survive. We are speaking of difference in the broad sense: i.e. if I am in one space I cannot also be in your space. If I have black hair I cannot also have blue hair! But it is because of these very differences that we need each other: a man needs a woman and visa versa, the dairy farmer needs the cheese maker and visa versa, the governor needs the citizen and visa versa. So racists are wrong to claim that “[1] race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities.” Race does not cause inequality. Rather, the individuals (and their actions) that make up communities are the proper causes of differences and inequality. Some differences individuals cannot control (like sex, skin color, family of origin, or birth place), and other differences they can (like one’s choice of spouse, career aspirations, and place).

1936 On coming into the world, man is not equipped with everything he needs for developing his bodily and spiritual life. He needs others. Differences appear tied to age, physical abilities, intellectual or moral aptitudes, the benefits derived from social commerce, and the distribution of wealth.41 The “talents” are not distributed equally.”

https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c2a3.htm

So in a certain respect these inequalities are good because they provide opportunities for communities to grow in love – often we like or love what another has, and a mutual exchange of goods occurs. But some inequalities or differences between men, communities, or cultures are of such a kind that they cause tension, for often man does not like what is different from him whether it be superficial or . This can produce jealousy, indifference to need, hatred, or racism, especially the second part of the definition.

Racism is wrong because race does not essentially define people. Instead, the dignity flowing from the rational soul does define man and endows him with special dignity. When a person believes or acts on the supposition that someone is inferior or superior because of their race, they are racist. They are pre-judging without even knowing the individual. Any differences that follow from being in a material world, controllable or not, do not affect this essential equality of dignity among all people in the eyes of God, and the eyes of God are what matter when we are trying to imitate him.

What does this mean for current circumstances? I’ll let you decide.

Share what you think in the comment section below!