What Catholic Social Teaching Tells Us About Affirmative Action

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A few months ago, at my university, I was on a panel on the topic of evaluating American liberalism and conservatism in light of Catholic social teaching. The panel was asked what that teaching would say about affirmative action—defined by a leading law dictionary as the conferring of special rights, in hiring or advancement, to ethnic minorities to make up for past discrimination. The social encyclicals the authoritative sources for the magisterial teaching on social questions—have never addressed this subject. (The USCCB has addressed it—for example, in its 1979 pastoral letter on racism, where it claimed that “racism is sometimes apparent” in an opposition to affirmative action—but, of course, statements from episcopal conferences are not magisterial statements.) However, we can perhaps gain some sense of how affirmative action might be viewed in light of various teachings in the encyclicals.

There is no question regarding the Church’s repudiation of unjust discrimination. As Pope St. John Paul II made clear in his social encyclical Laborem Exercens (#19-23), when determining remuneration for work—and, inter alia, this would apply to other aspects of employment—considerations of nationality, religion, or race have no place (in mentioning religion, he obviously didn’t mean that a religious body or institution needs to compromise its religious character when making employment decisions). He even said that it would be unacceptable to discriminate against disabled persons when it involves work they are capable of doing.

Women should not be discriminated against when being considered for work that their nature would permit them to undertake. (In fact, because the Church encourages family life, work should be structured so that women who take time away from their career to raise a family should not be disadvantaged in employment.) The Church also says that immigrants should receive equal treatment with indigenous workers, but she also makes clear that there is no absolute right to immigrate since there should be “just reasons for it” and nations have an obligation to accept immigrants only to the extent that their common good dictates and can set conditions for it (cf. Pacem in Terris #25, 106 and Catechism #2241).

The Church’s teaching on discrimination is grounded on her more basic teaching upholding human dignity. As Pope St. John XXIII says in Pacem in Terris: all human persons “are equal by reason of their natural dignity” (#44). That, of course, does not suggest egalitarianism. As Pope Leo XIII says in the first major social encyclical Rerum Novarum, “there will ever be differences and inequalities of condition” since “it should not be supposed that all can contribute in the like way and to the same extent” (#34). The result of this is that people will have different levels of wealth and social standing—something that socialism cannot tolerate. The Church says that no one should be in deprivation or at the margins—Pacem in Terris (#20, 11, 29) says that everyone has the right to a decent standard of living, a just wage, and security when deprived of the means of subsistence through no fault of his own—but there cannot be economic leveling.

While the rights of ethnic and racial minorities must be respected, Pacem in Terris exhorts those minorities—this applies particularly to decolonization, although it ostensibly has applications outside of this context as well—not to exalt themselves or their culture or to view what is advantageous to them as advantageous to everyone, even if they do so as a reaction to their present problems or past injustices (#97). Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio says that a better world must be brought about “without one group making progress at the expense of the other” (#44).

How can we evaluate affirmative action in light of these passages? It does not seem that affirmative action would be either precluded or expected as far as the Church is concerned. It  seems that it would need to be approached with considerable prudence, however. A prominent Catholic social scientist once told me that there is no problem trying to elevate whole groups of people who are considerably disadvantaged—the issues, however, are apparent. One cannot routinely view people as belonging to a disadvantaged group, and so consider them worthy of special preferences, without considering their part in the equation, i.e., whether their action or inaction has contributed to their situation. Again, as John XXIII said, people have a right not to be deprived of economic sufficiency when their disadvantage has resulted from no fault of their own. Catholic social teaching does not require the rewarding of irresponsibility. When speaking about foreign aid—what applies to the population of a nation as a whole also applies to groups of people or individuals within a nation—Populorum Progressio says there can be no encouraging of “parasites or the indolent” (#54).

Additionally, as already noted, there is the problem that Paul VI also mentions, of one group making progress at the expense of another, which he raises in the context of the attempt to rectify past injustices—which is exactly what the rationale of affirmative action has been. If these policies are in effect over a long enough period of time, they can easily create new injustices. Thus, we see surveys that show a significant percentage of Caucasians now saying—for a variety of reasons including affirmative action—that they believe they are discriminated against. Indeed, we hear enough said nowadays about “favored groups,” which are typically demographic groups that were previously viewed as being disadvantaged or on the margins. Pope John raised a concern regarding groups who exalt themselves as they reap the advantages of affirmative action. This seems increasingly a likely possibility when the advantageous treatment continues for a substantial period of time. Human nature being what it is, people can easily come to think of themselves as better than others.

There are some who claim equal status on par with ethnic or racial groups, even though their group identity is based on prevailing immoral ideologies or practices—such as homosexuals and so-called transgenders. These people who base their demographic group on immoral behavior or psychological illness seek legitimacy as a discriminated class in order to cash in on the advantages of affirmative action.

We certainly have seen a number of minority groups exalting their culture beyond what can be called reasonable. We can appreciate the good aspects of what might be called “black culture,” for example, but we cannot simply embrace everything that some in the black community tout merely because it is part of that culture. “Gansta” rap is an example. Nor can we go so far as to accept the legitimacy of something like the “gay culture” because what it is grounded on is morally reprehensible. To be sure, it is not clear that something like affirmative action is responsible for this, but a routine practice of favoring certain groups—for whatever reason—may have the effect of emboldening some from these groups to make unreasonable claims or, in effect, to exalt them. Behavior of this kind is only to be expected in an age of multiculturalism and diversity, where all cultural expressions are said to be equally valid.

Then, there is simply the issue of whether or not—even if the aim is to correct past injustices—it is just to effectively disadvantage, even if to a limited degree, people who are today in the “majority” group for actions or discrimination that occurred decades or even centuries before they were born.

The most gnawing questions about affirmative action are whether it has the effect of favoring the less qualified in employment simply because they are members of a minority group, and whether it constitutes discrimination against those not in the group. The former may be avoided if care is taken in every hiring decision to make sure that candidates are equally qualified before deciding to go with a minority applicant. The latter has to be weighed carefully in light of Catholic social teaching, which we have seen is squarely opposed to unjust discrimination regardless against any racial or ethnic group.

Finally, there’s the issue of whether affirmative action—which claims to benefit minorities—actually has the effect of hurting them. This is seen currently with the claim that affirmative action admission practices in the academy, supposedly to benefit black and Hispanic students, are harming better-qualified East Asian students. It can even hurt the minority groups it is aiming to help by encouraging them to apply to colleges that are not suited to their academic abilities, resulting in either high minority dropout rates or grade inflation—i.e., a lowering of standards.

Catholic social teaching does not explicitly prohibit affirmative action, yet it raises a number of ethical dilemmas that must be carefully considered before any approval can be offered.

Editor’s note: Pictured above, protesters hold signs in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on October 10, 2012, in Washington, DC. The high court was about to hear arguments on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin and is tasked with ruling on whether the university’s consideration of race in admissions is constitutional. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)


Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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