In this toxic era of bitter cultural division, few things divide people as bitterly as Critical Race Theory (CRT), which isn’t a surprise, given that CRT divides. It divides people into groups pitted against one another, into categories of oppressed vs. oppressor. Your group defines you. It’s an ideology that stereotypes and separates based on race—ironically, in the name of opposing racism. In that regard, it smacks of so many bad ideas on the political Left, such as the “tolerance” movement and its rigid intolerance toward those who dare disagree, or the “diversity” movement and its lack of diversity toward those of different views.
Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), warned in two recent excellent statements that CRT can morph into something even more dangerous. Gomez warned about “social justice movements” that have become “pseudo-religions.” He instead urged the “need to proclaim Jesus Christ boldly.” With the exception of a great piece posted at National Catholic Register by Lauretta Brown, which insightfully flagged and paired both statements, Gomez’s remarks have not gotten the attention they deserve.
Gomez gave two complementary statements. The first was a November 4 virtual address to the Congress of Catholics and Public Life in Madrid. It deserves to be read in its entirety. I’ll quote a few key passages here.
Gomez pointed to “an elite leadership class” that has arisen, one with “little interest in religion” or local traditions or cultures. This elite group runs corporations, governments, universities, the media, and various cultural and professional establishments—what the likes of Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci would have described as the conveyor belts of culture (Gomez didn’t name Gramsci). To this group and its “elite worldview, there is no need for old-fashioned belief systems and religions. In fact, as they see it, religion, especially Christianity, only gets in the way of the society they hope to build.”
This is a process of secularization, notes Gomez, that means “de-Christianization,” one that our popes have warned about for many years; “a deliberate effort in Europe and America to erase the Christian roots of society and to suppress any remaining Christian influences.” Gomez noted that even his Madrid audience in its conference program used American terms like “cancel culture” and “political correctness,” noxious labels effectively exported by progressive elites. Says Gomez: “And we recognize that often what is being canceled and corrected are perspectives rooted in Christian beliefs—about human life and the human person, about marriage, the family, and more.”
Gomez went deeper in linking these painful new realities to the “new social movements and ideologies” that have been “seeded and prepared for many years in our universities and cultural institutions.”
One of these is clearly critical race theory and groups like Black Lives Matter, which Gomez did not call out by name. But not unsympathetically, he did note this: “But with the tension and fear caused by the pandemic and social isolation, and with the killing of an unarmed black man by a white policeman and the protests that followed in our cities, these movements were fully unleashed in our society.”
Here Gomez spoke of George Floyd, whose situation he unhesitatingly condemned as a tragedy for all, himself included; “a stark reminder” that racial inequality is “still deeply embedded in our society.” Gomez stressed that “We need to keep this reality of inequality in mind.” And yet, such inequalities need not mean that Christians should dash to secular or atheistic theories and movements for their answers, especially as many of these movements seek to supplant traditional Christian thinking and action. Gomez said:
Here is my thesis. I believe the best way for the Church to understand the new social justice movements is to understand them as pseudo-religions, and even replacements and rivals to traditional Christian beliefs.
With the breakdown of the Judeo-Christian worldview and the rise of secularism, political belief systems based on social justice or personal identity have come to fill the space that Christian belief and practice once occupied.
Whatever we call these movements—“social justice,” “wokeness,” “identity politics,” “intersectionality,” “successor ideology”—they claim to offer what religion provides. They provide people with an explanation for events and conditions in the world. They offer a sense of meaning, a purpose for living, and the feeling of belonging to a community.
Even more than that, like Christianity, these new movements tell their own “story of salvation.”
Lest the woke-minded on the Religious Left wail in outrage, protesting that they have no idea what Gomez is talking about (one group of Left-wing Christians did just that, targeting him with a petition), he laid it out for them:
There is another story out there today—a rival “salvation” narrative that we hear being told in the media and in our institutions by the new social justice movements. What we might call the “woke” story goes something like this:
We cannot know where we came from, but we are aware that we have interests in common with those who share our skin color or our position in society. We are also painfully aware that our group is suffering and alienated, through no fault of our own. The cause of our unhappiness is that we are victims of oppression by other groups in society. We are liberated and find redemption through our constant struggle against our oppressors, by waging a battle for political and cultural power in the name of creating a society of equity.
Clearly, this is a powerful and attractive narrative for millions of people in American society and in societies across the West. In fact, many of America’s leading corporations, universities, and even public schools are actively promoting and teaching this vision.
This story draws its strength from the simplicity of its explanations—the world is divided into innocents and victims, allies and adversaries.
Gomez certainly acknowledges that “people are hurting” and there are “real human needs and suffering,” including by those who “feel discriminated against…. We should never forget this.” But the best way to seek genuine reconciliation is not via these modern secular ideologies but the Christian narrative: “We can only build a just society on the foundation of the truth about God and human nature. This has been the constant teaching of our Church and her Popes for nearly two centuries.” We must “see the image of God in our neighbor.”
Gomez invokes Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti: unless we believe that God is our Father, then we have no reason to treat others as our brothers and sisters. “That is precisely the problem here.”
It is precisely the problem, says Gomez, because today’s “critical theories and ideologies are profoundly atheistic.” They deny the soul, the spiritual, the transcendent dimension of human nature, instead reducing what it means to be human to physical qualities such as skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or our notions of gender. Like Marxism, they reduce the human essence strictly to the material.
Here, Gomez shrewdly paused to point to not only the Marxist influence in these modern theories but to remind Catholics of the Marxist element in similar theories recently known to Catholics: “No doubt that we can recognize in these movements certain elements of liberation theology, they seem to be coming from the same Marxist cultural vision.”
Gomez concluded by underscoring the dangerous utopian elements of these Marxist-influenced theories:
And as a final point, I would note that these movements are Utopian. They seem to really believe that we can create a kind of “heaven on earth,” a perfectly just society, through our own political efforts.
Again my friends, my point is this: I believe that it is important for the Church to understand and engage these new movements—not on social or political terms, but as dangerous substitutes for true religion.
In denying God, these new movements have lost the truth about the human person. This explains their extremism, and their harsh, uncompromising, and unforgiving approach to politics.
It’s why they cruelly cancel people they disagree with. Jesus doesn’t cancel people. Christianity doesn’t cancel people. Catholicism doesn’t cancel people. The faith of Jesus Christ offers forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation. These false faiths do not. They are unforgiving, utterly lacking in mercy and charity. They seek not to redeem the “sinner” but to destroy him.
They don’t do what Jesus would do.
And so, asks Gomez, what is to be done? How should the Church respond to these new secular movements? Here is the archbishop’s answer:
My answer is simple. We need to proclaim Jesus Christ. Boldly, creatively. We need to tell our story of salvation in a new way. With charity and confidence, without fear. This is the Church’s mission in every age and every cultural moment.
We should not be intimidated by these new religions of social justice and political identity. The Gospel remains the most powerful force for social change that the world has ever seen. And the Church has been “antiracist” from the beginning. All are included in her message of salvation.
The Church has indeed been anti-racist from the beginning. It need not preach Ibram Kendi, but Jesus Christ. I wrote here at Crisis in July 2020 about how the Catholic Church has condemned slavery and racism in encyclicals dating back to at least 1435, and, of course, way back further still, to the very message of Jesus and the Apostles 2,000 years ago. Said Gomez: “Jesus Christ came to announce the new creation, the new man and the new woman, given power to become children of God, renewed in the image of their Creator…. That is what St. Paul meant when he said that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free.”
The archbishop openly conceded that the Church has “not always lived up to our beautiful principles.” Nonetheless, “the world does not need a new secular religion to replace Christianity. It needs you and me to be better witnesses. Better Christians. Let us begin by forgiving, loving, sacrificing for others, putting away spiritual poisons like resentment and envy.”
Unlike the secular ideologies of late.
Finally, Gomez noted that he found inspiration not only in the message of the institutional Church, but “inspiration in the saints and holy figures in my country’s history.” Gomez pointed to one of my favorite examples, the former slave-turned-priest, the Ven. Augustus Tolton:
His is an amazing and truly American story. He was born in slavery, escaped into freedom with his mother, and became the first black man to be ordained a priest in my country.
Father Tolton once said, “The Catholic Church deplores a double slavery—that of the mind and that of the body. She endeavors to free us of both.”
If we choose to instead operate without figures like Tolton, says Gomez, we are at risk of sliding into a new “tribalism,” that is, “a pre-Christian idea of humanity as divided into competing groups and factions.”
That’s exactly what we’re facing with these new identity-based ideologies and movements.
This was a powerful and timely speech by Archbishop Gomez.
Equally of note, Gomez picked up on these themes in his address to fellow bishops on November 16, kicking off the USCCB’s fall assembly. On that occasion, he invoked Martin Luther King Jr. and others on the “American creed,” which Gomez rightly defined as “the belief expressed in our founding documents, that all men and women are created equal and endowed with sacred dignity, a transcendent destiny.”
Gomez spoke of a turning point in history, one that he fears could be changing for the worse:
For most of our history, the story that gave meaning to our lives was rooted in a biblical worldview and the values of our Judeo-Christian heritage. It was the story of the human person created in God’s image…. What we see all around us now are signs that this narrative may be breaking down. This is one of the consequences of living in a secular society. We all need God to help us to make sense of our lives, so when we try to live without God, we can become confused. Many of our neighbors are searching.
And what those neighbors often grab on to, to pick up from Gomez’s November 4 address, are pseudo-religious movements, especially those people, he said to the bishops in this address, who grew up without religion and are hearing about the Word of God for the first time. They are searching and often finding the wrong answers in destructive ideological theories.
Our bishops often take a beating for not standing up to various destructive ideas and movements. Here, the head of the bishops chose to engage, and he did so thoughtfully, with compassion and a prophetic voice.
Obviously, we must all fight racial discrimination. The Church has done so for centuries without advocating for toxic new ideologies like critical race theory, which divides rather than unites. It has done so in fighting Marxism since the 19th century, with thoughtful analysis and prophetic warning from popes from Pius IX and Leo XIII to John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The head of the American bishops is continuing that tradition in a poignant way.
[Photo Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA]