A Catholic Reply to the Charge of Bigotry

Bigotry looms ever larger as a public concern today. Among the educated, articulate, and well-placed, it’s considered an intolerable moral flaw, a revolting psychological deformity, and a totally unnecessary pathology responsible for most of the world’s evils—war, crime, poverty, suicide—you name it.

As bigotry has grown in prominence as an issue, what counts as such has changed and become immeasurably broader. The word originally referred to intolerance in belief and opinion, and thus to political or religious antagonism. Now it mostly refers to intolerance for social groups, which is defined extremely broadly to include the view that distinctions among groups matter enough to be worth noticing and sometimes acting on.

Everyone respectable agrees it has to be stamped out. Schools and other institutions believe it necessary to ensure a sensitive environment through indoctrination, speech codes, and an expansion of the definition of harassment. Many of those measures are thought required by the civil rights laws, and in most of the West some of them are extended to the whole of society through the criminal law. Even ordinary people feel called upon to join the campaign, calling out violators with the aid of social media and bringing down sanctions on them.

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The idea seems to be that distinctions universally made have no legitimate function, so that giving them any weight at all is vicious. The distinctions now ruled out are primarily those relevant to identity but irrelevant to the methods and concerns of commercial and bureaucratic institutions that base their claim to authority on neutral expertise and rational efficiency in responding to the needs and choices of individuals. So it’s considered wrong to make distinctions based on ethnicity, sex, cultural heritage, claimed sexual identity, or religious affiliation. That view is comprehensive, enough so to lead Gonzaga University, a Jesuit institution, to deny the Knights of Columbus recognition as a student organization because—like the Jesuits themselves—they offer membership only to Catholic men. (Under fire, the university later reversed its position.)

In contrast, it’s OK to make distinctions based on who you know, how progressive you are, which school you went to, what your formal qualifications are, how much money you have, how you score on tests, how charming you are, and what organizational position you hold. Those distinctions are not only considered legitimate but now go very far: an age that has declared war on distinctions it does not like has greatly increased the effect of those it does. And you can also make distinctions on grounds that are normally forbidden, for example race and sex, as long as the effect is to disrupt the social effect of such distinctions in general. That is the meaning of “affirmative action.”

Concerns about bigotry are far from groundless. Whether relating to opinion or group membership, it can lead to horrendous consequences when it goes to extremes. The Nazis enslaved and exterminated Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and others, and the uncomprehending hatred of progressives for non-progressives, that on some accountings has led to most of the violent deaths of the last hundred years, has never been squarely recognized and is still very much alive.

Nonetheless, there’s something odd about the movement as it stands. It’s considered a result of increased moral insight and concern for others in a maturing civilization, but the judgment seems doubtful, considering the growing stupidity of public life and the general indifference to the sometimes astonishing bigotry of the left.

Also, it’s odd that rejection of distinctions like sex that have been basic to all societies should line up so neatly with the interests of technocratic commercial and bureaucratic institutions that would like to do away with distinctions that support the functioning of competing institutions, such as the family. And at a more theoretical level, it’s odd that such distinctions should have human importance sufficient to determine identity but no rational social or practical significance at all. Have people universally identified themselves all these years by reference to characteristics that are invented or absolutely trivial?

Such issues should concern Catholics. We should favor reason and the public good, which require public deliberation that is largely free and rational, and discussion of these issues is becoming less and less so. More pointedly, much of our religion is now classified as bigotry and its exercise has begun to run into various forms of legal and social suppression. We are told, for example, that the male-only priesthood is sexist, the New Testament anti-Semitic, the hierarchy antidemocratic, the view of Islam as a false religion racist, the doctrine of marriage narrow, judgmental, and homophobic, and extra ecclesiam nulla salus, in however nuanced a form, fundamentalist, exclusionary, and incipiently terrorist.

The result is that we shouldn’t simply absorb the dogmas that surround us but need to understand our own. And at bottom, the Church’s position is fairly simple: love of God and neighbor comes first, but includes acceptance of the fundamental goodness of the world God created, and of features of human society necessary for its normal functioning. So distinctions are mostly OK, but nihil nimis, nothing too much.

The key biblical text is Galatians 3:28, where Paul tells us

There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.

He’s not saying that such distinctions shouldn’t matter in any setting. That would deny what he says elsewhere, for example on relations between the sexes. Worse, it would make our unity in Christ trivial, something that overcomes only distinctions that shouldn’t matter anyway. The point he needs to make, and does make, is that even distinctions integral to social functioning are subordinate to a more fundamental unity. And that is indeed the Church’s view.

Skipping forward 1900 years, the most comprehensive, authoritative, and relevant nonscriptural statement relating to human differences is probably section 29 of Gaudium et Spes, a document of the Second Vatican Council:

The basic equality of all must receive increasingly greater recognition … With respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated …

Therefore, although rightful differences exist between men, the equal dignity of persons demands … a more humane and just condition of life … excessive economic and social differences between the members of the one human family or population groups cause scandal.…

So excessive differences and discrimination with respect to fundamental rights are bad, but not all differences are excessive and not everything is a right we have simply by being human. We have a fundamental right not to be murdered or robbed, and to fair procedures if someone’s going to throw us in the slammer. We don’t have one to any particular degree of power, income, or social standing, as long as the differences aren’t excessive and are part of a pattern that serves the common good.

In recent times the issue of human differences has often come up with respect to the position of women in the Church, and that can serve as an example. Here the Church’s view is that women can’t be discriminated against with regard to fundamental rights, and “access to employment and to professions must be open to all without unjust discrimination: men and women.…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2433)

Nonetheless, women can’t be priests. That’s not unjust discrimination, since differences between the sexes are real and relevant. Nor is the men-only priesthood a strange divine command at odds with everything else right and good in human relations, but a consequence of recognition that “women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive.” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 99) That is why, for example,

The Church can and should help modern society by tirelessly insisting that the work of women in the home be recognized and respected by all in its irreplaceable value…. Possible discrimination between the different types of work and professions is eliminated at its very root once it is clear that all people, in every area, are working with equal rights and equal responsibilities. (Familiaris Consortio, n. 23)

The effect is that the equality and nondiscrimination the Church promotes don’t mean no differences in function or social position. They mean presidents, popes, dishwashers, and everyone else has a common fundamental human dignity, and attitudes and institutions should recognize that even when there are legitimate differences in position and power. Human differences can indeed cause problems, but you can’t solve the problems by claiming the differences simply shouldn’t be there.


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