Identity Politics and Church Teaching

Last month I suggested that white nationalism and certain other views aren’t likely to become practically important. Their proponents want to build on too shaky a base.

But there are related topics—identity politics and ethnic loyalties in general—that matter a great deal and should be discussed. What do we say about such things?

It’s a complicated situation. Ethnic and similar connections differ in many ways. Some, like Jewish identity, have a long tradition behind them that makes them seem rather focused. Others, like black, Hispanic, or white identity, seem more recent and unformed. So the issues are hard to pin down, and today’s partisan climate makes them difficult to discuss rationally.

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That’s all the more reason to try. For several decades respectable people have avoided such issues by asserting that ethnicity should have no practical significance at all. Attaining that goal might be complicated—it might (for example) involve dislodging dominant identities by promoting ones that have been subordinated—but the goal itself was clear.

We are all individuals, the thought has been, and giving traditional identities practical significance imprisons us in arbitrary categories. That’s oppressive, and easily leads to abuse, dehumanization, and worse. Some see history as little more than a catalog of such outrages.

Twenty-first century Americans find such views believable, but they leave out basic features of human life, so they’re at odds with the more complex understanding of man and society that lie behind Church teachings.

The Church of course recognizes fundamental unity and equality among human beings:

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. (Galatians 3:28)

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 as contrary to God’s intent.” (Gaudium et Spes 29)

But the evident point of Galatians 3:28 is to emphasize that Christian unity is more basic than even the most enduring distinctions. If it transcended only minor differences, why would it matter? And opposing discrimination with respect to fundamental rights doesn’t mean that everyone must always be treated the same. If I go to the Vatican I can’t expect to be treated like the Pope, because the Church like everyone else recognizes that “rightful differences exist between men.” (Gaudium et Spes 29)

Indeed, the Church recognizes that we have special obligations to people to whom we have a special connection: “if any man have not care of his own, and especially of those of his house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel”(I Tim. 5:8). Pius XII and others apply the point to whole nations:

Christianity teaches that in the exercise of charity we must follow a God-given order, yielding the place of honor in our affections and good works to those who are bound to us by special ties. Nay, the Divine Master Himself gave an example of this preference for His Own country and fatherland, as He wept over the coming destruction of the Holy City. (Summi Pontificatus 49)

Such principles are evidently necessary. Without them basic features of Catholic social doctrine, like subsidiarity and the importance of the family, evaporate.

Preference for one’s own people is partly motivated by attachment to their specific qualities. Saint John XXIII noted that

“The Church of Jesus Christ,” as Our Predecessor Pius XII observed with such penetration, “[…] is certainly too wise to discourage or belittle those peculiarities and differences which mark out one nation from another. It is quite legitimate for nations to treat those differences as a sacred inheritance and guard them at all costs.” (Mater et Magistra 181)

Saint John Paul II therefore emphasized the importance of “the struggle for culture and for national rights,” saying that “different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence.” (Centesimus Annus 24) As he told young people,

By receiving and inheriting faith and the values and elements that make up the culture of your society and the history of your nation, each one of you is spiritually endowed in your individual humanity…. We must do everything we can to accept this spiritual inheritance, to confirm it, maintain it and increase it. (Dilecti Amici 11)

The Catholic view, then, is that man is also a cultural and historical being. Ties of history and inherited culture are basic to human life, and necessary for its development in all its fullness and diversity. That is why Pius XI, in the course of his denunciation of Nazi paganism, noted that “[the Church] rejoices at the spiritual superiorities among individuals and nations.” (Mit Brennender Sorge 18) His main point in the encyclical was that human equality and Christian truth transcend national and cultural differences. But to say that one thing is supremely important is not to lessen the importance of other things.

It seems then that the Church views ties and some degree of loyalty based on common descent, history, culture, and language as a good and necessary thing. But what do we do with that today? Inherited loyalties don’t help us when we work for an insurance company, get our food from McDonald’s or Whole Foods, surf the web, or send our kids to a school with children and staff from everywhere. More and more people think they just gum things up.

So they see more reason to reject than value them. Many British people were horrified when their compatriots voted for Brexit. Who wants to be shut up on an island with a bunch of racist xenophobes? Even the Jews, the gold standard for endurance as a people, now seem largely to be abandoning their traditions and intermarrying themselves out of existence.

But that’s a problem. An inherited culture is a system of cooperation developed through long experience living together. There’s no way to replace that as a way of building up a shared system of life that works tolerably well in all settings throughout the whole of life. But without such a system life gets worse: weak human connections, stunted human development, and wrecked lives. Indeed, that’s what we see around us.

And the problem keeps radicalizing. It’s not just ethnicity and religion whose irreplaceable social functions are being lost or suppressed today, but sexuality. Educated, responsible, and well-connected people now insist that sexual distinctions are not only irrelevant but purely subjective, and view those who disagree as bigots who need to be squashed.

Even so, the distinctions are basic features of human life and don’t go away as they become less functional. Instead, they remain as battle flags, and the battles only get worse. Calling for reconciliation won’t do much when growing diversity means growing inequalities, growing mistrust and misunderstandings, and politicians who make identity-based resentments their road to office.

The trends don’t look good, and for the foreseeable future political life for Catholics is likely to be less a matter of working with others for the common good broadly conceived than a series of attempts to stave off disaster. Hence the interest in the “Benedict Option,” an attempt to live well now and build for the future by establishing islands of coherence and function in an increasingly incoherent, irrational, and aggressively intolerant social world. It’s not clear how well that will work, but it’s also not clear what the alternative is.


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