Acton Institute Powerblog

The Catholic Church vs. Critical Race Theory

(Image credit: Associated Press)

A new book by philosopher Edward Feser takes on the popularizers of CRT and demonstrates the theory’s incoherence and incompatibility with church teaching, even as racism remains an evil to be combatted.

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Two and half years ago, the police killing of George Floyd sparked rioting and heightened racial tensions across the United States, and many Americans began to hear the phrase “critical race theory” for the first time. Critical race theory (or CRT) has been around since at least the 1990s, but the frequency of the term’s use in the media, classrooms, and everyday conversation has skyrocketed in recent years as so-called anti-racist and diversity initiatives have gained a greater market share of public and political awareness. Indeed, according to a recent City Journal poll of over 1,500 18-to-20-year-old students, 90% of them reported that they had either been taught or heard about CRT in school.

Despite this, many Christians who rightly see combating racism as part of their moral duty may not grasp the full extent of CRT’s implications or the dangers it poses to a free and virtuous society. Philosopher Edward Feser’s new book, All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory, provides a clear and helpful analysis of racism and CRT through the lens of Catholic Church teaching.

This book is perfectly subtitled in that it spends significant time evaluating both the church’s denunciation of racism and the incompatibility of Church teaching with CRT. It retains its focus well and explores both critiques from multiple angles, bringing in church doctrine, anthropology, formal and informal logic, social science, and historical comparisons. Its arguments are well supported with academic references, but its clear and concise structure distills them into an easy-to-read format. Readers who seek a thorough overview of the church’s statements and position on racism will find it here, and Christians who have ever experienced confusion as to whether CRT obtains as a remedy for it will come away with the understanding that Christianity and critical race theory rest on entirely different first principles; indeed, they present irreconcilable worldviews.

Feser spends a good portion of the book reviewing the church’s repeated condemnations of racism. Quoting and analyzing various encyclicals and papal statements from as early as 1435, he embeds the church’s case against racism in a crucial concept it has defended through the ages: “All people have the same dignity as creatures made in [God’s] image and likeness.” The two categorizations of “image” and “likeness” traditionally correspond to the realms of nature and of grace, conveying that this universal human dignity is rooted in both “our common origin” and “our supernatural destiny.” This has served as the foundation for all the church’s arguments against racism, which Feser straightforwardly shows.

While the Catholic Church has made the concept of equal human dignity explicit and defended it throughout its history, it’s not an exclusively religious notion. It’s also a principle of natural reason, an intuitive idea whereby we understand that we ought to do to others as we would have them do to us. As such, the notion of human dignity must also lie (theoretically) at the foundation of all secular social-betterment movements. Feser’s treatment of it, therefore, is the necessary framework to understand why racism is wrong and why critical race theory falls short as an appropriate solution to it.

Despite the subtitle’s giveaway that Feser will ultimately reject CRT as contrary to church teaching, his exposé of its tenets is impressive. Drawing mainly from Ibram X. Kendi’s and Robin DiAngelo’s bestselling popularizations of the theory, he takes time to lay out the claims of CRT’s popular proponents with precision and a fair amount of objectivity. Feser emphasizes that “the fundamental assertion of CRT is that racism absolutely permeates the nooks and crannies of every social institution and the psyches of every individual.” He dissects the CRT vocabulary of “anti-racism,” “micro-aggressions,” “implicit bias,” “white fragility,” and “intersectionality,” and discusses its adherents’ focus on policy and power struggles. His overview helps the reader understand that CRT is not primarily a social justice movement committed to equality but an entirely self-contained worldview opposed to the rule of law, objectivity, the language of natural rights, and individual freedom of conscience.

Perhaps the most satisfying chapter in this book is when Feser bombards that worldview with the artillery of logical principles. He proceeds down a long line of logical fallacies committed by popular critical race theorists, such as the fallacy of begging the question, wherein a line of reasoning relies on premises that only hold if the conclusion is already assumed. According to Feser, CRT gives “the false appearance of having evidence in its favor” because its claims are often not empirically verifiable and therefore not falsifiable in the scientific sense, and the theory seems in some ways unassailable because it accounts for every opposing argument within its own framework and rhetoric. When approached objectively with the powerful tools of logic, however, Feser shows that CRT crumbles as a perceptual lens any reasonable person would choose to adopt.

One rather wonders whether Feser, out of the principle of charity, which he accuses CRT proponents of violating, ought to have engaged the academicians who promote CRT rather than its popularizers, since he demolishes the assertions of the latter so effectively. It would have felt more like a fair fight. But in choosing to dismantle the popular arguments of CRT, he does send in his troops where the attack is thickest, since most people’s understanding of CRT comes from its more popular version. He certainly succeeds in demonstrating that the “paranoid worldview of CRT” has abysmally poor philosophical backing.

Other highlights of All One in Christ include a refreshing discussion of nationalism, patriotism, immigration, and integration, all of which pertain to any serious analysis of race and ethnicity. He points out that “the Church’s teaching on patriotism and on the nation as a natural institution is in no way a concession to nationalism, racism, or xenophobia but precisely a corrective to them.” Readers who have wondered whether preserving national boundaries and cultural differences is inherently racist will be convinced by the commonsense case that the nation as a geographic unit marked by a unique culture is, like the family, natural to man. Furthermore, they will understand that using reasonable means to protect one’s national culture from dissolution by other nations has nothing to do with racism and everything to do with preserving the common good. Civic peace is threatened when too much diversity undermines national identity, because it is natural for humans to cleave to the latter and “all striving against nature is in vain.” A healthy level of patriotism, therefore, rather than being racist, actually protects human dignity by respecting and working in harmony with human nature.

The book also makes a social scientific case in support of alternative theories to CRT that align better with church teaching. Feser provides evidence from economics, history, sociology, and psychology to counter CRT proponents’ unempirical claims and offers other explanations (such as cultural factors) for the supposed racial discrimination at the root of socioeconomic disparities. The reader may wish for more detail on some of the evidence Feser includes, as a few of his claims are not supported with citations, but most are well referenced and their presence rounds out Feser’s overall argument in addition to underscoring the church’s high regard for scientific analysis.

The last chapter of the book leaves the reader not only convicted of the incompatibility of Church teaching with CRT as a solution to racism but also alarmed by a side-by-side comparison of CRT with Marxism, Leninism, and Nazism. While this may seem extreme to some readers at first glance, Feser makes an uncomfortably compelling case that all these ideologies present some variation of the age-old Gnostic heresy, whereby enlightened “elites” are pitted against the unenlightened (and in this case racist) masses in a struggle for power. As admirers of Lord Acton and students of history, we know that “power tends to corrupt,” and Feser is right that our knowledge of where this revolutionist and revisionist rhetoric has led whole nations in the past should give us serious pause when weighing the merits of CRT. Ideas have consequences.

In All One in Christ, Feser has crafted a timely response to the discomforting fact that “much of the general public has, under the influence of Kendi’s and DiAngelo’s bestsellers and other CRT-inspired propaganda, come to have a massively distorted perception of race relations and the incidence of racist behavior in contemporary American society.” Methodical, well researched, and yet notably accessible, this book mediates the voice of the church in its proclamation that “Christianity cannot salvage these ideologies.” Feser is overwhelmingly convincing in his contention that, while racism is a grave evil and remains a painful reality in our own day, a faithful Christian (or any reasonable person who cares about human flourishing) should not espouse critical race theory as a viable solution.

Sarah Negri

Sarah Negri is Project Coordinator for the Research Department at the Acton Institute.