Ingredients for Developing a Catholic Anti-Racist Curriculum

Amid upheaval in society, universities face growing calls for changes in their curriculum. Demands increase for a changed canon of texts, new thinkers in place of the old. Some educators, who are committed to tradition, were uneasy at the content of these new texts and concerned that core classics will be cut. Fears of being canceled combine with increasingly rancorous debates. Am I describing our contemporary universities and the demand for anti-racist curriculum? No, it’s thirteenth century Europe that I have in mind here.

Medieval universities were dealing with the influx of Aristotle and other “pagan” authors along with Moslem and Jewish thinkers like Ibn Sina and Moses Maimonides. Amidst these controversies some thinkers saw options beyond ditching the classics or rejecting the new. Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, and Giles of Rome neither abandoned the core texts of their time, nor did they refuse the contributions of new ways of thinking.  

I bring up this tidbit of simplified history because in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and Derek Chauvin’s recent conviction for it, there have been growing calls for curriculum reforms at universities. At the heart of these calls is the demand that we develop an anti-racist curriculum. For those of us who have some commitment to the maintenance of a traditional liberal arts education—whether in classical schools, great books programs, or Catholic colleges—these calls for anti-racist curricula might cause dismay. Why?

In part, they often include or result in the cutting of major figures in literature, philosophy, and theology that Catholics, or people devoted to the humanities, care deeply about. When they are cut, they can quite easily fall away from our culture. Virgil, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Teresa of Avilla are not inevitable. This fear is exacerbated by the knowledge that diversifying the core has often meant cutting the core. Expanding the canon is a definite good but “woke” has frequently meant shuttered as revealed by Leicester University’s decision to eliminate medieval literature requirements. There can also be major losses in Catholic identity. We hear this in the declarations that schools are especially dedicated to diversity and inclusion as though that somehow marks them off from all the other universities saying the exact same thing. Catholic education—or related forms such as classical education—needs something more than the borrowed marketing terms of other universities.

These trends—and the general decline if not collapse of the humanities—leave traditionally minded educators deeply reluctant to accept these changes. In addition, many are rightly concerned about some of the ideologies advanced under the banner of anti-racism. The very innocuousness of the expression can be a source of concern. Of course, education should be anti-racist. But whose anti-racism? Which anti-racism? At times anti-racist curricula bear with them anti-humanist principles, anti-Christian ideals, or political agendas that many are uncomfortable with or reject. This is particularly true regarding a rejection of the universality of Christianity as just another colonial principle when we hold it to be at the heart of the Church’s existence.

However, the problem with the general response of too many traditional Catholics, classical school advocates, homeschoolers, and great books programs has been that we offer no response. The call that we consider anti-racism in our curricula has been met with silence, rejection, or worse scorn. This is unacceptable. Racism is a grievous sin, a violation of intrinsic human dignity, and a continuing blight on our societies. Pope Francis and the American bishops have spoken out against racism while indicating its continuing reality.

Francis teaches in Fratelli Tutti that “Racism is a virus that quickly mutates and, instead of disappearing, goes into hiding, and lurks in waiting.” While we can debate how deep the rot of racism goes in the American project and in the life of the Church, the rot is there. If we take seriously the Catholic understanding of the wound of sin and the sheer difficulty of overcoming it, we should take seriously the continuing need to resist, repent of, and overcome racism. Silence is not violence; however, silence is a failure of two essential Christian practices: the confession of sin and the prophetic office. When whites do not take up the call for solidarity against racism, we fall into the sin of omission as the American bishops recently taught: “too often racism comes in the form of the sin of omission, when individuals, communities, and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered.”

The second reason we should not be silent about developing anti-racism in our curricula is that because, if we are silent, then others will determine what counts as anti-racist curriculum. To a large extent, this has already happened. If a school is going to diversify its curriculum or have an event on anti-racism, they are likely to reach for Ibram X. Kendi or Angela Davis, not for Francisco de Vitoria or Dorothy Day. While we wring our hands about critical race theory, we leave the intellectual space uncontested. There is a deeply felt need for justice, and too many Catholics have been silent in response to that need. This silence is a sin of omission that needs to be repented of and remedied. But it is also a practical failure to foster an anti-racism grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition.

What I will attempt here is not a comprehensive account of what an anti-racist curriculum could look like within the context of a traditional education or a Catholic university. I am not qualified to do so and would point you towards US Catholic Magazine and the USCCB for some more resources. What I want to do is sketch some aspects of a Catholic anti-racist curriculum grounded in the humanities and the Catholic intellectual tradition. The shape will consist of some recommendations centered on the principle of Ressourcement, which is at the heart of both classical education and Catholic theology. I will close with some limits we want to consider regarding an anti-racist curriculum.

Return to the Sources and Reading Them Anew

If we hold that Christianity is true and that the “Church is an expert in what is human,” then when human dignity is threatened, we should turn to the tradition of Catholic thought. Should the question arise about what texts to include in an anti-racist curriculum, we should hasten to recommend figures like Augustine (an African), John Chrysostom, Anselm, or Hildegard von Bingen. Why? Consider the core contention of Augustine and Anselm regarding human anthropology. We find God at the center of the human person—every human person. When you turn inward, you turn upward. Turn within and you will find the trinitarian image of God. Augustine rejects the idea that this would only be true only of men and not of women. No. it must be true of each and all and so true of people of color. Likewise, in Anselm we find an account of the dignity of the human person grounded in his theocentric humanism. Anselm’s famous proof is as much about the intimate presence of God as it is an argument for God’s existence. Each human person is the space of encounter with God. When a Black person is killed in the street, on death row, or in utero, a person—with God in the heart of their being—has been killed.

Augustine also develops the deeply rooted sociality of the human person. In the City of God, when explaining why God created one person to be the father of all, he writes “God’s intention was that in this way the unity of human society and the bonds of human sympathy would be more emphatically brought home to man, if men were bound together not merely by likeness in nature but also by the feeling of kinship.” For Augustine, there is no possible boundary to the sociality of this human family. There is then, for Augustine, one race. It is sin that separates our race, sin which subjugates Black persons, sin which sees the baton and the real estate red line as the demarcation between us. Augustine writes:

There is nothing so social by nature as this [human] race, no matter how discordant it has become through its fault; and human nature can call upon nothing more appropriate, either to prevent discord from coming into existence, or to heal it where it already exists, than the remembrance of that first parent of us all.

If we are teaching our philosophy and theology rightly, then we should always already be teaching in an anti-racist way. The anti-racism is latent in this text precisely because the theocentric dignity and universal sociality is explicit.

It is not enough to merely assign these texts; we should explicitly highlight the ways in which they offer insights into the evil of racism. We should look to thinkers who took these texts and applied them against racism. Bartolome de las Casas developed a comprehensive critique of Spanish colonialism centered on the racism that undergirded it. He was articulating anti-racism at the very origin of Western racism. He did not abandon the tradition to oppose racism and colonialism. Rather, he drew on it (especially Chrysostom, Aquinas, and Augustine), reinterpreting it to show that what the Spanish were doing in the Americas was a moral abomination. When we take up canonical figures from the tradition, when we return to the sources like Fray Bartolome, we should do so to promote the good and resist evil in these times.

We might face criticism in drawing on these “dead white men” to advance an anti-racist curriculum. Here I think we need to identify two responses. The first is confessional. Christians cannot pretend that Western Christianity is without grievous sin. Nor can we pretend that an attachment to Western thinkers is never a cover for racism. While scholars who try to pin the blame for racism on figures like Aquinas are stretching credulity, it cannot be denied that Thomists and Augustinians have been racists.

Look to St. Martin de Porres, perhaps one of the holiest of all Dominicans, who suffered discrimination at the hands of his own confreres and was not canonized for over 300 years. Bartolome de las Casas’s canonization has been delayed for hundreds of years for his condemnation of colonization. To this day, defenders of colonization still hold him up for scorn. Nevertheless, sin does not obliterate goodness. Further, if we are to remain Christian, we must hold that the Christian tradition is the fundamental source of our understanding of human dignity. The Church is the expert in humanity and so must seek within her traditions a balm that will heal the racism that makes our society sin-sick especially when Christians are complicit in those racist structures.

The second reason to maintain and rediscover these texts in the context of anti-racism is that many of the preeminent anti-racists of American history did exactly that. The work and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr is the best example. If ever there has been an argument for the importance of a humanities education and training in philosophy and theology, the argument is encapsulated in King (see for instance his syllabus for a class on political philosophy.) But King is not the only such figure. Fredrick Douglass’s liberation occurred through the power of books. W.E.B. Du Bois looked to Balzac, Dumas, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius. He found in Shakespeare a fellow writer who “winces not.”

Claude McKay in his novel Home to Harlem writes of a character that had “dreams of patterns of words achieving form. What would he ever do with the words he had acquired? Were they adequate to tell the thoughts he felt, describe the impressions that reached him vividly?” For answers, his character draws on Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and the Russian giants Turgenev, Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoevksy, and Tolstoy. This great novelist of anti-heroes found guidance in a collection of literary heroes. King, Dubois, and McKay engaged a canon of writers found in any great books program, which is precisely where their books belong.

Finding New Sources

These figures themselves require that we consider a second feature of an anti-racist curriculum. Even as we read the tradition for resources for thinking against racism, we must also diversify this tradition. By this I mean, we must take a step beyond the work of Ressourcement thinkers. They rightly went back to the sources and in so doing restored lost sources. We might here think of Gustavo Gutierrez’s book on Las Casas which developed the rich theology within Fray Bartolome for the purposes of liberation. What Gutierrez indicates is that we need to recognize new fonts for our thinking. Canonicity is a religious category; we need to start thinking of a canon that expresses the fullness of a global faith.

Again, the challenge here is that so many institutions are gutting the canon. Diversification has too often meant making more room for business classes. We should make our argument clearly and boldly: when you cut the humanities, you harm humanity. A diverse canon can only exist within a robust, if not expanding, core of humanities courses. If we cannot teach figures from Catherine of Sienna to Toni Morrison, then we cannot help foster a just society. To make this argument—and to be committed to a humanistic education—requires that we broaden our sense of great books. We must be like the great African playwright Terence and recognize that nothing human is alien to us and so no human text should be treated as alien.

We cannot read canonical texts differently if we do not start reading people of color who have already read them differently. If we want a guide for doing this, King is an excellent one. King reads the natural law tradition with an orientation towards resisting racism and segregation. This allows him to develop features not present in Aquinas. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King emphasizes that natural law—and any human law in accord with it—uplifts human personality. Why such an emphasis? Because he had seen in his daughter’s face “the ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky.”

The oppressed know something that the oppressor—or the not-so-innocent bystander—does not. Part of what King knew is that a law is unjust is when it damages human personality, when it divides what should be united, when it makes of a “thou” an “it.” King goes beyond Aquinas to develop a standard to determine what laws correspond with natural law because he has experienced injustice in his own flesh and in the eyes of his loved ones. In this, I recommend Vincent Lloyd’s Black Natural Law. Lloyd shows how essential the natural law tradition has been in African American thought. But in doing so shows how Black natural law reshapes natural law in ways not yet articulated by the Thomistic tradition.

We also find in texts by African Americans, like James Baldwin or Fredrick Douglas, a challenge to our religion. For instance, Douglass had a deep sense of the power of Christianity but also the many ways Christians are complicit in racial structures. We have too often been forces for deferring justice. Fray Bartolome may have used Augustinian genealogy to critique colonialism, but he did so in response to the many Christian arguments advancing that very colonization. Nonetheless, from las Casas to Gutierrez, from Sojourner Truth to Cornell West, Christians who are racial minorities have returned to Christian sources to advance justice. If we are to be anti-racists ourselves, we can no longer skip over people of color who have done this essential work already. Catholics, of all colors, need to start treating these writers of colors as essential sources for theological renewal.

Thus far, I have perhaps been overfocused on philosophy and theology while frankly leaving out too many important philosophical and theological texts (James Cone for example). There is also the essential work historians—like Shannen Dee Williams, Cecilia Moore, and Cyprian Davis, OSB—have done to recover Black Catholic history. I want though to turn our attention to literature. Any resistance to broadening the literary canon is unjustifiable. Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, for instance, is one of the greatest novels ever written. If we are eager to teach Dostoevsky but reluctant to teach Ellison, we must seriously ask ourselves what our commitment to great books actually is about.

Reading Ellison, we find just what King means by degrading human personality. This degradation has not stopped, and its effects are not easily overcome. When I read this text—as someone who has not suffered racism—I start to get a sense of the depth of evil we are called to convert from and to resist now. It is like a demon that, as Jesus tells us, can only be “overcome by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). This means a reorientation of ourselves and our society. If we think reading literature can change lives, then we better start reading Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and other novelists of color.

This also requires we reevaluate what fits in the canon of Catholic literature. There is a constellation of features that help us see what is “Catholic” about certain literary texts. These include, but are not limited to, attention to the dynamics of sin and sanctity, a sacramental imagination, an openness to transcendence, attention to the arc of redemption, a perception of the human as pilgrim, and a sense of life as vale of tears and a commedia. Of course, certain figures leap to mind: Chaucer and Hopkins, Percy and O’Connor, TS Eliot and Denise Levertov. These are great writers, but it leaves us with a Catholic literature that is distinctly white. We need to start seeing stories of liberation, novels against oppression, and poems of resistance as Catholic texts too. We need to start seeing the way people of color have written poems and stories that deserve to be in the Catholic canon. We need to take seriously the Catholicity of Toni Morrison, as well as writers like Louise Erdrich and Ellen Tarry. This also means making room for new writers like Elizabeth Alceveda or Kirsten Valdez Quade.

I would like to highlight one author in particular, Claude McKay a novelist and poet. McKay—born in Jamaica and wandering between Harlem, France, the USSR, and Chicago—is a giant of the Harlem Renaissance and a convert to Catholicism. And yet one would be hard-pressed to find him on a Catholic literary syllabus. If one reads his literature through the lens of his “Catholic poems,” one finds a writer with a deep sense of search, woundedness, and sin. In Romance in Marseille, we see this incarnated in his main character Lafala. Left legless by the cruelty of whites, he searches for love amongst those living on the margins. Racism has literally taken the legs from him and yet his life is irrepressible and his search of home ongoing. Read with McKay’s poetry of revolt and his poetry of prayer, Romance in Marseille is a bracing testament to the requirement that Christians reject racism and its empty promises.

McKay, in his late poetry, wrote of his newfound Catholicism. He had rejected Marxism as another form of Western racism but remained committed to being a radical. He found in God “the greater strength to fight / the enemies of decency and truth.” And grew in the conviction that “negro religion to the whites is odd / because it’s a real part of negro life.” His sense of a faith that is real because it rejects racial injustice still stands as a challenge to Christians. Is religion a real part of our life and our pedagogy or is it as “useless and nude of life as piled up bones.” McKay was convinced—despite so many irreligious white churchgoers—that there was something deeper and higher than the racism that divides. Pondering whether Jesus was Black, he writes:

Well, Jesus’ color, black or brown or white

Pales into naught before the grand religion,

That He gave mankind as perfect Light

Of heaven to shine in Earth’s remotest region.

Yet imagine, if Africa did—wouldn’t it be strange?—

Give the whites a religion far beyond their range!

We need to read McKay—along with Toni Morrison, and Thea Bowman and others—precisely because they give Catholic theology, literature, and education a religion beyond the range of a merely white canon.

As we broaden the canon, we should not be afraid to engage texts that do not themselves fit within a Catholic canon. For as much as traditionally minded educators critique higher education for being obsessed with safe spaces, there are tendencies amongst many traditional education advocates to build these same spaces. This is part of the panicked reaction to critical race theory or decolonial theory. We ought not make these the center of a Catholic education; nonetheless, it is a tradition worth engaging with, critiquing, and learning from. Be a Thomist but read Fanon. In my case, when I read Bartolome de las Casas, I should also read Aimé Césaire’s critique of missionary work and Christianity. Césaire is not right that missionary work is structurally colonialist, and that Fray Bartolome remains a colonizer; rather, Césaire challenges us to purify our intentions when it comes to evangelization. We cannot pretend the colonizing impulse is absent from the missionary impulse. Engaging critical race or decolonial theory can act as a refiner’s fire to our own theological traditions. Catholic thought and pedagogy thrives when it is an open whole, grounded in tradition but engaging with rival traditions.

On the Limits of Anti-Racist Curriculum

I have attempted to lay out a case for an anti-racist curriculum in Catholic education, particularly with advocates for classical education/great books education in mind. I want to end with a few reasons not to make anti-racism the only, or even the central, feature of education. In a sense, to be anti-racist is to live out the second feature of the fundamental precept of natural law as elucidated by Aquinas “the good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” As persons and communities, we are summoned to live out this precept in all we do. It is a precept found in the heart of every human and is brought to light particularly in the oppressed. To be anti-racist is to pursue the good of intrinsic human dignity and to avoid the evil of anti-Black racism and all forms of racism.

Why then the limitation on anti-racist curriculum? There are two basic reasons. The first is that racism is not the only evil to be avoided. There are other moral tasks that our educational mission should be fostering, and we need to avoid a developing overemphasis on race that can, inadvertently, be counterproductive. To take the most important example, Catholic education must be pro-life. As we consider ways to foster curricula that are anti-racist, we must pursue an educational model in which people will see the evils of abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and war. Unborn lives matter in a way that is wholly compatible with the truth that Black lives matter. For both are lives insufficiently appreciated and under threat. Both claims fit in with an overall vision grounded in Catholic Social Teaching.

As we develop our curricula, we need to consider the metaphor of the seamless garment. This vision rightly sees the need to affirm the life and dignity of a person from conception, through their life, to their natural death. But it also recognizes that certain threats to that garment are more intense. Some threats are more likely to tear what God sewed together. Two such areas are matters of life and matters of racism. It is there that we especially need to defend against modernity’s tendencies towards tearing on both the right and left. The seamless garment also means that we see that humanity is a garment. If we tear away some people as less than, then we tear the garment of humanity. The seamless garment is not just about the dignity of a person’s whole life but the dignity of all life. There are no limits to the theocentric goodness of humanity.

The second limitation on anti-racist curriculum is that the first half of the natural law precept is the primary one. In this, our fundamental orientation in our curriculum should be towards God and consequently towards the True and the Good. Here again there is no contradiction with an anti-racist or pro-life curriculum: both are grounded in the truth of human dignity and the goodness of being at all. But we do need to prioritize the good. This is the value of highlighting the transcendentals as at the heart of our educational mission. Our education must be theocentric first and so centered on being, goodness, truth, and beauty.

The challenge for classical education types is that our commitment to the transcendentals can be too selective. We love to highlight the good, the true, and the beautiful. This is well and good, but we forget other transcendentals like alterity or categories like relationship at our peril. These transcendentals are the ground of diversity and plurality in human life. Highlighting them can help us to develop a curriculum that is not exclusively dominated by white men (or men like Augustine that we have deemed white). We also need to remember that goodness in this life means justice and mercy. Anselm is clear that we do not see the face of Goodness except through the rays of justice and mercy. Too often justice is left off the curriculum when the transcendentals are being highlighted. Further, we must see the ways in which our celebration of beauty can often be a celebration of Eurocentric accounts of beauty. “Black is beautiful” needs to start shaping our sense of beauty in art and culture.

In the end, the central text of truly anti-racist education is the Bible, as Fr. Yves Congar, OP argued long ago back in 1953. Like many Catholics, I have spent too little time on this text, ignorance of which is ignorance of Christ and so ignorance of the evil of racism and oppression. Forgive me then for closing with a riff on an evangelical hymn. How do we know that all humans are in God’s image? Because Genesis tells us so. How do we know that God rejects slavery? Because Exodus tells us so. How do we know we must not oppress the poor? Because Amos tells us so. How do we know that God loves all of us but especially the oppressed? Because the Four Gospels tells so. How do know that racial divisions are overcome? Because Paul and Peter tell us so. How do we know the in the Kingdom all peoples will be united in the heavenly city? Because Revelation tells us so. What we see in the Bible is the necessity that the fundamental source to which we must return, the continuing center of Christian teaching, is revelation of the Son who discloses the infinite love of God expressed to all persons beyond any human made division.

Featured Image: Matthias Grünewald, Meeting of St. Elmo and St. Maurice, 1520; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Terence Sweeney

Terence Sweeney is a doctoral candidate in the Philosophy Department at Villanova University. He holds the Theology-Philosophy Fellowship. He works on Augustine and on philosophical theology in the Continental tradition. He is the theologian-in-residence at the Collegium Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and is editor-at-large at the Genealogies of Modernity Project.

Read more by Terence Sweeney

Is the Bible Racist?

Yves Congar, OP on the lack of any arguments for racism in the Bible.

1100 Mikheev Exodus