Catholic antiracism is often taken for granted in general public opinion and even by significant trends of historiography. According to a sort of unspoken assumption, modern racism results from biological determinism, inherently incompatible with Christian brotherhood, or with religious prejudice anyway. The ‘secularization thesis’ posits that the rise of bourgeois modernity led to the decline of Christian universalism and paved the way for a scientific discourse based on explicitly biological theories of human difference and hierarchy. The seminal work by George L. Mosse Toward the Final Solution. A History of European Racism (1978) is an example of that interpretative line. As soon as biology is thought to be a prerequisite for racism, the racist views of Catholics risk being regarded as something foreign to the Christian mindset, imputable to mainstream culture and the status quo. Hence we should speak of betrayal, or compromise at most.
This ‘cultural captivity’ argument is misleading.
We must point out that Catholic opinion makers did not use the term ‘antiracism’ until the 1960s in order to identify their own point of view. This is actually not so surprising. The word antiracism was created during the 1930s, in conjunction with the birth of organizations devoted to the task of combating ‘racism' (vs. ‘racialism’, namely the classification of humankind into distinct races, including the ‘Negro race’). Racisme is another French neologism which gained currency a decade earlier to polemically label German völkisch ideology. Catholic approach to antiracism was deeply shaped by that equation between racism and National Socialism. Because of such a reductionist definition, and despite considering racism as inherently incompatible with Christian values, those involved in shaping Catholic discourse kept generally thinking throughout the 1950s that racial discrimination was not racist per se. Catholic interracialism — this was the label which was most commonly used by those Catholics who strove to oppose anti-Black racism — has been imagined as alternative both to Nazi-style racism and secular, militant antiracism of the leagues appealing to universal human rights. Strictly speaking, talking about Catholic antiracism before the 1960s may seem anachronistic; yet, even in the absence of the word, the contribution of Catholics to “those forms of thought and/or practice that seek to confront, eradicate and/or ameliorate racism” (A. Bonnett) cannot be ignored.
The fact that the word ‘antiracism’ did not appear in regular usage until the 1960s is the indicator of a wider question. It reveals the suspicion towards a category implying an equalization of differences inscribed in natural law (ius naturae). In short, that linguistic absence evokes the often neglected issue of ‘Catholic racism’. In the age of imperialism and Jim Crow segregation, Catholics largely supported the condemnation of anti-Black hatred. Anyway, this went hand in hand with the idea that the ‘Negro’ had to be ‘regenerated’ from his vices, barbarism, infidelity (if not baptized) or heresy (if Protestant). This ‘benevolent’ racism implied that Black people were primitive, ignorant, in short racially backward. Yet, Blacks could improve themselves. They could be civilized —that is assimilated to Western culture — through Christianization. The Catholic foundation of the so-called ‘Negro apostolate’ was precisely conversion. Even though Blacks’ minority status was not seen as absolute, there is no doubt that a different treatment for dark-skinned people was largely justified. Above all, Catholic interracialists did not reject racialism or race thinking. Nor did the Catholic Church fully condemn racism before WWII. Only the idolatry of race was rejected as a perversion. A limited and accidental gradation of races —not a static one — could therefore comply with the Christian doctrine.Read our Objectives