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Why racism is a heresy

Flowers at a Christchurch mosque after the shootings earlier this month (Getty)

The mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 50 Muslims, are an unspeakable tragedy, and we must pray for the victims and their families – and for the conversion of those who perpetrate such evils. Islam is not a race but a creed; nevertheless, it appears from reports that the shooter was inspired by racial hatred. It is worth reflecting, then, on the Church’s teaching about racism.

Racism is the belief that the intellectual and moral qualities of human beings, and the differences in achievement and fortune between nations, result from biological descent. On this theory, some “races” are intrinsically intellectually and morally superior to others. This is an idiotic superstition: by superstition, I mean the attribution without any rational basis of a disproportionate significance to merely bodily and external realities. But this superstition is also a heresy. It was, as Pope Paul III taught in 1537, created by the Devil. “The enemy of the human race,” Paul wrote, has “invented a means never before heard of, by which he might hinder the preaching of God’s word of Salvation”. This was the age of discovery, when European explorers were encountering new peoples. The heresy was that they were “dumb brutes…incapable of receiving the Catholic faith”. People who spread this lie intended to enslave the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

In response, the Pope declared that the peoples should not be “in any way enslaved”; he added that they were “by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property”.

Racism hinders the preaching of God’s word of salvation. God always intended mankind to be one family by nature, because He wills that we be united into one family by grace. Everyone – as 20th-century popes repeatedly affirmed – is descended from Adam, and therefore there is only one human race. We all have the same Father in heaven, the same nature of body and soul, and the same dwelling-place, the earth. As Pius XII taught against the Nazis:

“Men took their origin from the first couple, and … even when they abandoned their Creator, God did not cease to regard them as His children, who, according to His merciful plan, should one day be reunited once more in His friendship … God ‘hath made of one, all mankind, to dwell upon the whole face of the earth, determining appointed times, and the limits of their habitation, that they should seek God’ (Acts 17: 26, 27).”

The distinction of mankind into different nations is “a disposition of the divinely sanctioned natural order” (to quote Pius XII again). And although we live in different nations, we are bound together “by reciprocal ties, moral and juridical, into a great commonwealth directed to the good of all nations”. This commonwealth ultimately exists for the sake of our supernatural unity in the Catholic Church, the “universal assembly” where all nations are destined to be united in Christ Crucified: “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne, and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands”.

People do not always realise that this teaching is also rooted in metaphysics. The Church has infallibly taught that each human being has an immortal soul. This intellectual soul is the “form of the body”. This means that at the most fundamental level every human being is the same regardless of race or sex. St Thomas Aquinas, as so often, illustrates this element of the Church’s teaching particularly well. He often gave whether a man is black or white as an example of an obviously unimportant “accidental” feature of a human person.

For the Christian, nobody is defined by their physical inheritance or determined by their cultural inheritance. And nor are nations: a national culture is the fruit of the varied moral achievements and failures of the men who made up these communities over many centuries. These achievements and failures can result in God’s providence in either temporal prosperity or affliction according to the good purpose of His will. This is not a straightforward matter: As St Augustine explained, nations like individuals may achieve earthly glory but be deprived of eternal glory – or vice versa (Matthew 6:2-6). The course of a nation’s history is mysterious.

But what about the materialist, who does not believe in Providence or in the immateriality of the soul? He can offer no other explanation than biology (either immediately or mediated by culture) for the triumphs and tragedies of men. Logically, for the materialist, temporal glory is the only sort of glory there is. He has no alternative explanation to offer. Materialism, then, can be a step towards racism. Materialists have been squeamish about admitting this since World War II, but they were not always so coy. At the beginning of the 2oth century, HG Wells opined that “those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go. The whole tenor and meaning of the world, as I see it, is that they have to go.” Darwin was similarly hopeful that “the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world”, and despaired that we allow supposedly inferior elements to have children “excepting in the case of man itself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”

But Catholics can have no time for superstition or heresy, as “A little leaven corrupteth the whole lump.” And racism is a superstition and a heresy to be met like all false religions with the preaching of the true faith which gathers into one the scattered children of God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. Racism was, is and always will be absolutely inimical to the supernatural society founded by Jesus Christ to preach the Gospel to all nations.