Teaching Racial Harmony from Theology of the Body

How should Catholic educators respond to the racial turmoil in recent years? Instead of adopting new materials and programs rooted in critical race theory,1 the Church already has a treasury of wisdom2 to draw upon.

I recently spoke about this with my colleague, Dr. Denise Donohue, who seems to be on to something important. She told me Catholic educators should discuss race from the foundation of Christian anthropology and St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, with its insights about human dignity and creation — and I think she’s exactly right.

Donohue is vice president for educator resources at the Cardinal Newman Society and has been a leader and teacher at Catholic schools and a university professor. Last year she worked with Dr. Joan Kingsland, a theologian and curriculum and training specialist at Ruah Woods Press, to co-author the “Standards of Christian Anthropology,”3 which has been enthusiastically welcomed by Catholic education leaders to integrate St. John Paul II’s theology across grade levels. They supplement the Cardinal Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards4 for literature, history, math and science, co-authored by Donohue and Dr. Dan Guernsey.

Somewhere within this work are important clues to teaching about race and justice in ways that are appropriate to faithful Catholic education. Hoping to explore the approach further, I put the following questions to Donohue and Kingsland.

Catholic education ought to begin with a proper understanding of the human person, as created by God. Does that sound right?

DONOHUE: The mission of Catholic education is different than that of public schools. We are concerned with the ultimate salvation of the student in addition to how the student might best function as a citizen in this world. Thus, our approach and underlying philosophy are different.

We must get the human person right first in order to know how to best educate them. That requires knowledge about the nature of the human person, and in our case, the person’s relationship with God. There is no room for political ideology like critical race theory, with its division and illusory concepts, in our schools. As public schools crowd out the faith from learning and bend to political and social pressures, good Catholic schools give prominence to the faith and hold politics at bay.

That makes sense to Catholics, but the Church herself is under scrutiny for racism—not only past mistakes, which were many, but also claims of systemic racism in a Church that was a key part of the development of Western culture. How do Catholic educators answer these claims of critical race theory?

KINGSLAND: The American Bar Association’s website says that critical race theory “exposes the ways that racism is often cloaked in terminology regarding ‘mainstream,’ ‘normal’ or ‘traditional’ values or ‘neutral’ policies, principles or practices. . . . CRT observes that scholarship that ignores race is not demonstrating ‘neutrality’ but adherence to the existing racial hierarchy.”

The claim that there is racism when race is “ignored” is unsustainable, if it means not talking about race all of the time. What a dangerous and irrational pitfall we face in the assertion that racism can only be avoided by making public or private discourse always and in every circumstance revolve around race.

Some proponents of critical race theory also claim that there is something about the very nature of the Catholic Church which is racist. But in two different letters, St. Paul lets us know that the Church does not discriminate:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all” (Col 3:11).

In fact, the very word “catholic” reassures us that the Catholic faith is not racist in her very makeup. Catholic is no light word for us: according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is one of four characteristics that “indicate essential features of the Church and her mission . . . The word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal,’ in the sense of ‘according to the totality’ or ‘in keeping with the whole. . . . First, the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her.”

We are intimately bound to Christ through our faith in Him, conversion and baptism. Since Jesus, in turn, is united with each believer, we are thus united to each other through Him.

“Secondly, the Church is catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race.” Note the word “race” here. The Church is meant for people of all races indiscriminately, because she is offered freely to everyone. You can’t get more universal than that! The very concept of universal is contrary to the notion of discrimination or racism. In other words, since the Church stretches out her arms to the entire human “race,” everyone is welcome, and everyone has equal status as a Catholic.

It’s only fair, therefore, to consider that the Church is not being subconsciously racist when she goes beyond the theme of racism to speak about the many diverse aspects of the faith, because in her very (universal) nature she is including people of all races.

What are the “Standards for Christian Anthropology”?

DONOHUE: The “Standards for Christian Anthropology” are a set of academic standards based on St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body teachings. They were designed to provide a solid basis for incrementally transmitting (K-8) a vision of human love in God’s divine plan. The Standards focus on providing the student with a deep recognition of themselves as a person made in the image and likeness of God, with personal self-worth, dignity and purpose. They help the student see that they are infinitely and unconditionally loved by God and called to live in a communion of persons in His image.

The standards do not address human love through a biological or physiological approach, but through a theological one that emphasizes respect and reverence of oneself, others and God. They are designed to help students learn how to treat others and how to expect others to treat them, as gifts from God and gifts to one another.

Why did you write the “Standards for Christian Anthropology”?

KINGSLAND: Knowing where you come from and where you are headed are essential for arriving to our eternal destiny, but there’s so much confusion and fragmentation of the human person in society today that leads people astray. St. John Paul II’s Christian anthropology is like a lighthouse casting Christ’s light through the darkness upon the rocky shores, so that sailors can safely find their way. We want our young people to obtain a clear vision capable of distinguishing the good from the bad, so that they can opt for what’s in keeping with their tremendous worth and thus achieve happiness in this life and the next.

DONOHUE: The “Standards for Christian Anthropology” are meant to assist teachers in their delivery of curricular material that focuses on the human person and students’ relationship with God and with others. In Catholic education, we have seen a deficit of background knowledge among teachers regarding basic catechetical principles, especially when teaching moral theology in the younger grades. It’s so important that the foundational principles of the human person — such as body/soul unity, two biological sexes, creation for communion and community, and so forth — are laid out in these younger grades, so that when students begin to explore their sexual identity and interpersonal relationships in middle school, they already have a “solid ear” to recognize when something is out of line with the truth about man’s nature.

So often we see many unformed young people swayed by social media that conveys messaging at whim, and these young people simply get caught up in the flow. Many of them have found themselves isolated from face-to-face relationships, preferring the ease of screen time and cyber-communities as their only known “reality.” This isolation breeds deception, darkness and doubt, which are all opposed to the truth, light and certainty taught by Jesus in the Gospels.

It seems that when anyone discusses Saint John Paul II’s theology of the body, they focus on sexuality and marriage. But shouldn’t Christian anthropology also inform how we talk about race?

KINGSLAND: St. John Paul II’s Christian anthropology considers what is revealed in Sacred Scriptures about the origin, current state and potential glorious eternal destiny of each and every human person. No particular race is singled out as better or worse, since the content of these teachings applies to the human race as a whole. Certainly, therefore, Christian anthropology should inform how we speak about race, because we are going from what can be known in general about the human person, as such, to various ways of grouping people.

In the eyes of God, our loving Creator, everyone has equal dignity and worth, for God loves each person unconditionally. He sent His only Son to save each one of us by His life, passion and death on the cross and His resurrection. We have each been ransomed at a great price.

The Theology of the Body teachings help us realize our tremendous individual worth and, at the same time, recognize that same worth and dignity in every other person, whether or not we bring in differences of race, nationality, physical capacity or being male or female.

How should Catholic educators talk about race in history class, in literature class, even in math or science class?

DONOHUE: First, it’s not necessary to bring in outside programs to address issues surrounding race. Instead, what Catholic schools should do is make sure they have a clear and convincing program of Christian anthropology that runs parallel to, or is incorporated into, these academic disciplines, perhaps through literature selections or standalone lessons. This Christian anthropology should include discussion on man’s relationship to God, the concept that man was created by God for His own sake, and that man was made in the image and likeness of God with an intellect to think, a self-will to choose, the ability to love and to work and the innate desire for unity and communion. These concepts should not be presented in only elementary school grades but should be revisited in middle and high school grades for a deeper analysis, understanding and applicability to contemporary issues.

It’s also very important not to buy into the current postmodernist mindset of racist language confusion, that only certain people can be the real spokesmen about racism, that all issues involve hierarchical power struggles and that truth is only a matter of relational positionality and subjectivity. These positions run counter to the Catholic position that objective reality is knowable and attainable by all people, who each possess human dignity simply because of God’s design and not by what they or others did, own or are capable of doing.

Both the “Standards of Christian Anthropology” and the “Catholic Curriculum Standards have wording to assist educators with this important theological instruction, which can address issues of race. The “Standards of Christian Anthropology” provide a sound foundation for discussion on discrimination and prejudice, and the “Catholic Curriculum Standards” can be applied to address societal issues of oppression, marginalization, systems of power, white supremacy/domination, systemic and institutional racism, imperialism and colonialism from a Catholic worldview.

For example, certain “Standards of Christian Anthropology” can help discussions about discrimination and prejudice. These include, “Propose how a ‘communion of persons’ involves the loving gift-of-self (i.e., the Trinity, but also the unity of the Church, the family and the unity of man and woman),” and “Exhibit the virtue of reverence for God, His creation, and other people by treating them with respect and honor, for God is all good and His creation is a good gift.”

How can Catholic teachers help young people see their peers as gifts of God to be celebrated, regardless of skin color, sex, physical abilities, and other differences?

KINGSLAND: First of all, widen the context so that they can perceive all of creation as a loving gift from God. Help them understand the notion of gift, as something freely given, and foster corresponding attitudes of wonder, gratitude and reverence for God’s gracious gifts.

At the pinnacle of creation is the human person, made in the image of the Triune God. Since God’s love is unconditional, it goes above any differences of skin color, sex, physical abilities, etc. When people realize their own self-worth isn’t based on what they do or have but rather their dignity as sons and daughters of God who loves them unconditionally, they’re more disposed to affirming that same worth and dignity in others.

It’s also important for the students to perceive that domineering and using another person is diametrically opposed to love.

Another key element is body-soul unity, “my body is me,” in contrast to the mistaken notion of the human body as playdough that can be molded and manipulated at whim, or “mind over matter.” Treating the body of the other well, therefore, means treating the other person well.

Overall, we’re talking about transmitting a worldview with our loving God at the center, from whom we receive the wondrous gifts of creation—above all the human person.

At what age can students understand the concept of communion, which is so important in Catholic theology and a much larger goal than social justice? Is Christian communion taught, or just lived by example?

DONOHUE: An experience of communion begins at birth, when a child gazes into the eyes of the mother or father. We were made for communion through God’s biological design.

St. John Paul II taught the communion of persons as a “deep union/unity with another which exists through a sincere and mutual gift of self.” It is through the complementary conjugal union between a male and female that new life is brought forth and the nucleus of community is formed in the family. It is within a family that the human person experiences and begins to understand community.

Catholic education assists families, by extending this communion into a broader educative and formative learning environment, where the dignity of each person is retained because they are a son or daughter of God—not because of what they own, what they have achieved, their race, their ethnicity. Everyone is invited to fully enter into this environment by giving a “sincere and mutual gift of self” and, in so doing, forms and is formed by communion.

  1. Patrick Reilly, “Wrong Way to Teach About Race in Catholic Education,” Newman Society blog, July 16 2021. newmansociety.org/wrong-way-to-teach-about-race-in-catholic-education/.
  2. Newman Society staff, “10 Ways Catholic Education Counters ‘Cancel Culture,'” Newman Society blog, July 15 2021. newmansociety.org/10-ways-catholic-education-counters-cancel-culture/.
  3. Joan Kingsland, SThD, and Denise Donohue, EdD, “Standards of Christian Anthropology” (Cincinnati: Ruah Woods, 2020).
  4. newmansociety.org/educator-resources/resources/academics/catholic-curriculum-standards/.
Patrick Reilly About Patrick Reilly

Patrick Reilly is founder and president of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education. He has authored and edited many articles, reports, studies, and other publications on Catholic education for the Newman Society and national media; addressed audiences for national and local Catholic organizations; and appeared on EWTN, FOX News, MSNBC, and numerous radio programs.

Comments

  1. Donohue, Kingsland and the Ruah Woods K-12 project have gifted Catholic educators with a vital contribution. Their achievement must be celebrated by implementing their curriculum standards world wide.
    It is also vital to further develop the same foundational principles to meet the challenges encountered when youth attend colleges and universities. Higher education, where every manner of social and moral problem is encountered, desperately needs the same foundation.
    The anthropology spelled out in the Theology of the Body succeeds here as well. However, it awaits the courage and confidence of theologians to challenge the philosophical and theological foundations that that Pope Saint John Paul had the courage and confidence to challenge in the Theology of the Body.
    Donohue, Kingsland and Ruah Woods‘ achievement is enormous. They’ve established an indispensable beachhead for the new evangelization.
    Nevertheless, the inadequate anthropology the Theology of the Body remedies, still holds sway in Catholic higher education, and hence, in Catholic institutions generally.
    Mere Marriage: Sexual Difference and Christian Doctrine, available at MereMarriage.com contributes to this effort.

  2. Most Catholics have never heard of St. JPII’s Theology of the Body. It is a masterpiece. Sell it in book form from this site.

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