The Remedy for “Canceling” and Division: Catholic Education

Friends: We’re continuing to make good progress in our mid-year fundraising. I’d like it if we could reach our goals and be done by June 2 when we reach our 13th anniversary of publishing The Catholic Thing. I think that’s possible if we all take seriously that we’re in a mortal struggle: whether the solid Christian values of the West or postmodern fluidity are going to set the terms of our public and private lives. In the inaugural column that I wrote on June 2, 2008, I made the claim that Catholicism is “the richest cultural tradition in the world.” And that our tradition “has a great deal to say about politics and economics, culture and warfare, the temporal and the eternal, children and careers, and many other contemporary questions. In addition, it has inspired some of the greatest art, music, and architecture, while offering unparalleled human solidarity to millions through hospitals, soup kitchens, schools, universities, and disaster relief.” All this is simple fact, and a world that seeks to do without that wisdom will be poorer and brutal (You can read that whole statement of the Catholic Thing  by clicking here.) In today’s column, Daniel Guernsey carries out one of our missions: instead of merely criticizing what we all see more and more as an alien ideology that is currently threatening even Catholic educational institutions, he offers – from the Catholic tradition – advice on how to confront and reverse our descent into a self-destructive, unforgiving, and shallow worldview. We need to stay at that task not only for 2021 but for years to come, because other forces have been at work for a long time undermining resistance and even preventing expressions of another way of thinking and being. All this is just one of many things we try to do at TCT, day in and day out, 365 days a year, year after year. If you value this work – and I’m sure you do if you’re reading this – you can be part of these essential labors. Click the button. It’s easy and you’ll be helping to keep alive our priceless Catholic Thing. – Robert Royal

In the present moment, much of the popular culture is taken up with concerns about race, gender, and equity. But these questions are unfortunately complicated by radical ideologies and an intolerant “cancel culture,” a type of religion that separates the woke from the un-woke, the privileged from the oppressed.

The cancel culture surrounds us and now threatens to infect Catholic schools, colleges, and homeschooling. But we should not yield to it.

Authentic Catholic education does not cancel culture; it elevates, redeems, and transmits culture. It seeks out and celebrates truth, beauty, and goodness, wherever they are found – and if they are missing, Catholic education points that out as well. The transcendentals are not bound by culture, time, race, or gender. They do not flourish equally at all times, among all members of all cultures, but can always be celebrated in God’s Creation and the best human works.

The Catholic pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness and the Catholic understanding of human dignity and the common good provide a framework for dealing with perennial challenges facing humanity, including the current cultural crises concerning race and gender.

Catholic education serves the common good. Unjust discrimination based on race or gender is an affront to the common good, and therefore Catholic education should respond to these evils with the fullness of a Catholic worldview and morality. Catholic educators should bring the joy of the Gospel and the wisdom of the Church to bear on social justice issues, instead of duplicating or amplifying already loud and divisive secular voices.

The Catholic worldview is based in the dignity of all people and their universal call to holiness and salvation in Christ, in whom we are all are one. (Gal. 3:28). In Catholic education, “there is no longer any distinction between Gentiles and Jews, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarians, savages, slaves and free, but Christ is all, Christ is in all.” (Col. 3:7)

This worldview has no room for unjust discrimination. In Catholic education, all men and women and people of all nationalities, races, and creeds are treated with their inherent dignity as children of God. Catholic education seeks to overcome division, not to create it. The answer to the division caused by the sins of racism and discrimination is the unity brought about by fundamental human fraternity and forgiveness.

There are key things that Catholic educators should – and should not – do to address hot-button topics like race, gender, and equity. The following is a partial list of some central things that can help Catholic educators avoid the pitfalls of ideology and division: 

  • Embrace a Catholic worldview throughout the institution, where faith and culture enrich and speak to each other.
  • Bring to the table the Catholic values of faith, forgiveness, mercy, and justice, and shun sins of calumny, detraction, rash judgment, and pride.
  • Relate discussions to a Catholic understanding of the human person through a clear and convincing Christian anthropology, which affirms our creation by God as male or female and the union of our bodies and spirits, as well as our common humanity and destiny.
  • Teach students to analyze the morality of human acts (including separating the sin and the sinner), properly attribute degrees of culpability based on individual awareness and freedom, ascribe sin (in the proper sense) to individuals not groups, and affirm the possibly of repentance and forgiveness.

  • Help students discover the religious dimension in human history and compare the actions of peoples according to Catholic morality and virtues, but also according to the level of development of a person or culture and the impact of surrounding conditions, knowledge, and understanding of the time.
  • Relate discussions to Catholic social teaching, including its emphasis on the dignity of all persons, the sacredness of human life, the sanctity of marriage, and its importance as the central social institution – and human fraternity amid national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences.
  • Avoid compounding racial tension, promoting tribalism, and “if you’re not for us you’re against us” thinking.
  • Teach the use of logic and reason to uncover objective truth, especially when emotion and relativism run hot.
  • Promote dialogue not for its own sake, but as a means of pursuing truth and a means for promoting unity, which can only be found in the truth of things.
  • Use faithfully Catholic materials on racism, gender, sexuality, etc., – and be very wary of speakers, materials, and programs that promote division, blame one particular group or culture for all the ills of humanity, seek vengeance, or stifle free speech and religious freedom.
  • Avoid politically charged terms and symbols that lack nuance and seem to promote an “all in” approach to complex social flashpoints – e.g., “ally,” which speaks the language of conflict, utility, and political power; or the “rainbow” flag, which promotes allegiance to a cause that does not clearly and fully embrace Catholic teaching.
  • Avoid replacing academic pursuits with activism, or allowing curricula to be driven by the current news cycle. Do not force students into specific activities or protests, compel them to identify themselves in certain categories, and then attach moral values or rank to those categories, or engage them in simulation activities that purport to “feel what it’s like” to be discriminated against.
  • Carefully selected music, art, poetry, literature, movies, and personal testimonies are better suited to driving empathy, which is the ability to enter into another’s suffering without directly experiencing it, allowing suffering to fulfill its unifying capacity.
  • Always lead with Jesus, who is “both model and means” for students and in whom they will find “the inexhaustible source of personal and communal perfection.”

Catholic educators have a unique and powerful message to bring to a fallen world – a message of honesty, compassion, unity, and forgiveness. But we must beware of race and gender ideologies that do not lend themselves to the higher and inspired ends of Catholic education.


*Image: Christ Blessing the Children by Nicolaes Maes, 1652-3 [National Gallery, London]

Dan Guernsey, Ed.D., is a Senior Fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and Director of Ave Maria University’s Master of Education in Catholic Educational Leadership Program.