In the last year, I have found myself repeatedly meditating on the words of our Lord regarding the faith of the generation that will ultimately experience His return: “But, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8 – New English Bible) I have time and again fixed my mind on these words because of how rapidly social and cultural trends hostile to Christ and His Church seem to have proliferated in just the past twelve months.
One such trend consists of increasingly numerous and open attacks upon the Catholic Church and its teachings from educators and lecturers that use Catholic institutions of higher learning as their platform. In this regard, the Catholic Education Daily, an online publication of The Cardinal Newman Society, reported a few months ago that Providence College had invited a relatively well-known college circuit lecturer, the anti-racism activist Tim Wise, to address its students.
Wise apparently began his career as an activist in the late 1980s, when he was anti-apartheid youth coordinator at Tulane University in New Orleans. Wise then made a name for himself as the associate director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, which was established to defeat politician David Duke when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1990 and for the governorship of Louisiana in 1991. Wise has since been known for arguing that racism so permeates American society that even the most ostensibly race-neutral government policies subtly contribute to perpetuating race inequality. On February 20, at Providence College, Wise took the opportunity to accuse the Church too of racism, but not only racism; he indicted the Church for genocide as well.
Wise claimed that the Church was directly responsible for the slaughter of Native Americans. Specifically, he said that “[t]he Church was directly implicated in the conquest of the Southwest. It was directly implicated in sending indigenous children to boarding schools to strip them of their culture, to cut their hair, to kill the Indian and save the man for Jesus.” Wise also stated that “we can actually say that the Church has some blood on its hands that it must atone for, and it doesn’t get to atone for it by simply carrying the cross and saying we’re all made in the image of God.” He further commented that “[w]e’ve made the image of God a white man, and it’s on crucifixes at this college.” Each of these remarks was followed by applause from a presumably Catholic student audience.
Wise’s address consisted of a now well entrenched New World historical narrative that makes up part of what University of Pennsylvania historian Alan Kors has called “oppression studies.” According to Kors, oppression studies (which include ethnic studies, women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, etc.) are essentially the academic heirs of Neo-Marxism and the intellectual foundations of our society’s ubiquitous political correctness. Oppression studies approach the social sciences and humanities as disciplines that are meant to underscore the global history of victimization, i.e., the story of oppressed groups of individuals and those dominant peoples or social institutions that oppress them. This approach imposes a rigid struggle and resistance formula on the academic study of religion, political and economic history, and the fine arts, so that almost all prominent nations or social institutions – but especially Western nations and social institutions – come to be understood as oppressors in one way or another. Ironically, the rigidity of this approach leads to a moral and cultural relativism with respect to those groups of individuals that are deemed to be oppressed: the oppressed can do no wrong, irrespective of whether their conduct violates any transcendent values. This moral and cultural relativism, in turn, results in the stifling of any open and rational discussion of the respective merits of the roles allegedly played by the “oppressed” and the “oppressors.” Absent open and rational discourse, oppression studies degenerate into ideological systems that are at their core non-rational because they are impervious to disconfirming facts.
Wise’s vague and question begging remarks at Providence College were likewise non-rational and impervious to disconfirming facts. What did Wise mean, for example, when he claimed that the Church was “directly implicated” in the “conquest” of the American Southwest? Did he mean that the Church directed Spanish military expeditions against the Native Americans? Did he mean that members of the Church’s religious orders physically accompanied Spanish conquistadors? If truth be told, when one considers all the possible meanings of “directly implicated” and “conquest,” one realizes that the initial plausibility of Wise’s statements rested in large part on their imprecision. They also rested on questionable yet dogmatically held assumptions regarding the equal merit and supposed inviolability of all cultures. Bearing in mind that “culture” normally denotes the shared beliefs and customs of any given society, are all cultures equally good and equally worthy of preservation? If so, what does one say about cultures as morally suspect as those associated with Nazi Germany or the Central Asian Taliban? If not all cultures are equally good and equally worthy of preservation, is the “stripping away” of culture necessarily evil, as Wise presupposed? Correspondingly, how would cultural assimilation in effect amount to genocide? Merely posing these sorts of questions goes a long way toward revealing that one cannot reasonably infer with Wise that “the Church has some blood on its hands.”
Above all, however, Wise failed to grasp a critical ambiguity in his use of the term “Church” – an ambiguity that should have been discerned by his audience. Wise’s audience should have realized that he was plainly using the term “Church” to signify a trans-national, socio-political organization, consisting of hierarchically ordered individual members, functionaries, and officials. The Church, however, is not primarily that kind of reality. Even though its members are readily identifiable in the world, the Church is a fundamentally other-worldly reality.
To faithful Christians, the Church is all of those individual believers – both alive and dead – who, by virtue of their having shared in His sacraments of Baptism, Holy Chrism, and Eucharist, possess the risen Christ living in and through them. The Church, then, is the mystical Body of Christ, who still preaches, heals, and saves by means of His innumerable members. The Church is thereby also the mystical child of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who remains forever the mother of God in Christ and in Christ’s “beloved disciples.” In addition, the Church is Christ’s mystical flock of sheep whose steward is the Apostle Peter, the Bishop of Rome. The Church, therefore, is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15) and thus incapable of error, incapable of being “implicated in the conquest of the Southwest,” and incapable of having “some blood on its hands,” as those who view the Church without the eyes of faith believe.
This inescapable conclusion, unfortunately, makes me anxious for Tim Wise’s audience at Providence College, the audience that reportedly applauded his attack on the Church. That his audience did not see through the sophistry of his comments is not my greatest concern. What concerns me the most is that Wise’s audience shared his worldly vision of what the Church is; his presumably Catholic audience failed to see the Church through the eyes of faith.
“But, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
Originally published at Verbum Domini.