Towards a More Fraternal Society


1. Racial prejudice or racist behavior continues to trouble relations between persons, human groups and nations. Public opinion is increasingly incensed by it. Moral conscience can by no means accept it. The Church is especially sensitive to this discriminatory attitude. The message which she has drawn from biblical Revelation strongly affirms the dignity of every person created in God's image, the unity of humankind in the Creator's plan, and the dynamics of the reconciliation worked by Christ the Redeemer who has broken down the dividing wall which kept opposing worlds apart(1) in order to recapitulate all persons in him.

For this reason, the Holy Father asked the Pontifical Commission Justice and Peace to help enlighten and awaken consciences about this major concern: namely, the reciprocal respect between ethnic and racial groups as well as their fraternal coexistence. Such a task presupposes a lucid analysis of complex situations of both past and present, as well as an unbiased judgment about moral shortcomings and positive initiatives, in the light of fundamental ethical principles and the Christian message. Christ denounced evil, even at the risk of his life. He did this not to condemn but to save. Likewise, the Holy See feels that it has the duty to denounce deplorable situations prophetically. In so doing, it is careful, however, not to condemn or exclude persons. It wants, rather, to help them find a way out of such situations through concrete and progressive efforts. It wishes, with all due realism, to reinforce the hope of renewal, which is always possible, and to propose suitable pastoral guidelines for Christians and all people of good will who seek the same objectives.

This document sets out to examine, in the first place, the phenomenon of racism in the strict sense. On occasion, however, it also treats some other manifestations of conflictual attitudes, intolerance and prejudice, insofar as these have a kinship with racism or contain racist elements. In the light of its principal focus, the document thus notes the bonds which exist between certain conflicts and racial prejudice.

I. Racist Behavior Throughout History

NOTE: No attempt is made here to trace a complete history of racism, nor of the attitude of the Church in this regard. Rather, some highlights of this history are indicated, emphasizing the consistency of the teaching of the Magisterium concerning the phenomenon of racism. This by no means implies an effort to gloss over the weakness and even, at times, the complicity of certain Church leaders, as well as of other members of the Church, in this phenomenon.

2. Racist ideologies and behavior are long-standing: they are rooted in the reality of sin from the very beginning of humanity, as we can see in the biblical accounts of Cain and Abel as well as in that of the Tower of Babel. Historically, racial prejudice, in the strict sense of the word--that is, awareness of the biologically determined superiority of one's own race or ethnic group with respect to others--developed above all from the practice of colonization and slavery at the dawn of the modern era. In rapidly considering the history of earlier major civilizations in the West as in the East, in the North as in the South, one can already find unjust and discriminatory behavior, but one cannot in every case speak about racism as such.

Greco-Roman antiquity, for example, does not seem to have known racial myths. If the Greeks were convinced of the cultural superiority of their civilization, they did not, by the same token, consider the so-called "barbarians" inferior because of innate biological reasons. Slavery doubtlessly kept many people in a deplorable situation. They were considered "things" at their masters' disposal. However, in the beginning, these were largely persons who belonged to groups conquered in war, and not persons who were despised because of their race.

The Hebrew people, as the Books of the Old Testament testify, were aware to a unique degree of God's love for them, manifested in the form of a gratuitous covenant with him. In this sense, since they were the object of a choice and a promise, the Hebrew people stood apart from others. The criterion of distinction, however, was God's plan of salvation unfolded in history Israel was considered the Lord's very own among all peoples.(2) The place of other peoples in salvation history was not always clearly understood in the beginning, and these other peoples were at times even stigmatized in prophetic preaching to the degree that they remained attached to idolatry. They were not, however, the object of disparagement or of a divine curse because of their ethnic diversity. The criterion of distinction was religious, and a certain universalism was already foreseen.

According to the message of Christ, for which the people of the Old Covenant were to prepare humanity, salvation is offered to the whole of the human race, to every creature and to all nations.(3) The first Christians gladly accepted being considered as the people of a "third race," according to an expression of Tertullian.(4) This clearly was not to be understood in a racial sense, but rather in the spiritual sense. They considered themselves a new people in whom the first two races from a religious perspective, that is the Jews and the pagans, met, having been reconciled by Christ. The Christian Middle Ages also made distinctions among peoples on the basis of religious criteria; Christians, Jews and "infidels." It is for this reason that, within "Christendom," the Jews, considered the tenacious witnesses of a refusal to believe in Christ, were often the object of serious humiliations, accusations and proscriptions.

3. With the discovery of the New World, attitudes changed. The first great wave of European colonization was, in fact, accompanied by a massive destruction of pre-Colombian civilizations and a brutal enslavement of their peoples. If the great navigators of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were free from racial prejudices, the soldiers and traders did not have the same respect for others: they killed in order to take possession of the land, and reduced first the "Indians" and then the blacks to slavery in order to exploit their work. At the same time, they began to develop a racist theory in order to justify their actions.

The popes did not delay in reacting. On June 2, 1537, the bull Sublimis Deus of Paul III denounced those who held that "the inhabitants of the West Indies and the southern continents...should be treated like irrational animals and used exclusively for our profit and our service" The Pope solemnly affirmed that: "In the desire to remedy the evil which has been caused, We hereby decide and declare that the said Indians, as well as any other peoples which Christianity will come to know in the future, must not be deprived of their freedom and their possessions-regardless of contrary allegations--even if they are not Christians and that, on the contrary, they must be left to enjoy their freedom and their possessions."(5) The directives of the Holy See were extremely clear even if, unhappily, their application soon met with difficulties. Later Urban VIII went so far as to excommunicate those who kept Indians as slaves.

For their part, theologians and missionaries had already come to the defense of the indigenous people. The resolute commitment on the side of the Indians of Bartolome de Las Casas, a soldier who became a priest, then a Dominican religious and bishop, was soon taken up by many other missionaries. It led the governments of Spain and Portugal to reject the theory of the human inferiority of the Indians, and to impose protective legislation from which, a century later, the black slaves brought from Africa would also benefit in a certain way. The work of Las Casas is one of the first contributions to the doctrine of universal human rights, based on the dignity of the person, regardless of his or her ethnic or religious affiliation. In the same way, the great Spanish theologians and jurists, Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco Suarez, pioneers of the rights of peoples, developed this same doctrine of the basic equality of all persons and of all peoples. However, the close dependency of the clergy of the New World on the patronage system meant that the Church was not always able to take the necessary pastoral decisions.

4. In the context of racial contempt--although the motive was primarily to obtain cheap labor--mention must be made of the slave trade of blacks from Africa, bought by the hundreds of thousands and brought to the Americas. Their capture and traveling conditions were such that many died, even before their departure or their arrival in the New World. There they were destined to the most menial tasks, to all intents and purposes as slaves. This trade began in 1562 and the slavery that resulted was to last nearly three centuries. Here once again, the popes and theologians, at the same time as numerous humanists, rose up against this practice. Leo XIII vigorously denounced it in his encyclical In plurimis of May 5, 1888, in which he congratulated Brazil for having abolished slavery. The publication of this present document coincides with the centenary of that memorable charter. John Paul II, in his speech to African intellectuals in Yaounde (August 13, 1985), did not hesitate to deplore the fact that persons belonging to Christian nations had contributed to the black slave trade.

5. Because of its constant concern for the deeper respect of indigenous peoples, the Apostolic See again and again insisted that a careful distinction be made between the work of evangelization and colonial imperialism, with which the former risked being confused. It is in this spirit that the Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide was created in 1622. In 1659, that Congregation addressed an Instruction "to Apostolic Vicars departing for the Chinese Kingdoms of Tankin and Cochinchine" that clarified the Church's attitude toward these peoples to whom she then had the possibility of announcing the Gospel.(6)

In places where missionaries were more closely dependent on political powers, it was more difficult for them to curb the colonists' attempt to dominate. At times, they even gave it encouragement on the basis of false interpretations of the Bible.(7)

6. In the eighteenth century, a veritable racist ideology, opposed to the teaching of the Church, was forged. It stood in contrast, moreover, with the commitment of some humanist philosophers who promoted the dignity and freedom of the black slaves, at that time the object of a shameless and widespread trade. This racist ideology believed it could find the justification for its prejudices in science. Apart from the difference in physical characteristics and skin color, it sought to deduce an essential difference, of a hereditary, biological nature, in order to affirm that the subjugated peoples belonged to intrinsically inferior "races" with regard to their mental, moral or social qualities. It was at the end of the eighteenth century that the word "race" was used for the first time to classify human beings biologically. In the following century, we can even find an interpretation of the history of civilizations in biological terms, as a contest between strong races and weak ones, with the latter being genetically inferior to the former. The decadence of the major civilizations was explained by their "degeneration"-i.e., the mixing of races which weakened the purity of blood.(8)

7. Such theses had considerable resonance in Germany. It is well known that the National-Socialist totalitarian party made a racist ideology the basis of its insane program, aimed at the physical elimination of those it deemed belonging to "inferior races." This party became responsible for one of the greatest genocides in history. This murderous folly struck first and foremost the Jewish people in unheard-of proportions, as well as other peoples, such as the Gypsies and the Tziganes, and also categories of persons such as the handicapped and the mentally ill. It was only a step from racism to eugenics, and it was quickly taken.

The Church did not hesitate to raise her voice.(9) Pope Pius XI clearly condemned Nazi doctrines in his encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge, stating in particular: "Whosoever takes race, or the people or the State...or any other basic value of the human community...in order to withdraw them from [their] scale of values...and deify them through an idolatrous cult, overturns and falsifies the order of things created and established by God."(10) On April 13, 1938, the pope had the Sacred Congregation for Seminaries and Universities address a letter to all rectors and deans of faculties, asking all professors of theology to refute, using the method proper to each discipline, the scientific pseudo-truths with which Nazism justified its racist ideologies.(11) As early as 1937, Pius XI had begun to prepare another major encyclical on the unity of the human race which was to condemn racism and anti-Semitism. Death overtook him before he could make it public. His successor, Pope Pius XII, took certain elements from it for his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus,(12) and especially from his 1942 Christmas message in which he stated that among the erroneous postulates of juridical positivisms "must be included a theory which claims for such and such a nation, race, class, the 'juridical instinct,' supreme imperative and norm without appeal." The pope launched a vibrant appeal for a new and better social order: "Humanity owes such a commitment to hundreds of thousands of persons who, without the slightest guilt on their part, but simply because they belong to a given race or nationality, are doomed to death or to gradual extinction."(13) In Germany itself, there was a courageous resistance on the part of the Catholic Church to which Pope John Paul II referred on April 30, 1987(14) during his second visit to that country.

This insistence on the drama of Nazi racism should not make us forget other massive exterminations of populations, such as that of the Armenians right after World War I and, more recently, for ideological reasons, that of an important part of the Cambodian people.

The memory of such crimes must never be erased. The young generations and those yet to come must know to what extremes persons and society are capable of going when they yield to the power of scorn and hatred.

In Africa and Asia, there are societies in which there is still a sharp division of castes as well as social stratifications that are difficult to overcome. The phenomenon of slavery, once more or less universal in both time and space, has not unfortunately totally disappeared. Such negative signs--and many others could be enumerated--are not always rooted in racist philosophical conceptions in the strict sense but instead reveal the existence of a rather widespread and troubling tendency to use other human beings for one's own ends and, by that very fact, to consider them of lesser value and, as it were, of an inferior status.

II. Forms of Racism Today

8. Today racism has not disappeared. There are even troubling new manifestations of it here and there in various forms, be they spontaneous, officially tolerated or institutionalized. In fact, if cases of segregation based on racial theories are the exception in today's world, the same cannot be said about phenomena of exclusion or aggressivity. The victims are certain groups of persons whose physical appearance or ethnic, cultural or religious characteristics are different from those of the dominant group, and are interpreted by the latter as being signs of an innate and definitive inferiority, thereby justifying all discriminatory practices in their regard. If, in fact, race defines a human group in terms of immutable and hereditary physical traits, racist prejudice, which dictates racist behavior, can be applied by extension, with equally negative effects, to all persons whose ethnic origin, language, religion or customs make them appear different.

9. The most obvious form of racism, in the strictest sense of the word, to be found today is institutionalized racism. This type is still sanctioned by the constitution and laws of a country. It is justified by an ideology of the superiority of persons from European stock over those of African or Indian origin "colored," which is, by some, supported by an erroneous interpretation of the Bible. This is the regime of apartheid or of "separate development." This regime in the Republic of South Africa has long been characterized by a radical segregation in vast areas of public life, between the black, colored, Indian and white peoples, with only the latter, although numerically a minority, holding political power and considering themselves masters of by far the greatest part of the territory. All South Africans are defined by a race to which they are officially assigned. Although some steps towards change have been taken in recent years, the black majority of the population remains excluded from effective representation in national government and enjoys citizenship in word only. Many are relegated to "homelands" which are hardly capable of being self-sustaining and are, moreover, economically and politically dependent on the central power. The majority of Christian Churches of that country have denounced the segregationist policy. The international community(15) and the Holy See(16) have also made strong pronouncements in this regard.

South Africa is an extreme case of a vision of racial inequality. The prolongation of a state of repression, of which the majority of the population is victim, is less and less tolerated. Such a situation carries within it the seed of racist reflexes on the part of the oppressed, which would be as unacceptable as those of which they are victim today. For this reason, it is urgent that these prejudices be overcome in order to build the future on the principle of the equal dignity of every person. Experience has shown, moreover, that peaceful evolutions are possible in this regard. The entire South African community, as well as the international community, must make every effort to promote a concrete dialogue between the principal parties involved. It is important that the fear which causes so much inflexibility be banished. And it is just as important to avoid allowing internal conflicts to be exploited by others to the detriment of justice and peace.(17)

10. In some countries, forms of racial discrimination still persist with regard to aboriginal peoples. In many cases, these peoples are no more than the remaining vestiges of the original populations of the region, the survivors of veritable genocides carried out in the not too distant past by the invaders, or tolerated by the colonial powers. It is also not uncommon to find these aboriginal peoples marginalized with respect to the country's development.

In many cases, their situation is similar in fact, if not in law, to segregationist regimes, in that they are relegated to limited territories or subjected to statutes which the new occupants of the country have, in most cases, unilaterally granted to them. The right of the first occupants to land, and a social and political organization which would allow them to preserve their cultural identity while remaining open to others, must be guaranteed. With regard to indigenous peoples, often numerically small, justice demands that two opposing risks be avoided: on the one hand, that they be relegated to reservations as if they were to live there forever, trapped in their past; on the other hand, that they be forced to assimilate without any concern for their right to maintain their own identity. Solutions are indeed difficult, and history cannot be rewritten. However, forms of coexistence can be found which take into consideration the vulnerability of autochthonous groups and offer them the possibility of maintaining their own identity within the greater whole to which they belong with all due rights. The greater or lesser degree of their integration into the surrounding society must be made on the basis of a free choice.(18)

11. Other States still have varying traces of discriminatory legislation which limit to one degree or another the civil and religious rights of those belonging to religious minorities which are generally of different ethnic groups from those of the majority of the citizens. On the basis of such religious and ethnic criteria, even though they are granted hospitality, the members of these minorities cannot, if they request it, obtain citizenship in the country where they live and work. It also happens that conversion to the Christian faith brings about a loss of citizenship. These persons, at any rate, remain second-class citizens with regard, for instance, to higher education, to housing, to employment and especially to public and administrative services in local communities. In this context, mention must also be made of those situations where a particular religious law, with its consequences for day-to-day living, is imposed on other communities within the same country, as, for example, the "sharia" in some predominantly Muslim States.

12. Some mention must also be made of ethnocentricity. This is a very widespread attitude whereby a people has a natural tendency to defend its identity by denigrating that of others to the point that, at least symbolically, it refuses to recognize their full human quality. This behavior undoubtedly responds to an instinctive need to protect the values, beliefs and customs of one's own community which seem threatened by those of other communities. However, it is easy to see to what extremes such a feeling can lead if it is not purified and relativized through a reciprocal openness, thanks to objective information and mutual exchanges. The rejection of differences can lead to that form of cultural annihilation which sociologists have called "ethnocide" and which does not tolerate the presence of others except to the extent that they allow themselves to be assimilated into the dominant culture.

Rarely do the political boundaries of a country coincide perfectly with those of peoples. Almost all States, whether of recent or ancient foundation, experience the problems of diverse minorities settled within their borders. When the rights of minorities are not respected, antagonisms can take on the aspect of ethnic conflicts and give rise to racist and tribal reflexes. The disappearance of colonial regimes or situations of racial discrimination has therefore not always meant the end of racism in States which have become independent in Africa and Asia. Within the artificial borders left behind by the colonial powers, cohabitation by ethnic groups with different traditions, languages, cultures and even religions, often runs up against obstacles of mutual hostilities that can be characterized as racist.

Tribal oppositions at times endanger, if not peace, at least the pursuit of the common good of the society as a whole. They also create difficulties for the life of the Churches and the acceptance of pastors from other ethnic groups. Even when the constitutions of these countries formally affirm the equality of all citizens with regard to one another and before the law, it is not rare that some ethnic groups dominate others and refuse them the full enjoyment of their rights.(19) At times, such situations have, indeed, led to bloody conflicts which leave lasting impressions. Still again, at times, public authorities have not hesitated to utilize ethnic rivalries to distract people from internal problems, to the great detriment of the common good and of justice which they are called to serve.

It is important to mention some analogous situations, such as when, for complex reasons, entire populations are kept uprooted, as refugees from the country where they had legitimately settled. They are often homeless, and in any case without a country. There are other peoples who, although living in their own land, are subjected to humiliating conditions.(20)

13. It is not an exaggeration to say that within a given country or ethnic group forms of social racism can exist. For example, great masses of poor peasants can be treated without any regard for their dignity and their rights, be driven from their lands, exploited and kept in a situation of economic and social inferiority by all-powerful land owners who benefit from the indifference or active complicity of the authorities. These are new forms of slavery which are frequent in the Third World. There is no great difference between those who consider others their inferiors because of their race, and those who treat their fellow citizens as inferiors by exploiting them as a work force. In such situations, the universal principles of social justice must be applied effectively. Among other things, this would also prevent the over-privileged classes from sinking to actual "racist" feelings toward their own fellow citizens and finding in them a further alibi for maintaining unjust structures.

14. The phenomenon of spontaneous racism is still more widespread, especially in countries with high rates of immigration. This can be observed among the inhabitants of these countries with regard to foreigners, especially when the latter differ in their ethnic origin or religion. The prejudices which these immigrants frequently encounter risk setting into motion reactions which can find their first manifestation in an exaggerated nationalism--which goes beyond legitimate pride in one's own country or even superficial chauvinism. Such reactions can subsequently degenerate into xenophobia or even racial hatred. These reprehensible attitudes have their origin in the irrational fear which the presence of others and confrontation with differences can often provoke. Such attitudes have as their goal, whether acknowledged or not, to deny the other the right to be what he or she is and, in any case, to be "in our country." Of course, there can be problems of maintaining a balance between peoples, cultural identity and security. These problems, however, must be solved with respect for others and confidence in the enrichment that comes from human diversity. Some large countries of the New World have found increased vitality in the melting-pot of cultures. On the other hand, the ostracism and the harassment of which refugees and immigrants are too often the object are deplorable. The result is that they are forced to cling to one another, and to live, so to speak, in a ghetto which slows down their integration into the society which has received them administratively but which has not welcomed them in a fully human way.

15. Among the manifestations of systematic racial distrust, specific mention must once again be made of anti-Semitism. If anti-Semitism has been the most tragic form that racist ideology has assumed in our century, with the horrors of the Jewish "holocaust,"(21) It has unfortunately not yet entirely disappeared. As if some had nothing to learn from the crimes of the past, certain organizations, with branches in many countries, keep alive the anti-Semite racist myth, with the support of networks of publications. Terrorist acts which have Jewish persons or symbols as their target have multiplied in recent years and show the radicalism of such groups. Anti-Zionism—which is not of the same order, since it questions the State of Israel and its policies—serves at times as a screen for anti-Semitism, feeding on it and leading to it. Furthermore, some countries impose undue harassments and restrictions on the free emigration of Jews.

16. There is widespread fear that new and as yet unknown forms of racism might appear. This at times is expressed concerning the use that could be made of "techniques of artificial procreation" through in vitro fertilization and the possibilities of genetic manipulation. Although such fears are still in part hypothetical, they nonetheless draw the attention of humanity to the new and disquieting dimension of man's power over man and thus to the urgent need for corresponding ethical principles. It is important that laws determine as soon as possible the limits which must not be surpassed, so that such "techniques" will not fall into the hands of abusive and irresponsible powers who might seek to "produce" human beings selected according to racial criteria or any other characteristic. This would give rise to a resurgence of the deadly myth of eugenic racism, the misdeeds of which the world has already experienced."(22) A similar abuse would be to prevent the birth of human beings of one or another social or ethnic category through abortion and sterilization campaigns. Wherever the absolute respect for life and its transmission according to the Creator's intentions disappears, it is to be feared that all moral restraint on a person's power will also disappear, including the power to fashion humanity in the derisive image of these apprentice sorcerers.

In order firmly to reject such actions and eradicate racist behavior of all sorts from our societies as well as the mentalities that lead to it, we must hold strongly to convictions about the dignity of every human person and the unity of the human family. Morality flows from these convictions. Laws can contribute to protecting the basic application of this morality, but they are not enough to change the human heart. The moment has come to listen to the message of the Church which gives body to and lays the foundation for such convictions.

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