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Multiculturalism, Catholicism, and American Civilization

by Joseph A. Varacalli, Ph.D.

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  • Description:
    This article briefly examines multiculturalism and makes clear that there are actually three variations, only two of which are antithetical to the Catholic worldview.
  • Larger Work:
    Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  • Pages: 47-55
  • Publisher & Date:
    Ignatius Press, March 1994

There are many valid, empirically observable reasons why many orthodox Catholics reject “multiculturalism” in the United States. However, it is imperative that Catholics, following the sophisticated intellectual traditions of the Church, make appropriate distinctions. There are at least three variations of multiculturalism with only the first two antithetical to the Catholic world view.

The first, or what I'll call the “relativist” version of multiculturalism, should be rejected because it confuses the empirical reality of relative forms of human existence in social institutions like the family or in social activities like sexuality with the philosophy of moral relativism.(1) While it may be true that there can be found some degree of truth, goodness, and utility in most cultures, it is simply not the case that they always produce equally valid manifestations and applications of the natural law. Indeed, in many cases, cultural creations are simply outside the pale of such reasoning (e.g., human sacrifice, polygamy, homosexuality).

Often times the motives behind the relativist conception of multiculturalism are either innocent, naive, romantic or sanguine. They are usually intended to provide a kind of therapeutic relief and emotional support as well as a measure of legitimizing respect to groups located at the margins of American life. Allan Bloom's rejection of the false sense of “openness” presently being fostered by America's institutions of higher learning is here relevant. As he states forcefully, “it is open to all kinds of men, all kinds of life-styles, all ideologies. There is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything.”(2) Translated into the important analysis of John Cuddihy, multicultural relativism offers the upper middle class “guilt-stricken” individual a mechanism for offering “no offence” to the cultural lifestyles of various “minority” groups.(3) However laudable in motive, the effects of such thinking (e.g., aggrandizing the lifestyle of the black underclass or legitimating the professional and career oriented woman who voluntarily and purposefully raises children (sans a husband) can be physically and emotionally disastrous, primarily for the groups and individuals in question but also for the greater civilization. Moral relativism in the form of multicultural relativism violates not only morality itself but the Catholic respect for realism and the intellectual truth. Arthur Schlesinger has termed the revisionist multicultural scholarship that bends the truth for therapeutic reasons a form of “compensatory” history.(4) Ironically, even the most benevolent form of multicultural relativism has a limited appeal to its intended audience, i.e., among the mass of America's immigrant and minority populations, who, instead, seek integration and assimilation into mainstream American life. Rather, it has its strongest appeal among upper-middle class, “yuppie” New Age types.

An even more virulent variation opposed by orthodox Catholics can be termed “radical” multiculturalism. It is one in which the alleged concern for pluralism is, in actuality, nothing more than a thin veneer, a smokescreen, for the attempted institutionalization of a progressivist and quite class-specific ideological agenda for the United States.

In the radical version, the very foundational and positive contributions of Western civilization to mankind are denied. Purposefully, radical multicultural proponents often ignore the simple yet profound fact that it is only in the West, or in societies influenced by the West, that one can find the traditions of self criticism, self-reform, democracy, and freedom which allow for any kind of “debunking” analysis and upon which multiculturalism (theoretically, at least) rests. As Arthur Schlesinger has succinctly put it, “the assault on the Western tradition is conducted very largely with analytical weapons in the West.”(5) In this regard, it is amusing, to say the very least, to note how radical feminists disingenuously aggrandize the activity of women in both pre-modern and non-Western societies: societies not only almost always patriarchal but also those in which the vast majority of women happily and approvingly accepted/accept a traditionally prescribed division of labor regarding gender roles. Such an example suggests that the goal of the radical multiculturalist is not really to grant respect to the traditional lifestyle - the latter with a definitely “unraised consciousness” - but rather to deconstruct and destroy the present in order to reconstruct some utopian future.(6) It should be noted, at this point, that the balkanizing consequences of much multicultural thought and activity is not merely ignored (as in the case of multicultural relativism); rather, for the radical multiculturalist, it is consciously fomented.

Radical multicultural thought is also used not only to exaggerate, or even fabricate, the contributions of certain group classifications (e.g., women, blacks, homosexuals, entertainment stars, American Indians, children, the physically and mentally disabled) who have been designated by the cultural elite as worthy of special attention and, indeed, adulation but also to either studiously ignore or simply deny the contributions of others (e.g., conservative Catholics, Protestant evangelicals, orthodox Jews, secular prolifers, small-town rural farmers). There is, of course, a logic to the selective appropriation of ideologies and lifestyles to be celebrated or criticized. The logic results from the reality that the world for the radical multiculturalist, is actually seen through a lens fashioned by some critical theory focusing on conflict, whether of the class (Marxist), gender (feminist), ethnic (bilingualist), sexual orientation (homosexual), or race (Afrocentrist) variety. As such, all groups, a priori, are not given a fair hearing by the radical multiculturalist. From such perspective, some groups don't deserve any cognitive and moral respect; they are guilty of being, by definition, on the wrong side of historical destiny. So much for alleged “inclusiveness”. Seen this way, then, it is the radical multiculturalists, rather than the so-called “religious rightists,” who are the instigators of America's present religious and cultural warfare. After all, it is the radical multiculturalists who desire systematically to destroy the remnants of a common unifying Judeo-Christian heritage; the religious right is primarily involved in the defense of what once was.(7)

Let me also suggest that the radical multiculturalist movement is internally stratified with the Marxist component cleverly converting and exploiting for its own purposes the complaints of and agitation generated by black, feminist, Hispanic, American Indian, and homosexual leaders. As this author sees it, the real handmaidens of the radical multicultural upheaval are those academic Marxists who, since the failed promise of Soviet Communism, have transferred their considerable energies to the goal of eventually establishing socialism in the United States. Such Marxists hope to be only temporarily “homeless.”(8) For a striking and contemporary variation of the Marxist strategy to be found in Latin America, all one need do is refer to the “theology of liberation.” Simply put, this Marxist dominated theology has appropriated for the revolutionary cause the purposefully distorted “black legends” of Spanish genocide and exploitation of indigenous peoples once also so disingenuously employed by a northern Protestant Europe against Catholic Spain during the immediate post-Discovery period.(9)

Radical multiculturalism also entails a great deal of intellectual dishonesty, “politically correct thought,” and a professional breach of ethics in its unworthy politicization of the academy, the university, and of scholarship in general, themes that can be documented in a recent, important analysis by Dinesh D'Souza.(10) Not unrelated to this is the obvious ideological presence of vested self-interest as upper class members of a “new knowledge class” profit in terms of the sociological trilogy of “politics,” “status,” and “economics.” After all, someone has to control, design and get paid for the governmental and private sector social and educational programs created to address the needs of the hitherto unacknowledged but now privileged “victims of injustice.” Tied to this is the fact that the concept of multiculturalism has often times failed, or, in some cases, betrayed its supposed benefactors. Stressing “safe sex” during an AIDS epidemic; encouraging welfare dependency for the poor; teaching minorities that all Caucasians consider them biologically and culturally inferior; interpreting most criminal behavior as courageous acts against a corrupt state and all military intervention as imperialism; preaching to women that domestic work is exploitation and that traditional family life is a prison; convincing all that divorce is a usually happy solution to marital discord; accepting the mere claim of widespread sexual harassment and child abuse at face value and without proof; and sublimely ignoring the consequences of legitimating abortion and euthanasia has not only promoted the selfish interests of the social engineers but has engineered and exacerbated much human misery in American society and on civilization as a whole.

The single greatest reason, however, why most serious Catholics reject radical multiculturalism is, of course, the manifest hatred expressed by its proponents toward Christianity in general and, especially, toward the Bride of Christ. The recent quincentennial of the Discovery of the Americas by Columbus ushered forth all sorts of charges, again exaggerated or fabricated, about the alleged pernicious effects of Christianity on the New World. Protestantism, especially liberal Protestantism, has been less harshly accused, in part because it is a far less serious threat to the ultimate designs of the radical multiculturalist than is Catholicism and partly because it has been viewed by Marxists and their ilk as a necessary “dialectical moment” or “half-way house” in the inevitable move to a completely materialistic and hedonistic earthy paradise (or, rather, as orthodox Catholics see it, a quite hellish “culture of death.”(11) This Protestant dispensation is ironical given that the historical record clearly shows that Spanish Catholic influence on the indigenous natives of the Americas was far more benevolent than was that of the English colonists.(12)

Make no mistake about it - the last great obstacle to instituting the radical multiculturalist program is, objectively speaking, the Catholic Church. More over, both parties involved understand this. It is only the Catholic Church that has, theoretically at least, the worldwide intellectual, moral, and organizational resources to provide an authentic alternative model to what it means to be modern and hence is capable of upsetting the radical multiculturalist apple cart.

This is so because the Church does not, simply, reject science, high technology, the arts, the social sciences, the material world, the requirements of social justice for all, the body, or the mind-all things of ultimate importance to the secularism inherent in a radical multiculturalism. Rather the Church both integrates and shapes these elements and concerns in an incredibly sophisticated, albeit ultimately supernatural, world view that places them in a perspective proper to man's God-given nature and to God's design for mankind and the world. Catholicism posits a “moderate dualism” between the super natural and natural and the “other-worldly” and the “this-worldly” that harmonizes such dyadic opposites as grace and nature, spirit and material, faith and reason, mysticism and intellect, doctrine and experience, authority and autonomy, prayer and social action, and universalism and particularism.(13) In principle, at least, the Church presents a “package” to the contemporary individual that represents a “via media” between modern and traditional life, a via media that co-opts whatever is good and true in our age by grounding it in the divine and eternal law.

Why the Church has been less than successful in opposing the modernist onslaught and in the trappings of the radical multiculturalists (or, as previously put, is only “theoretically capable” or “capable in principle”) involves the present day realities of an internal secularization and widespread dissent. Simply put, the Catholic synthesis is not only very sophisticated but it is very fragile; it requires an internally consistent and cohesive social context or “plausibility structure” that can effectively teach, maintain, and evangelize the Faith with all its subtle and interconnected distinctions. This plausibility structure has been severely weakened in the post-Vatican II context.(14)

Yet despite the fact that the Catholic house is presently in disarray, many radical multiculturalists presently still hold the Church in some combination of fear, hatred, fascination, and awe. Like all essentially totalitarian impulses, radical multiculturalism can brook no opposition, even a weakened one, hence the fear and hatred.

Despite all of the very sound reasons why an intelligent, committed Catholic would want to reject, out and out, multiculturalism, a qualified argument in favour of accepting the third variation, “multicultural realism,” can and should be made. The grounds of such an argument are threefold: intellectual, political (or practical), and religious.

Intellectually, a “multicultural realism” can be a useful role in academia and the mass media if it leads to accurately and realistically representing the historical and contemporary contributions to America of groups hitherto ignored or underplayed by a once dominant Protestant intellectual establishment and, now, by an equally dominant secular establishment. Regarding the latter, Allan Carlson, for instance, has superbly documented the present bias of the cultural elite against acknowledging a rural peasant class of family farmers as a potentially important culture-shaping, family sustaining entity.(15)

Even more to home would be the case of the poor treatment and evaluation afforded the Catholic higher education system of the early to mid-twentieth century by an official, Protestant/secular educational establishment infused with the “progressive” ideas of thinkers like John Dewey. Among other things, progressive education undermined religious authority, the classical curriculum, and all recourse to absolutist first principles while, on the other hand, promoting scientific authority, specialized professional learning, and a relativism based supposedly on pure experience and induction.(16) Conversely put, the official and dominant educational system refused to acknowledge the legitimacy, even as a pluralistic option, of the once magnificent attempt of Catholic higher education to “restore all things in Christ” by grounding all study through the unifying force of neo-Thomism and neo-Scholasticism with its God-centered teleological focus.(17) Put another way, the so-called “problem” of “American Catholics and the intellectual life” as first proclaimed by Monsignor John Tracy Ellis in 1935 was as much the result of Catholic intellectuals accepting the evaluative frame of reference of hostile outsiders as it was due to intrinsic deficiencies in the Catholic scholarship at the time.(18)

Intellectually, then, multicultural realism can provide Catholics and other marginalized groups the opportunity to redress what Arthur Schlesinger has referred to as the “exculpatory” history of the ruling class.(19) While deploring, like Schlesinger, the excesses of a certain form of multiculturalism, Diane Ravitch likewise applauds the recent attempt to “routinely incorporate the experiences of women, blacks, American Indians, and various immigrant groups” into textbooks and, more generally, scholarship at large.(20) Catholics, I argue, should take advantage of whatever slight intellectual “window of opportunity” is afforded by a reasonable version of multiculturalism.

Another argument in favor of accepting multicultural realism is political/practical. It is derived from the work of individuals like Father Richard John Neuhaus, Virgil Blum, S.J., and Congressman Henry J. Hyde.(21) What unites such thinkers is two related beliefs: 1) that secularists today hold a monopoly in the public sphere megastructural institutions of American society (government, business, the arts, education. and the mass media) and 2) it is vitally important, for both Mother Church and American civilization, that Catholics bring their faith into the “public square” in order to shape and influence public social policy. Again, I argue, the concept of multicultural realism can serve as an important wedge to that end.

There is, finally, a religious rationale for accepting and employing the concept. Multicultural realism is ultimately based on the Catholic recognition that God's hand can be found outside of the divine structure of the institutional Church, i.e., in creation itself. To the degree that the Church, following St. Paul, affirms the natural law principle that even the heathen has the Law written into his heart, the Church is therefore open to the empirical possibility that God's presence can be found, to varying degrees, within divergent human cultures (although still operating according to a logic that would expect a more significant divine presence manifest in, first, other non-Catholic Christians and, then, other Biblical peoples). Multicultural realism is, perhaps, consistent with the message of one of the documents of Vatican II, the “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” As the document states: “the Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions. She looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many particulars from which she holds and sets forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.”(22) Conversely put, it would be very hard to conceive of the Church ever truly adopting a sect-like “Christ against culture” posture sans the possibility of an almost totally Satanic dominated world civilization.

BUILD ON WHATEVER IS TRUE

Judgments about the compatibility of non-Catholic cultures and lifestyles, of course, belong ultimately to the Vicar of Christ and to the Magisterium. As of now, however, there seems to be no reason to believe that the concept of multicultural realism remains outside the orbit of orthodox Catholic thinking. No less a figure than His Holiness, John Paul II, has given legitimacy to the idea through his thesis that “evangelization” and “inculturation” are not necessarily antithetical, that, in some cases at least, one can best spread the One True Faith by building on whatever is true, good, beautiful, and useful in the various cultures and subcultures of the world, the United States included. So it is with our incarnational Faith.

NOTES

1 For more along the line of this critique, see Anthony L. Haynor and Joseph A. Varacalli, “Sociology’s Fall From Grace: The ‘Six Deadly Sins’ of a Discipline at the Crossroads,” Quarterly Journal of Ideology, 1993.

2 Allan BLoom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 27.

3 John Cuddihy, No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste (New York; Seabury Press, 1978).

4 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (Knoxville, Tennessee: Whittle Books, 1991), p.22.

5 Ibid., p.72.

6 See, for instance, Bryce J. Christensen, Utopia Against the Family: The Problems and Politics of the American Family (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 1990).

7 See, for instance, Patrick J. Buchanan’s Right From the Beginning (Boston: Little, Brown, 1988) and my review essay on his volume, “ ‘Those Were the Days’: Church and Society in the 1940’s and 1950’s,” Faith and Reason (Volume 16, Number 1, Spring, 1990), pp.81-89.

8 See my critical book review of the Schlesinger volume in The International Migration Review (Volume 27, Spring 1993).

9 See Antonio Caponetto’s The Black Legends and Catholic Hispanic Culture: Liberation Theology And The History of the New World (St. Louis, Missouri: Catholic Central Verein of America, 1991).

10 Dinesh D’Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: Vintage Books, 1991).

11 See my book review of Caponnetto’s volume in Italian-Americana (Volume XI, Number 1, Fall/Winter, 1992), pp.127-130.

12 See, for instance, Douglas Preston, “The Cruel Spaniards: An Anglo-Saxon Myth,” Newsday, February 28,1993, pp.42-43.

13 See my article, “Whose Justice and Justice for What Purpose?: A Catholic Neo-Orthodox Critique,” International Journal of Politics. Culture and Society (Volume 6, Number 2, Winter, 1992), pp.309-321.

14 See my article, “A Catholic Plausibility Structure,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Volume LXXXIX, Number 2, November, 1988), pp.63-67.

15 Allan C. Carlson, Family Questions: Reflections on the American Social Crisis (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books, 1990). Also see my review essay on the volume in Faith and Reason (Volume 18, Number 2, Summer, 1992), pp.201-211.

16 See my review of David L. Salvaterra’s American Catholicism and the Intellectual Life, 1880-1950 New York: Garland, 1988) in Sociological Analysis (Volume 50, Number 4, 1989), pp.427-428.

17 See my “Renewing the Battle to Restore Sociology and the Social Sciences in Christ,” Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter (Volume 14, Number 3, June, 1991), pp.21-24. Also see my review essay on William P. Leahy, S.J.’s Adapting to America: Catholics, Jesuits, and Higher Education in the Twentieth Century (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1991) in Faith and Reason (Volume 18, Number 1, Spring, 1992), pp. 107-112.

18 Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, American Catholics and the Intellectual Life (Chicago: The Heritage Foundation, 1956).

19 Schlesinger, op. cit., 1991, p.22.

20 Diane Ravitch, “Multiculturalism,” The American Scholar (Volume 59, Number 3, Summer, 1990), p.338.

21 See, for instance, Richard J. Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmanns, 1984) and The Catholic Moment (San Francisco, California: Harper and Row, 1987); Virgil Blum, S.J., “Is America a Pluralist Society?,” Catholic League Newsletter (Volume 12, Number 8, August, 1985); and Henry J. Hyde, “Some Thoughts on the Exorcism of Religious Values from Public Life,” speech given on September 24, 1984 at the University of Notre Dame Law School and published in the supplement to the Catholic League Newsletter, Volume 12, Number 3). Of related interest is my article, “To Empower Catholics: the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights as a ‘Mediating Structure,’” The Nassau Review Volume 5, Number 4, 1988, pp. 45-6l.

22 “Nostra Aetate,” #2, The Documents of Vatican II (Walter M. Abbott, S.J. and Monsignor Joseph Gallagher, Editors)(U.S.A.: America Press, 1966), p.662.


This article appeared in the March 1994 issue of the HOMILETIC & PASTORAL REVIEW, Vol. XCIV, No. 6, pp 47-55.

Joseph A. Varacalli is Associate Professor of Sociology at Nassau Community College - S.U.N.Y., Garden City, New York. Dr. Varacalli is the co-founder and executive secretary of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. Dr. Varacalli is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator’s Resource Center.

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