On the New Forms of Racism

Council for Justice and Peace Updates a Key Document

VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 1, 2001 (Zenit.org).- On the occasion of the World Conference Against Racism, under way in Durban, South Africa, the Vatican has updated a 1998 document, “The Church in Face of Racism: For a More Fraternal Society.” Below are excerpts from the document, which was first published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

* * *

The Church´s Contribution: Forgiveness and Reconciliation

In this context and framework, we might ask about the specific contribution that the Catholic Church is called to offer, not only to the entire forthcoming Durban Conference but, more generally, to the struggle against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance.

The first compelling answer is that it is from the heart of man that murder, malice, envy, pride and foolishness are born (Mark 7:21) and it is, therefore, at this level that the contribution of the Catholic Church, with its constant appeals to personal conversion, is more important and remains irreplaceable. In fact, it is first and foremost the whole of man´s heart that must be changed, because it is the heart that has need of constant purification in order not to be dominated by fear, or the spirit of control, but openness to the other, to fraternity and solidarity. Hence, the fundamental role of religions and, in particular, of the Christian faith, which teaches the dignity of every human being and the unity of mankind. And, if war or serious situations should make an enemy of another man, the first and most radical Christian commandment is, precisely, to love one´s enemy, and to respond to evil with good.

A Christian cannot have racist or discriminatory ideas or behavior, even if this, unfortunately, is not always the case in practice and has not always been so in history. In this connection, Pope John Paul II wished to characterize the Jubilee Year 2000 with petitions for forgiveness repeated on behalf of the Church, so that the memory of the Church would be purified of “every form of lack of witness and scandal,” which has occurred in the course of the past millennium (John Paul II, apostolic letter “Tertio Millennio Adveniente,” No. 33). Indeed, in certain situations it so happens that evil outlives the one who committed it, through the consequences of behavior, and the latter can become a heavy burden that weighs on the conscience and memory of descendants. A purification of the memory, therefore, becomes necessary: “Purifying the memory means eliminating, from the personal and collective conscience, all forms of resentment or violence left by the legacy of the past, on the basis of a new and rigorous historical-theological judgment, which becomes the foundation for a renewed moral way of acting in view of progress in reconciliation in truth, justice, and charity among human beings and, in particular, between the Church and the different religious, cultural and civil communities with whom she relates” (International Theological Commission, “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past,” 5.1).

The petition for forgiveness relates, in the first place, to the life of Christians who are part of the Church; however, “it is legitimate to hope that those who are politically responsible and the people, especially those involved in tragic conflicts fueled by hatred and also the memory of old wounds, allow themselves be led by the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation evidenced by the Church, and make an effort to resolve differences through loyal and open dialogue (John Paul II, Address to Participants in the Study Meeting on the Inquisition, Oct. 31, 1998, Teachings of John Paul II, Vol. XXI, 2 (1998), p. 900).

Issue of reparation

As a free act of love, forgiveness has its imperatives: It is necessary to acknowledge the evil that has been committed and, to the degree possible, remedy it. The first obligation, then, is respect for truth. Lying, disloyalty, corruption, ideological or political manipulation, in fact, render impossible the establishment of peaceful social relations. Hence the importance of procedures that permit the establishment of truth, procedures that are necessary but delicate, because the search for truth risks becoming a thirst for vengeance. To the need for truth is added a second: justice, because “forgiveness neither eliminates nor lessens the need for the reparation that justice requires, but seeks to reintegrate individuals and groups into society, and States into the community of Nations” (John Paul II, Message for the World Day of Peace, Jan. 1, 1997, No. 5).

The Holy See is well aware of the importance, and at the same time, of the delicacy of the problems connected with the “need for reparation,” especially when it is turned into indemnity claims. Further evidence is [provided by] the debate that has recently divided some member-states of the United Nations at the moment of adopting the provisional order of the day of the Durban Conference. It is not up to the Church to propose a technical solution to such a complex problem. However, the Holy See expresses the conviction that it is always better to look at the past with a purified memory in order to face the future serenely.

Education in human rights

Also among “good practices to be promoted,” inserted in the program of the forthcoming Durban Conference, is the endeavor to educate in human rights, especially through the media and the work of religions.

The Holy See is aware that the roots of racism, discrimination and intolerance are found in prejudice and ignorance, above all the fruits of sin, but also of erroneous and insufficient education. Hence, the fundamental role of education. In this respect, the Catholic Church reminds us of her active role “at the base,” of enormous importance in educating and instructing young people of all religious confessions and continents — and this, for centuries. Faithful to her values, the Church imparts an education in the service of man and of the whole man. This fundamental action, which serves the cause of the rights of man, is well known.

In regard to the irreplaceable role of religions, and in particular of the Christian faith, in the area of education in respect of the rights of man, we recall briefly that a correct teaching of religion consents to distance itself from the “false idols” of nationalism and racism. Pope John Paul II said at the interreligious Assembly of 1999: “The task we must address is that of promoting a culture of dialogue. Alone and all together we must demonstrate that religious faith inspires peace, encourages solidarity, promotes justice and sustains liberty” (Vatican City, Oct. 25-28, 1999, in “La Traccia” [“The Track”], No. 10/1999, pp. 1045-1047).

Positive discrimination

The forthcoming Durban Conference also proposes to promote “positive discrimination,” described as a “good practice.” The Dec. 21, 1965, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which the Holy See ratified, foresees, in fact, the possibility of adopting special measures “for the sole purpose of securing adequate advancement of certain racial or ethnic groups or individuals requiring such protection as may be necessary in order to ensure such groups or individuals equal enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms” (Article 1, §4). On this basis of “positive action,” some countries have adopted legislation that grants special protection, especially, to native and minority peoples. The choice of this type of policy, however, remains controversial. There is the real risk that such measures crystallize the difference rather than favor social cohesion — for example, in the area of employment or political life, individuals might be recruited or elected according to their ethnic group and not according to their competence — and, finally, that the freedom of choice is conditioned. It is undeniable that the weight of precedents of historical, social and cultural character at times call States to positive actions. Native peoples in particular, still suffer much because of discrimination.

Now, the Catholic Church, always very attentive to the defense of the reality of the specific, individual, historical man, claims effective respect for the rights of man. Therefore, these policies find their legitimacy from the moment the prudent reservation of Article 1, §4, of the 1965 Convention is respected. In fact, this establishes that the measures of positive discrimination should be temporary, that they must not have the effect of maintaining different rights for different groups and must not be kept in force once the established objectives are achieved.

Unheard-of forms of racism

Finally, we note that since 1988 two large breaks have become worse at the world level, the ever more tragic one of poverty and social discrimination and the newer and less denounced one, relating to the unborn human being, subjected to experiments and the object of technology (through the techniques of artificial procreation, the use of “leftover embryos,” cloning regarded as therapy, etc.). The risk of an unheard-of form of racism is very real, because the development of the techniques might lead to the creation of a “subcategory of human beings” destined essentially for the well-being of a few. A new and terrible form of slavery. Now, powerful business interests would like to benefit from this latent eugenic temptation. Thus, it is the obligation of governments and the international scientific community to watch carefully.


When visiting South Africa in September 1995, Pope John Paul II said: “solidarity is, first of all, the necessary response to overcome the complete moral failure constituted by racial prejudices and ethnic rivalry. ” A solidarity to be developed among the States but also, in a sense, among all societies where there unquestionably exists, the dehumanization and disintegration of the social fabric leading to the exacerbation of racist and xenophobic opinions and behavior, and the rejection of the weakest, whether he is a stranger, an invalid, or homeless. A solidarity that finds its foundation in the unity of the human family, because all men, created in the image and likeness of God, have the same origin and are called to the same end. And it is on this basis that the contribution of religions remains irreplaceable, a contribution that must be that of every believer who, freely adhering to his faith, lives it daily. All this, in the awareness that freedom of conscience and religion remains the presupposition, the principle, and the foundation of all other liberties, civil and human, individual and communal.

Cardinal François Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân,
President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

* * *

The above are extracts of an address distributed by the Vatican Press Office. The translation is by ZENIT.

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a micro-donation

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a micro-donation