What John Paul II Taught About Racism and Xenophobia

To overcome racism and xenophobia, Pope St. John Paul II said that we must condemn racism, teach others, promote solidarity and peace, and pray — especially to Mary.

(photo: Denis Doukhan, CC0, via Pixabay)

In today’s environment, the charge of racism against political opponents has become increasingly routine. In fact, it is often proclaimed that—regardless of the issue under discussion—racism is the only possible explanation for another’s political opposition. For instance, if one has a relatively restrictive position on immigration, he is—on that fact alone—judged a racist. That’s not fair.

The broad, reflexive charge of racism against all one’s opponents is not only unreasonable, but objectively calumnious. But while it is absurd to conclude that everything has a racist motivation, so is it absurd to conclude that nothing does. Racism and xenophobia are real. And wrong. So explains Pope Saint John Paul II.

In John Paul’s Angelus message of Aug. 26, 2001, he writes:

In the last decades…marked by the worrying resurgence of aggressive nationalism, ethnic violence and widespread phenomena of racial discrimination, human dignity has often been seriously threatened. Every upright conscience cannot but decisively condemn any racism, no matter in what heart or place it is found.

John Paul’s observations above were true not only for his time, but have proven sadly descriptive of our own. In some factions of America, an us-versus-them narrative of racial intolerance is not only accepted but cheered.

John Paul saw the danger that racism posed to society, and he also saw another insidious trend: racial discrimination was being defended on the grounds of patriotism. To this, in a New Year’s message of 2001, John Paul responded:

Love for one’s country is thus a value to be fostered, without narrow-mindedness but with love for the whole human family and with an effort to avoid those pathological manifestations which occur when the sense of belonging turns into self-exaltation, the rejection of diversity, and forms of nationalism, racism and xenophobia.

Virtues, like truth, cannot contradict each other. One could not, therefore, insist that his abhorrence of strangers and foreigners is rooted in patriotism and still call patriotism a virtue. Simply put, vices are not rooted in virtues. For instance, lust is not rooted in chastity; rather, lust uproots chastity. Similarly, to the degree that a person’s authentic love for others is lacking, then so is his or her patriotic virtue.

And beyond that, to the degree that a person’s love for others is lacking, so is his or her Christian faith. The canonized pontiff clarifies that racism is no small sin; quite the contrary. In his Angelus, he states, “Racism is a sin that constitutes a serious offence against God.”

Racism is not just a lie about man, it is a lie about God. God could have chosen any way to create human beings: he could have created each one of us ex nihilo, or created multiple sets of parents. But God desired every one of us to have the same original parents. He desired that humanity be a brotherhood. The Catechism makes this clear, stating: “Because of its common origin the human race forms a unity, for ‘from one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth...” Racism denies that unity. The Catechism continues, “’This law of human solidarity and charity,’ without excluding the rich variety of persons, cultures, and peoples, assures us that all men are truly brethren.”

Racism not only denies a common brotherhood, but also a common fatherhood. In his Angelus address, John Paul further quotes the Vatican II document Nostra aetate:

We cannot truly pray to God the Father of all if we treat any people in other than brotherly fashion, for all men are created in the image of God.... Therefore, the Church reproves, as foreign to the will of Christ, any discrimination against people or any persecution of them on the basis of their race, color, social condition or religion.

To overcome racism and xenophobia, Pope Saint John Paul II states that we must condemn racism, educate others on the issue, promote solidarity and peace, and pray. In particular, the Holy Father implores us to seek the intercession of Mary. And as we pray, we might ask the intercession Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Patroness of the Americas. For five centuries, the image at Guadalupe has illustrated her love—a love that should inspire us to love others.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.

Pope Saint John Paul II, pray for us.