This is the third installment of our roundtable on Cory D. Mitchell and M. Therese Lysaught’s “Equally Strange Fruit: Catholic Health Care and the Appropriation of Residential Segregation” (ESF). I am also pleased to be able to offer my own comments as a complement to Lorraine’s reflections, as well as those of Conor Kelly. In fact, I’d like to build my post specifically off of what I take to be Conor’s central argument: namely, that it is more helpful to think of the evil of racial segregation rightfully attacked in ESF as gravely evil rather than intrinsically evil.
While the category of intrinsically evil acts has come under assault in recent years—especially by many of those affiliated with and otherwise friendly to what might be described inartfully as Boston College’s current approach to theological ethics—Mitchell and Lysaught are nevertheless correct to (1) affirm that it remains an important category in Catholic moral theology and (2) use it to name the kind of evil present in racial segregation.
Suppose the practice of racial segregation is not named as intrinsically evil. This would be a mistake in two ways. It would be a mistake, first of all and most importantly, because it refuses to call something what it is. But it would also be a mistake because it opens up discussions about the practice that are inappropriate given the kind of evil in question.
Conor seems to lament the fact that calling things like abortion and contraception intrinsically evil “takes the oxygen out of the room” when it comes to moral analysis of these acts. But how much oxygen do we want to give moral analysis of the practice of racial segregation? For once we give the issue oxygen, we open ourselves up to all kinds of consequentialist considerations that could actually give life to the practice.
Consider the views of Anthony Bradly, chair of the Religious and Theological Studies program of King’s College in New York City, and author of Black Scholars in White Space: New Vistas in African American Studies from the Christian Academy. (Cascade, 2015) and Ending Overcriminalization and Mass Incarceration: Hope from Civil Society (Cambridge University Press, 2018). In a blog post, he calls out white progressives for major blind spots in discussion when it comes to discussion of racial segregation. They seem to believe, says Professor Bradly, that “the presence of white people is somehow a cosmic advantage for blacks.”
Instead of focusing on dismantling systems which would move racial minorities to live among whites, Bradly prefers a focus which would empower communities of African Americans to have better “overall health and wellbeing” regardless of what the race of their neighbors happen to be. And he cites data in support of how this was the case historically, implying that it could be this way again.
Also, having married into a family which has exposed me to the views of a good number of Asian-Americans and Pacific-Islanders (with whom I discussed this blog post and the arguments surrounding it at some length) has given me new insights into what drives the living preferences of at least some racial and ethnic minorities in certain areas. For instance, many Filipinos choose to live in concentrated areas of Jersey City, New Jersey to be in areas that can sustain Filipino restaurants, church communities, and other institutions. Korean friends of ours have also explained that many Koreans live in concentrated areas of Fort Lee, NJ for similar reasons—including the fact that they have access to Korean interpreters in the local courts and hospitals.
It is one thing, of course, for racial minorities to cite the reasons why that it is good they live in these communities. It is quite another for there to be intentional public polities that segregate based on race. But if we wrongly decide that segregation based on race is not intrinsically evil (and not something which is by its very nature offensive to human dignity and cannot be ordered to God), we open ourselves up to arguments about how much utility is or is not produced by this or that segregationist policy. Suppose pro-segregationist forces move in support of policies which either directly or indirectly support the segregation of peoples based on race and ethnicity. If we give up on intrinsically evil acts, they can use the new oxygen in the room to force us into a battle of competing consequentialist claims. The goods behind voluntary choices could (and almost certainly would) be turned into proportionalist policy arguments in favor of segregation.
Giving this kind of oxygen to at least the formal moral analysis of the practice of racial segregation (and, by extension, the cooperation of Catholic health care institutions with the practice of racial segregation) is a category mistake. Catholics have a moral tradition which rightly does not allow for a consequentialist analysis that might end up supporting policies which support things like direct abortion (or any intentional killing of the innocent), human trafficking, torture, usury, degrading work conditions, and racial segregation.
The bad and often terrible consequences of intrinsically evil acts are of central importance in Catholic moral theology, of course. And this central importance means that the insights of ESF are of profound interest. But Mitchell and Lysaught began their moral analysis in exactly the right place: naming racial segregation as intrinsically evil.