I recently heard a truism about adulthood: you’re always cleaning the kitchen. Kitchens are a symbol of life’s work unending. I’m not good at maintaining a pristine look to my spaces. My kitchen (or office or bedroom or car or living room…) sparkles with clutter and books. Making homemade marinara sauce leaves the place splattered with the look of a crime scene. If cleanliness is close to godliness, we can rule out chants of santo subito for me.
It should require no exhaustive list of statistics or primer in feminist theory to point out my privilege in being able to disdain the pressures of aesthetic tidiness without much risk to my reputation. Markers of my identity—the ways I perform myself can be interpreted by others into categories like maleness, whiteness, straight marriage, parenthood, American citizenship, economic stability, relative able-bodiedness—rarely come prepackaged with the correlation imposed on women between keeping house and moral virtue. That point should be banal, yet the pervasiveness of patriarchal assumptions across the Church and the Catholic intellectual tradition demand attention. Even prior to a rigorous discussion of theological anthropology or sin or magisterial teaching on sex and gender, the conditions in which Catholics think together about social life need a good scrub.
There’s a difference between saying “Go, clean my house” and “Go, rebuild my house.” Things have to become pretty messy before they can be rebuilt; all the more so if you renovate a kitchen. To rebuild requires attention to foundations and starting points. To rebuild means to gamble that this house has value worth preserving.
This is why I am so flummoxed when Catholic identity gets set up in opposition to the language of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging as if these ideas are somehow “new” to Catholic thought. Catholic communities doing DEIB work can begin by returning to the premise, derived from the deposit of faith, that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. The community takes as given that human beings possess an inestimable and beloved value. This point of faith demands action in how we organize social life. Gaudium et Spes 29 puts it well: “although rightful differences exist between [people], the equal dignity of persons demands that a more humane and just condition of life be brought about. For excessive economic and social differences between the members of the one human family or population groups cause scandal, and militate against social justice, equity, the dignity of the human person […].” Work for justice does not mean work for bland sameness.
But a Catholic theological position about human dignity needs also to be reasonable. Faith provides the impetus and inspiration for why Catholics need to care about inclusion. Such is quite a different starting point for confronting the structural sins of exclusion from others on offer—from materialism and class struggle, from nationalism, from the atomized sovereignty of the liberal subject, from non-Christian religious ways of knowing. Reason, however, becomes the vehicle for how we articulate and practice inclusivity in a Catholic context. Reason, as a shared capacity for understanding, explains our distinctive efforts at inclusion. Because it aspires to be reasonable, work for inclusive excellence can call on everyone to play a role, even those who militantly reject a Catholic theological starting point.
My proposal is far from modest and surely not guaranteed to solve every problem the Church currently faces in the arenas of colonialism, racism, sexism and economic inequality. But there is a need for members of the Catholic community to ground their calls for justice within awkwardly dogmatic commitments to tenets of faith. Equally true, however, is the need to show how the desire to exclude certain markers of identity makes theological errors. To be clear, hospitality puts obligations on both hosts and guests; inclusive excellence can never mean flattening diversity or the boring reign of crude relativism. But hiding behind the excuse of a “slippery slope” is not reasonable. In order to do the work of rebuilding, Catholics need to be bold in our public love of the Lord and one another.
Near the end of his book on the last things, Joseph Ratzinger writes gorgeously about the symphony of differences in the world to come: “the individual’s salvation is whole and entire only when the salvation of the cosmos and all the elect has come to full fruition. For the redeemed are not simply adjacent to each other in heaven. Rather, in their being together as the one Christ, they are heaven. In that moment, the whole creation will become song” (Ratzinger, Eschatology, 2nd. ed., 238). Our work of inclusion will never be finished; we will always be cleaning. But elevating, cherishing and increasing diversity in our midst can only help us anticipate and echo the richly textured harmony of the heavenly chorus.
Charles A. Gillespie is an assistant professor in the department of Catholic Studies and director of Pioneer Journey at Sacred Heart University.