Across the country at this time, we are beginning to see offices of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” or DEI, change their name. By early 2023, an acknowledgment that DEI does not sit well with many sectors of society began to spread throughout both public and private institutions. This impact has varied from the outright dismantling of DEI offices in state-funded universities and colleges, such as those in Texas and Florida, to various name changes.
While the very mention of “diversity” and “equity” has raised the hackles of many, “inclusion” seems less freighted and more amenable to wider cultural dialogue. If this is so, it is probably due to the universal poignancy of belonging.
Communities and Persons
Augustine has given among the best definitions of belonging. In Book 19 of City of God, he famously wrote that “A people is the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement of the objects of their love.” A people is a community, not a statistical aggregate. They are a community because they are in communion through loving particular objects or goods in common. Unlike a Christian love of neighbor or the love that binds spouses and friends in which one extends love directly to the other, the love that binds a communitas is directed not necessarily to each other but to those objects or goods. Through a shared love of those objects, we begin to live in communion.
This is not to say that communion means tranquility. One may not even like one’s neighbor, one’s colleagues, one’s fellow compatriots. One may think that they are wrong about what our commonly loved goods mean. But the “common agreement” Augustine references is surely more fundamental: we agree that these goods are worth debating and occasionally coming to blows over. That is, concerning our objects loved in common we are not indifferent. The result is that the communion by which any community lives is a turbulent affair, full of dialectical struggle and unsavory name-calling. But to the extent that we are loving the same goods, we can endlessly argue about their meaning; we are in communion. We are a community through our shared love of those goods.
If an institution, such as a university, cares sufficiently to cultivate its community, it would be clear about the goods by which the community is a communion rather than merely an aggregate.
Religious Institutions and Inclusion
Generally, the mission of a religious institution is to serve what is sacred, to attend to the good of absolute value. The horizon of the religious institution is open to both the transcendent and immanent dimensions of meaning whose intersection is the human person. Therefore, it is not unrealistic to expect that initiatives that support inclusion would be grounded in what is already a mission to serve sacredness, with a special focus on the flourishing of the person and communities of persons.
The Catholic university is a good representative because Catholic social teaching (CST) offers an already well-developed value tradition. The foundational principle of CST is the person; and by extension, the family and communities of persons. (Chapters One and Two of Gaudium et spes furnish sufficient examples of these, respectively.) The good by which a Catholic university community is in communion is the intrinsically relational person.
As shorthand for what demarcates CST from other versions of social justice, Matthew Petrusek has suggested the acronym DES: Dignity, Equality, Solidarity. These three terms form a cluster of mutually dependent meanings that place the primacy on the living, breathing person, and, by necessary extension, the flourishing of persons within families and communities.
So, the question that every Catholic university must ask is whether DEI offices and initiatives intentionally begin with the imago Dei. That is, are they in line with over a century of development in Catholic social justice and with over two millennia of socially directed Christian charity, or do they take their bearings from other sources? Does concern for the common good in a Catholic university involve both persons and their communities without qualification, or does it restrict itself only to social groups, qualified demographically by race, ethnicity, gender identity, sex, and social and economic status?
If the former, then DEI can become a powerful administrative advocate for greater dignity, equality, and solidarity (DES) anchored in every person and every community of persons. If the latter, then both inclusion and recognition become tools in the hands of those who think about social justice through the lens of social and historic identitarianism and power dynamics. The former is driven by love; the latter by resentment.
Terminal Values and Instrumental Values
Let us briefly consider a figure who might prove helpful in thinking about DEI in relation to DES. The German writer Carl Amery provided a critique of German society during the Nazi era. Amery, no champion of Catholic Christianity, makes a relevant and crucial distinction in Capitulation between what he called primary and secondary virtues.
The key word for the lower-middle-class system of virtues in Germany is Anstand. It is untranslatable, just like “decency” or honnêteté, . . . What is German Anstand?
. . . It was the sum total of virtues adequate for the urban or rural middle class way of life. It included such things as honesty, diligence, cleanliness, punctuality, reliability in service; . . . obedience to authority. It is not difficult to see that this system really emphasizes none of the primary Christian virtues: neither faith nor humility, neither charity nor asceticism, are written large in this system of Anstand.
. . . the whole lot can be called “secondary virtues”: virtues, therefore, which do not imply any ends in themselves but must be assigned to determined goals, in order to be positive.
Honesty, punctuality, and cleanliness, for instance, are what Augustine might have called “intermediate goods.” That is, each of them is genuinely a good, but their goodness functions instrumentally. They are intermediate goods because, when rightly directed, they can powerfully bring about the achievement of the primary virtues. However, since they are means to an end, they are susceptible to being misled and abused.
For Amery, the secondary virtues of middle-class life realize their worthiness in their service of a primary good; but if that primary good is absent or replaced by a goal that is less than virtuous, the secondary, intermediate virtues become vices, debased in their service of vice. Thus it is that middle-class Anstand or decency—as a set of secondary virtues—is, by itself, always vulnerable to manipulation. Amery gives examples from the German context.
I can appear punctually for service in the priest’s house or in the Gestapo cellar; I can be fastidious in writing about the “final liquidation of the Jews” or in social welfare work; I can wash my hands after an honest day’s work in the cornfield or after my activities in the crematorium of the concentration camp.
The point is that otherwise noble virtues can be perverted if directed toward ignoble ends. In a parallel way, so too can the worthiness of inclusion and recognition be subverted if they are not lifted into the higher primary integration that is provided by an emphasis on persons, family, and communities of persons and families. If DES summarizes what is always owed to the terminal value of the person and community of persons, then it is plausible to consider DEI as a set of instrumental, secondary values. That is, inclusion and recognition, as part of DEI, find their completion only when they are rightly directed toward DES as expressive of the terminal value of the person.
However, inclusion and recognition initiatives are at risk if directed toward some other, non-personal, end. At a time when our public spaces are so riven by ideology, this risk involves ideological blind spots and can be twofold. On one hand, there is the “soft progressivism” of well-meaning administrators whose industry-standard policies passively-aggressively invite persons to put “thought police” into their own heads. Controlled conformity through mass compliance, such as approved speech codes, results in a safely anemic environment, increasingly shorn of dialectical communion, conversation, and genuine community. On the other hand, there is the “hard progressivism” of activists whose aim is total social change through top-down redistribution of power. Critical deconstruction knows how to “unmask” power structures, and how to de-platform resistance, but offers little of the goods and truths by which persons in communion might freely construct a community.
The Importance of Rightly Ordered DEI
Let us remember that DEI arose to counter, among other things, the problem of non-recognition and exclusion. Such a problem was predicated on the treatment of persons as individual “representatives” of various demographic groups. This was problematic precisely because those individual representatives were never merely individual members of groups but, more precisely, persons. Racism, sexism, ageism, prejudice against LGBT and others, and religious tribalism are all manifestations of the problem of non-recognition and exclusion against the persons who belong in the disfavored groups.
Such non-recognition and exclusion are violations of persons because what is recognized is not their personal character, personal merit, personal innocence or guilt, personal achievements or failure, but rather, their impersonal status as a group member. Thus it follows that when persons are putative members of the out-group, they are excluded; again, not because of their personal worthiness, but because of the exclusion of the group. In other words, the ground zero of the original problem lies in the refusal to perceive, understand, affirm, and value the personhood of the other.
When any person is reduced to a mere individual, he or she becomes replaceable by any other individual whose socially relevant characteristic marks them out as another member of the group. What is eclipsed in the reduction from personhood to “individual representative” of any group is the person’s radical uniqueness. This reduction is a sociological convenience whose practical applications on the personal level can be devastating.
While individuals are interchangeable with other individuals, persons are not. Individuals are parts of a whole. Persons, according to Jacques Maritain, are a whole within a whole. Being a whole, no daughter or son, mother or father can be swapped out for any other. Our bias was that we refused to see persons, wanting only to indulge our resentment, divide the world up into the simplicity of in-groups and out-groups, and proceed to “fix” the world on that basis. Racially based exclusion and the non-recognition of some groups is not overcome by turning the dial of disenfranchisement (prejudice plus power) in another direction. If institutional inclusion initiatives are favoring new in-groups and shaming or ostracizing new out-groups, then these become the latest face of exclusion and disintegration.
Conversely, if an institution is grounded in the terminal value of the person, then each of its DEI efforts can be brought to their proper completion. A rightly order DEI—nested, for example, within CST—is potentially powerful, because, subsidiary and ancillary to DES, it is focused on the entire institutional community of persons who embody and make present their own communities. Indeed, the person is the gateway to community because only the person can witness to communion. As a set of instrumental tools to serve dignity, equality, and solidarity, it would be the work of DEI to include and recognize all persons as unique and as uniquely belonging to their places, times, cultures, and—if we can push past ideology—to our universal, shared humanity.
DEI, rightly oriented toward DES, aims at the terminal value of the person, and thus its mission is noble. Lamenting the violations of our past and celebrating the achievements of the present, the ancillary role of DEI would serve to exalt personhood and the communion of culturally rich community without qualification as the life of any institution. This would be a mission that could compel the admiration and participation of all well-meaning people.