Theorizing Modernities article

‘Not Me, Not That’: Thinking Race and Catholic Modernity

“The political and intellectual history of modernity,” writes historian Robert Orsi, “is also always a religious history.” However, as significant and diverse recent scholarship is now bringing to light, narratives around the political, intellectual, and religious history of modernity often serve not only to illuminate the past, but also to obscure it through the authorization of specific forms of experience and knowledge. 

This symposium, entitled “Decolonizing Narratives, Denaturalizing Modernity,” aims to highlight recent scholarship that complicates received notions around the history of modernity. While focusing on distinct temporal, geographical, and religious contexts, in their shared attempts to uncover histories hidden by the dominant discourses of modernity, the authors featured in this symposium uniformly challenge the naturalization of modernity’s emergence and indicate that the history of modernity has always been (and remains) fundamentally contested. 

Claude McKay (The Crisis Magazine) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Words like “modernity” and “subaltern” can feel one step removed from reality, living out there somewhere in the theoretical ether, as opposed to the empirical here below. In my own work on modern European Catholicism, I have engaged with different subaltern voices throughout the years, but I came late to the topic of race. But once I did, it didn’t just give me a richer, more complex sense of my own field, but also a new perspective on what I teach and why, and where I come from. In other words, subaltern voices are not just about “diversity,” but about approximating a more honest, more rich and enlarged sense of truth and the world, and a more candid reckoning with our own place in it.

For several years, I’ve taught a graduate seminar called “Medieval Modernisms” in the History of Christianity at my Jesuit university. It’s a fairly narrowly focused course, exploring an underworld of Catholic thinkers and activists, mostly writers, artists, theologians, and historians from Europe who charted a unique path through the challenges of modernity in the twentieth-century. From roughly 1920-1960, they were the pioneers who helped lay the foundations for the changes inaugurated at the Second Vatican Council. But they had their sights on issues much broader than just the Church. They worked against the violent logic of xenophobic neo-medievalism that was a prominent part of mainstream Catholic thinking, but they were unusual in that they also resisted the secularizing tendencies of most leftist movements in that period. This network included some fairly well-known scholars, such as the Islamicist Louis Massignon (1883-1962), Dominican theologians like Marie-Dominique Chenu (1895-1990) and Jesuits Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) and his student, Michel de Certeau (1925-1986).

When I prepare the seminar syllabus, I constantly experiment with ways to incorporate minority histories into this movement, while still dealing with key canonical, clerical protagonists, men without whom the story of modernity and Catholicism would be incomprehensible. I don’t always know what I’m doing, and I’ve definitely had some misses, but a few successes too. Archival research, for example, has yielded fabulous discoveries of women who were prominent intellectuals and activists in this circuit, though almost entirely forgotten: Marie-Thérèse d’Alverny (1903-1991), Jeanne Ancelet-Hustache (1901-1990), Mary Kahil (1889-1979), Marie-Madeline Davy (1903-1998), and many more. Including these women has meant that the story shifts from seminaries, parishes, the Vatican, to places such as salons, activist centers, libraries, research institutes, and living rooms to find out where the theological and political action was. Other experiments have included de-centering Catholicism to show how this kind of religious modernism and anti-fascist politics was a sensibility that spanned across religious and intellectual traditions. We’ve been fortunate to host outstanding guest lecturers on twentieth-century secular and Jewish thinkers, such as Mara Benjamin on Franz Rosenzweig and Mara Willard on Hannah Arendt. This semester we’re looking at the life and writings of Muhammad Asad, a writer disillusioned with capitalistic culture in Germany who converted from Judaism to Islam in 1926 (and eventually became father to the anthropologist Talal Asad). When one sticks with the clerical Catholic voices alone, Vatican II (1962-1965) looms too large, and the conversation about religion and modernity becomes more exclusively ecclesial than it was in reality. But from these carefully chosen views from the edges, the story is full of surprises, spinning off into a wider a range of theological and political trajectories, and ultimately giving it a more interesting feel, bringing us closer to its richness and reality.

But, to be honest, it wasn’t until recently that I truly pushed myself to stretch even further and think seriously about race in Medieval Modernisms, the African diaspora in particular. Although I teach on the African diaspora when I do broader undergraduate courses on religion and modernity, for this particular European Catholic network, I sensed that it was not the African-American or broader African experiences as much as neoscholasticism, European authoritarianisms of all kinds, Judaism and even Islam that organized these intellectuals lives and work. A long time ago, I literally underlined something Tony Judt said in an interview, quoting Gertrude Stein: “not everything can be about everything.” I felt off the hook.

But like so many Americans, these past two years have changed me. I have come to see that our analysis of modernity and religion, even in a place like Paris, even among Catholic avant-garde intellectuals, will never be complete without race. I’m embarrassed to admit that I arrived here pretty late.

Claude McKay’s “Songs of Jamaica.” From NYPL.

This past year, two terrific sources guided my efforts: Kennetta Hammond Perry and Kira Thurman’s excellent “Black Europe: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” and Leora Auslander’s fabulous website full of incredible syllabi on modern Europe with attention to race, racism, and anti-racists movements from her teaching at the University of Chicago, including several that deal with religion. There are countless ways these materials can and will impact my teaching, but this year I eventually decided, given the particular contours of my class, to focus on Claude McKay (1889-1948), the African-American activist and poet of the Harlem renaissance, a literary star of the first magnitude. McKay was Jamaican born, involved in movements for racial equality in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, but eventually, like many African-American writers, set sail for Europe. As James Baldwin described it, “Paris, from across the ocean, looked like a refuge from the American madness.” Travelling in Spain and France, McKay joined internationalist, socialist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial activist communities abroad, and at the same time, witnessed a kind of Catholicism there, probably in the peasant piety of Spain, that seemed to him to embody something counter-cultural. According to Madhuri Deshmukh, Catholicism was, in McKay’s mind, the “most explicitly anti-modern of the West’s religions,” revealing the depth of McKay’s final “discontent with modern Western civilization, the slavery, the colonialism, racism, capitalist expansion, technology, and urbanization that were always the underside of its claim to secularism, rationality, enlightenment.” (This is, it should go without saying, McKay’s perception, not a historical fact.) Back in the United States, McKay became a friend of Dorothy Day’s, and the Catholic Worker published some of his poems. McKay made his way to the Friendship House, an interracial apostolate in Chicago, and converted there in the early 1940s.

In our seminar , before we encountered McKay, we had spent weeks thinking about theology, modernity, and politics from the perspective of white European Catholics. We moved through secularism, WWI, the rise of fascism, the Holocaust. Then suddenly Claude McKay’s voice entered the room. The temperature changed. It was still the same conversation, but it shifted entirely. In his 1943 collection of sonnets entitled “The Cycle,” McKay writes:

Lord, let me not be silent while we fight
In Europe Germans, Asia Japanese
For setting up a fascist way of might
While fifteen million Negroes on their knees
Pray for salvation from the Fascist yoke
Of these United States. Remove the beam
(Nearly two thousand years since Jesus spoke)
From your own eyes before the mote you deem
It proper from your neighbor’s to extract!
We bathe our lies in vapors of sweet myrrh,
And close our eyes not to perceive the fact!
But Jesus said: You whited sepulcher,
Pretending to be uncorrupt of sin
While worm-infested, rotten through within!


It was a denunciation of the American smug willingness to name, critique, even destroy evil on other shores while being willfully blind to our own. Why were Americans quick to condemn the scapegoating of minorities and authoritarian violence across the ocean and not think about racialized violence and death here? Reading McKay in the context of other subaltern voices—Jewish and female—helped us resist the notion that our empathy depletes as it extends, so it can only be directed at Jewish or black victims but not both, and no more. We read of McKay’s “fifteen million Negroes” alongside the poetry of the Russian Jewish émigré convert Raïssa Maritain, who begged Americans to take seriously what was happening to Jews. One of her poems published also in 1943—the same year as McKay’s—described “4 million Jews—and more —have suffered death without consolation/Those who are left are promised to the slaughter.” McKay expanded our sense of what was happening by seeing our topic from another angle. Who cannot but be moved by both subaltern poets to think harder?

It made me think how I too am part of this story. My own scholarly career has focused entirely on modernity and Catholicism in Europe, and to some degree, probably always will. For an American, there is something deep down more comforting in thinking about xenophobia and slaughter on someone else’s shores, lifting up their heroes, pondering the lessons over there. Of course, this was never a conscious decision but the result of years of cumulative courses, books, papers. Has this all excised me from the history of my country, my past, my entanglements with racialized violence? As I was thinking through all this, I also listened to my colleague Bryan Massingale’s incredible talk on race and social justice in Jesuit schools. Racial justice conversations keep “limping along,” in sad fits and starts, Massingale argues, because the priority has always been white comfort and the protection of white feelings, at the expense of truth. It made me think that the study of Catholic European xenophobia and resistance has been, oddly, a way to stoke comforting feelings. Words from my friend Mary Dunn’s new book on early modern Catholic piety and motherhood suddenly appeared: “Not me. Not that.” These lines are in Dunn’s final, beautiful chapter, drawing on Julia Kristeva’s notion of subject formation as a process that depends on the logic of expelling abjection from the self. Was focusing on European Catholic modernity, violence, and resistance a way to say of America’s terrible shame, not me, not that?

Reading McKay helped me see that the American willingness to condemn–even at great risk to one’s own safety—European fascism while ignoring, or even abetting, racial violence at home is part of my own family history. My grandfather, Henry Moore, was a WWII pilot who flew 50 successful B52 missions over Italy and Romania. After the war, he and my grandmother, Mary Moore, rented an apartment outside of Youngstown, Ohio, and he worked in one of the steel mills. My grandfather eventually worked his way up in a machinery company in Youngstown and eventually Michigan. A working class son of Irish parents, he was also, perhaps unexpectedly, a voracious reader and something of a self-taught intellectual. He loved Milton, the poems of Dickenson, and in some ways, was ahead of his time. He advocated for universal healthcare. When I was a freshman in college, he sent me a typed letter encouraging me to continue in my budding interests in “comparative religion,” not exactly typical Irish working-class advice. I was touched, and saved the letter. But a bizarre amount of his studies was fueled by vile, racist vitriol. Not unconscious bias “of the time,” but active loathing and resentment. I remember when I was a teenager he asked me to take a look at an organized set of handwritten notes and charts he had been compiling in a notebook. I checked it out. He was deep in a research project comparing the efficacy of different postal branches. The working thesis was that a higher percentage of African American postal carriers corresponded to higher rates of late and lost mail. White carriers delivered mail on time.

My grandfather’s life embodied the way that many Irish proved their Americanness by emphasizing their whiteness and joining the Anglo cause of racial violence against blacks. We are not them, they are not us. I thought too of something Raïssa Maritain wrote in her journal as an adult, after learning about the depth of her Jewish heritage–something she had never truly considered (she was a convert to Catholicism): “I have all of that in my blood, all of that’s behind me.” Irish American racism: all of that in my blood...

So it was Claude McKay’s beautiful and tragic poetry that helped me think hard about my own gaze across the Atlantic, to the place where I first went at age 16, to Spain, to escape my high school, where I’ve kept returning, in my thoughts and in my words and in my deeds, and even now, with my own kids usually in tow. Claude McKay brought something more powerful and poignant than words like “modernity,” “subaltern,” or “diversity,left in the abstract, can suggest. He brought me an enlarged, more capacious sense of truth, of reality, of the world, and also brought me back down to earth, the earth under my own feet. Yes me, yes that.


Further reading

Guillaume Aubert, “’The Blood of France’: Race and Purity of Blood in the French Atlantic World,” William & Mary Quarterly, 51 (July 2004), 439-478.

Alice L. Conklin, A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930 (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1997).

Wayne Cooper. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987.

Matthew Cressler, Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Nationalism in the Great Migration (NYU, 2017).

Madhuri Deshmukh, “Claude McKay’s Road to Catholicism,” Callaloo 37.1 (2004) 148-168.

Félix F. Germain Decolonizing the Republic: African and Caribbean Migrants in Postwar Paris, 1946-1974 (Michigan State University Press, 2016).

Paul Gilroy. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Harvard University Press, 1993).

T.S. Eliot, “Catholicism and International Order.” Essays, Ancient and Modern. (Harcourt, 1936).

Caroline Ford, Creating the Nation in Provincial France: Religion and Political Identity in Brittany (Princeton University Press, 1993).

Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (Routledge, 2008).

Minkah Makalani, In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939  (University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

John T. McGreevey, “Race and the Immigrant Church,” Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (University of Chicago, 1996).

Claude McKay, The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry, ed. Rampersad (Oxford, 2006).

Lynn T. Ramey, Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages (University Press of Florida, 2014).

Tyrone Tillery, Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity (U of Massachusetts, 1992).

William Shack, Harlem in Montmarte: A Paris Jazz Story between the Great Wars (University of California Press, 2001).

Brenna Moore
Brenna Moore is Professor of Theology at Fordham University. She works in the area of modern Christianity, with a focus on Catholic intellectual and cultural history in Europe. Dr. Moore’s teaching and research centers on mysticism and religious experience, gender, a movement in theology known as “ressourcement,” (“turn to the sources”) that paved the way for Vatican II, and the place of religious difference in modern Christian thought. She is most recently the author of Kindred Spirits: Friendship and Resistance at the Edges of Modern Catholicism (University of Chicago Press, 2021). This project explores a remarkable network of Catholic historians, theologians, poets, and activists who pushed against both the far-right surge in interwar Europe and the secularizing tendencies of the leftist movements active in the early to mid-twentieth century.