The Case for Woke Catholicism

Wokeism has been the subject of much controversy, not just in society and politics, but also in the Catholic Church. Some Catholics argue that “wokeness” is inherently incompatible with the faith and that it should be rejected by Catholics. Others note to the parallels between wokeness and the Catholic Church’s promotion of social awareness and advocacy for social justice. They point to many saints and other devoted Catholics whose commitment to the poor and marginalized might be described as “woke.”

The term “woke” migrated from African American activist slang into pop and internet lingo and more recently into mainstream political, academic and cultural usage; but “the meaning changes depending on who is using the term and with whom it is being used.” To Gloria Purvis, a Black Catholic commentator formerly with EWTN Radio, “as a Black Catholic woman who has known personally the reality of systemic injustice, I understand the term ‘woke’ to mean being alert and awakening to injustice, including racial injustice.”

Bishop Robert Barron balks at the idea that Catholic “figures like Dorothy Day and saints like Teresa of Calcutta and Oscar Romero” could be considered “‘woke’ in their own right.”[1]

“No!” the Word on Fire founder disavows in an April interview, theorizing that “those great figures would not be the least bit sympathetic with contemporary ‘wokeism.’”

But Barron rattles off six distinct traits that he attributes to “wokeism,” which he says Day, Teresa, and Romero would never go along with: (1) dialectical class analysis; (2) moral relativism; (3) collective racial guilt; (4) rejection of free market democracy; (5) insistence on equal results; and (6) combative tactics contrary to the Gospel.

Barron’s formulation differs somewhat from the analysis of his former boss, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez (Barron was an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles at the time of the interview; he has since been made head of a diocese in Minnesota).

Although his remarks have also been met with skepticism, Gomez takes a more nuanced approach, acknowledging that wokeism is “part of a wider discussion … that is absolutely essential,” about expanding opportunities for everyone, no matter what color their skin is or where they came from, or their economic status.”[2] Even though Gomez slams “wokeness” as a new “pseudo-religion” in competition with the Church, he acknowledges that its adherents are “motivated by noble intentions” and that its philosophy “responds to real human needs and suffering.”

Gomez ultimately recommends out-wokeing the wokeists: “We need to live and proclaim the Gospel as the true path to liberation from every slavery and injustice, spiritual and material … in this hour I think the Church must be a voice for individual conscience and tolerance, and we need to promote greater humility and realism about the human condition.”

The Church’s response to rival ideologies at crucial junctures in history can spell the difference in whether the Church is deemed relevant or irrelevant in a given period. The Church gave what is arguably its most masterful response in 1891, when Pope Leo XIII deftly sidestepped incipient Marxist thought to create what became the Social Doctrine of the Church, a Christian response to the “new matters” (Rerum Novarum, as the pope’s encyclical letter was titled) posited by the workers’ movements of the 19th century.[3]

It gave a more fumbled response to Liberation Theology emerging in Latin America in the 1980s. Initially, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a generally negative pronouncement. In a 1984 document, the CDF (headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—the future Pope Benedict XVI) condemned liberation theologians’ use of Marxist analysis, emphasis on institutionalized and collective sin, and acquiescence to violent struggle.[4] In many respects, this response was akin to Bishop Barron’s critiques of wokeism.

Then, in 1986, the CDF—reportedly, at the insistence of John Paul II—issued a follow-up document, which concludes with chapters that proclaim, “The Liberating Mission of the Church” and “A Christian Practice of Liberation.”[5] Arguably, this latter approach was more in line with Archbishop Gomez’s advocacy of “engaging” with the new movements, and with Leo XIII’s coopting of the workers’ causes.

One of the Catholic figures cited by Barron and avowedly admired by Gomez, El Salvador’s Oscar Romero, represents an illustrative response—one Barron posits would “not be the least bit sympathetic with contemporary ‘wokeism.’”

And, in the beginning, Romero staked out a position startlingly similar to Gomez. In a 1976 homily before he was appointed archbishop, Romero railed against what he saw as an overly militant liberation movement: “The liberation of Christ and of his church is not reduced to the dimension of a purely temporal project,” he said. “It does not reduce its objectives to an anthropocentric perspective: to a material well-being or to initiatives of a political or social, economic or cultural order, only. Much less can it be a liberation that supports or is supported by violence.”[6]

Like Gomez, Romero argued that the Church alone held the answer: “We do not have to go beggaring to other, atheistic sources, or to ones of non-transcendent inspiration, for the concept of our liberation. It is … in the heart of our own faith and of our authentic national spirituality that we can find the light and the force that the Divine Savior offers for the effective liberation, promotion and transformation of our country.”

But when Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador the following year, he used that position as a springboard to a more robust defense of social justice. Perhaps it would surprise Bishop Barron that he seemed not in the least bit inimical to ‘woke’ speak. Romero repeatedly used the metaphor of waking others to material injustice to define his social justice ministry:

“The church draws near to sinners in poverty to tell them, ‘Be converted! Develop yourselves! Do not remain asleep! You must recognize your own dignity!’ This mission of promoting human dignity which the church carries out upsets many people who prefer to keep the masses of people asleep. They want the people to remain submissive, passive, conformist, satisfied with the husks of swine (c.f. Lk 15:16).”[7]

“I am glad to belong to this church that is raising the awareness of peasants and workers … so that they learn to be masters of their own destiny and not just a somnolent mass. We want them to know how to think and how to stand up for their rights. This is the glory of the church.”[8]

“This is the mission of the Church: to awaken people, like I am doing at the present moment, to awaken people to the spiritual meaning of their life; to awaken people to the divine value of their human actions. Do not lose sight of this, my sisters and brothers, for this is what the Church offers to all the different organizations, to the arenas of politics, industry, commerce, workers, the women in the marketplace.”[9]

“Hopefully the mission [of the Church will] awaken our brothers and sisters from their sleep and move them forward from this false sense of spirituality. I also direct these words toward our Catholic sisters and brothers who might still believe that the gospel can put aside the call to justice. I say here that a gospel that is not concerned about the reality in which people are living is not the gospel of Jesus.”[10]

And there are many other similar pronouncements. In these statements, the future saint declares that the Church must be at the vanguard of the movement to awaken people to the realities of injustice. He also states that doing so is part of the Church’s “mission” and, as reflected in the last quote, that omitting this would be a dereliction of the Church’s core duty: “A Church that does not join the poor in order to speak out on behalf of the poor and against the injustices committed against them, is not the true Church of Jesus Christ.”[11]

Finally, and most important for this analysis, Romero does not shun the liberation movements of his day but engages them. He meets with their representatives. He speaks candidly and publicly to stake out his principles and identifies his differences with their approaches. But at no point does he content himself with lobbing criticisms while not engaging them.

This approach seems in line with that urged by Pope Francis in his encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti:

The Church … cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the building of a better world, or fail to reawaken the spiritual energy that can contribute to the betterment of society … The Church has a public role over and above her charitable and educational activities. She works for the advancement of humanity and of universal fraternity. She does not claim to compete with earthly powers, but to offer herself as a family among families, this is the Church, open to bearing witness in today’s world, open to faith, hope and love for the Lord and for those whom he loves with a preferential love.[12]

Rather than define wokeism negatively in order to condemn it, a creative pastoral response might seek to coopt the woke imagery, which is in line with the gospel message that commands, “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ep 5:14.) The Church might proclaim the wokeism of the gospel which urges us to ‘stay woke’ because the master will return like “a thief in the night.” (Mt 24.43.) After all, we must not be disciples who sleep while Christ suffers, lest he say to us also, “Could ye not watch with me one hour?” (Mt 26:40). Christ is suffering today. We must ‘stay woke’ to that suffering.


[1] Bishop Barron: Why the Church can’t stay woke — or stay quiet, Pablo Kay, Angelus News (2021).

[2] Archbishop Gomez: Reflections on the Church and America’s New Religions (2021).

[3] Rerum Novarum (1891).

[4] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on certain aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” (1984).

[5] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation (1986).

[6] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on certain aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” (1984).

[7] September 11, 1977, homily.

[8] November 13, 1977, homily.

[9] August 20, 1978, homily.

[10] December 9, 1979, homily.

[11] February 17, 1980, homily.

[12] Fratelli Tutti, 276.

Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

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Carlos X. Colorado is an attorney and blogger from Southern California. He tracked the canonization of St. Oscar Romero in his «Super Martyrio» blog from 2006-2018. He is a member of the board of the St. Thomas More Society of Orange County, a Catholic lawyer group.

The Case for Woke Catholicism

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