Are Catholics Racist?

Barack Obama lost the Catholic vote in Pennsylvania to Hillary Clinton by an enormous margin of 68%-31%, but his inability to attract Catholics has dogged him in earlier contests too. The "Catholic vote" overlaps with other demographics: blue collar, older, ethnic, white, all of which have garnered more press attention. But, is there something distinctive about Catholics that make them unlikely to vote for Obama? Catholic participation in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s was uneven. Archbishop (later Cardinal) Patrick O’Boyle of Washington desegregated the Catholic schools before Brown v. Board of Education, set up programs to introduce blacks into the construction trades, and gave the invocation at the March on Washington, standing alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he shared his dream with America. O’Boyle was not alone. A young priest got his start in Mississippi working with the civil rights movement. His name was Bernard Law. Other dioceses were less enthusiastic. In Philadelphia, Archbishop Krol (also later a Cardinal) presided over one of the strongest Catholic cultures in America. Ninety percent of Catholic children attended parochial schools in the early 1960s but devotional groups were still separated by gender and progressive groups like the Catholic Worker movement were not found in Philly. Krol urged the Interracial Council in his city to avoid any and all confrontation. In Los Angeles, Cardinal McIntyre’s inaction on racial matters provoked his clergy to appeal directly to Rome. The principal reason for Catholic hostility to blacks, however, lay not in history but in ethnicity and the way that a certain tribalism has characterized American Catholicism. In Windham, Connecticut, an old mill town near where I grew up, there are two large churches across the street from each other: St. Joseph’s was built by the Irish and St. Mary’s was built by the French Canadians. St. Mary’s still has a Mass in French every Sunday. The Poles went to St. Joseph’s, as did the Latinos, until a third Catholic Church, Sagrada Corazon, was built in the 1970s for the growing Hispanic population. An hour’s drive, in Middletown, Connecticut, the Irish built St. John’s and the Italians built St. Sebastian’s. In Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, PA, it was the Germans who came with the Irish. How does this racial-ethnic component affect Barack’s appeal? "Race is intertwined with a broader notion that he is not one of us," said Andrew Kohut in this morning’s Times. Kohut is the director of the Pew Research Center, which conducted a survey of voter attitudes, particularly among Democrats who don’t like Mr. Obama. "They react negatively to people who are seen as different." With parish closings, flight to the suburbs, the diminishing of traditions brought from Europe, the Catholic clergy have had to face ethnic tensions within the Church. Today, the clergy must have the courage to mount their pulpits and talk about racism in the church. There may be a variety of reasons why Barack Obama is not doing well among Catholics, including the fact that his campaign has done such a bad job reaching out to Catholics. Pastors have little interest in politics, but they must feed their sheep, and in America today, some parishioners need to be fed the Church’s teachings on racial justice. The message is simple: if you call God "Father" then you must call every man "brother" no matter if he is French Canadian or black or Polish or Latino. Michael Sean Winters
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
10 years 1 month ago
Can you explain to me why abortion doesn't ever enter into your calculus? Yes, Hilary is pro-abortion as well, but her message is somehow moderated - and perhaps word about Obama's vote on the INfants Born Alive act has gotten around and people are responding to it. So are you suggesting that if one declines to vote for a black person, the only reason one would have to do so is racisim? If Clarence Thomas were running for office would you vote for him? If not, can I call you racist?
10 years 1 month ago
"Tribalism" seems like a good word to describe some of the Catholic intolerance and racism that has been an undercurrent in spite some fine national and local leaders. I believe that although the Catholic church did not formally split as did Baptists and others over slavery and civil war issues, the smoldering prejudices and attempts at evangelization were addressed in haphazard and idiosyncratic ways -- sometimes heroically, but never pervasively. What is especially telling, if this statitic is correct, is that 16% of PA Catholics said that race could be legitimate factor in the campaign and some 50% of those said they doubted they would vote for Obama because of that. I don't know how that squares with any polling in the past gubernatorial race with Rendell having beaten Lynn Swann, but I do fear that there are some deep pockets of masked racism that will play out in this election. I also believe that the Clintons were subtlely and not so subtlely exploiting this in various remarks. Sad for us all as the insidious "white privilege" still is so potent.
10 years 1 month ago
As an Obama supporter, I make no claim to objectivity on this, but it seems to me that "with a wink and a nod" and a "now you see it, now you don't" the two Clintons are sending signals to white voters, Catholics and non-Catholics, that its "us against them." Clearly, many African-Americans perceive it this way.
10 years ago
One doesn't have to racist to be unsupportive of Mr. Obama's campaigne--or of the other two... none of whom are truly representative of Catholic social teaching. I have said it before, and I will say it again--I do NOT find this Presidential election interesting or stimulating but startling--how so many can be so deceived! Oh, well! Sic transit gloria monde!
10 years 1 month ago
Remember as a college student going to summer school in Chicago and then Boston from Texas farm country. Attended catholic colleges in both cities. Still remember my shock and disbelief at the level of parish and church bigotry towards other races esp. african-americans. This was the first time I ran into such obvious racism - and it hit me while in catholic parishes and college classrooms listening to both teachers and students. My experience is that the catholic cities of Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia are some of the most bigotted in the U.S.
10 years 1 month ago
For more embarassing history of how Catholics have dealt with (or not dealt with) race, see John McGreevey's "Parish Boundaries." If I recall the thesis of the book, it basically says that in Chicago and some other cities, Catholic parishes and priests encouraged and enabled redlining and neighborhood segregation. There is even a sick story of a white priest throwing a black parishioner out of a confessional, telling him to go to his own parish. I remember throwing the book across the room--I was so angry when I read that.
10 years 1 month ago
This was a really interesting analysis, thank you. I will not be supporting either of the Democratic candidates primarily because of the abortion issue, but at the same time I do find Obama's candidacy to be extremely exciting. This will be a very interesting next few months...
10 years 1 month ago
I think the author is reaching for straws here. The Catholic vote is not anymore racist than the rest of this country. Maybe it is Obama's extreme views on abortion, his hateful Pastor and his elitist views of working Americans that has Catholics turned off. He is not connecting on the basic issues now because of his way left of center views. If he wins the nomination, it is highly unlikely that he will win the Catholic vote in the fall, thus costing him the White House.
10 years 1 month ago
All one need do is look at the through the church windows on Sunday, or the parish schools during the week to realize that our African-American brothers and sisters have not been welcomed with open arms. p.s. I am fairly certain Mr. Winters' subject is about racism and Catholics; why must people insist on bringing in the issue of abortion, regardless of subject matter?
10 years 1 month ago
I think what is so exciting about Senator Obama's candidacy and the movement he's assembled is that they offer an opportunity (certainly not a guarantee) to transcend those racial/ethnic divides. Our Church too is in need of such reconciliation. The Bishops' 2000 statement, "Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself: U.S. Catholic Bishops Speak Against Racism" acknowledged this and was a unique step forward, but clearly more remains to be said and done.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Las palabras de Jesús fueron mucho más que doctrina humanista, porque fueron revelación.
Among both listeners and staff, one can find those who were born and raised in the United States or moved here at a young age and those who are new to the country; those who have papers and those who do not or whose parents do not.
Jim McDermottMay 24, 2018
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his disciples at Rajneeshpuram (Credit: Netflix)
Sometimes the best way to understand a phenomenon is to look at its parody.
José DueñoMay 24, 2018
Chris Rock (photo: Netflix)
“Tambourine” should be mandatory viewing in all diocesan Pre-Cana programs.
Jake MartinMay 24, 2018