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Tia Noelle PrattSeptember 18, 2019
A woman prays during a healing Mass on Nov. 12, 2016, at St. Martha Church in Uniondale, N.Y. The liturgy was celebrated in observance of National Black Catholic History Month. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)A woman prays during a healing Mass on Nov. 12, 2016, at St. Martha Church in Uniondale, N.Y. The liturgy was celebrated in observance of National Black Catholic History Month. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Enough. Enough with the white supremacist structures that hold on to their power in the institutional church with tightly clenched fists while feigning disbelief that black Catholics exist.

I am currently working on a book about systemic racism in the Catholic Church and how it impacts African-American Catholic identity. If my book can do only one thing, I want it to end to the incredulousness that surrounds the very idea that black people are Catholic.

I want to end the incredulousness that surrounds the very idea that black people are Catholic.

Globally speaking, black people have been practicing Catholicism since the earliest days of the church. Additionally, black people were practicing Catholicism in North America for more than 200 years before the United States was founded. Yet, African-American Catholics are constantly required to justify their existence. People like the Rev. Augustus Tolton, Charles Randolph Uncles, S.S.J., Thea Bowman, F.S.P.A., and Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., spent their lives working to make sure the church hierarchy and the people in the pews knew something as basic as that there are black people who are Catholic. Enough!

In my book, I discuss the ways the institutional church is a source of trauma for African-American Catholics instead of the “cosmopolitan canopy” it purports itself to be. The sociologist Elijah Anderson has defined the cosmopolitan canopy as “islands of civility in a sea of racial segregation” and as “settings that offer a respite from the lingering tensions of urban life and an opportunity for diverse peoples to come together.” If the Catholic Church were truly catholic, it would be these things for African-Americans. It would be a place where blacks could find respite from racial segregation.

I was asked to explain for America readers how the church falls short of this goal. But the question presumes that the church wants to be a cosmopolitan canopy, and I am not convinced that it does. Unfortunately, it has been a place where such segregation is heightened and perpetuated.

If the Catholic Church were truly catholic, it would be a place where blacks could find respite from racial segregation.

Slavery, segregated liturgies and systematic exclusion from the priesthood and religious life are just some of the ways we have seen this happen. This history does not exist in a vacuum. It has ramifications for our contemporary church.

Institutions like Georgetown University exist because of the sacrifice of slaves. With a minuscule number of black priests, religious sisters and religious brothers, black Catholics in the United States do not see themselves and their experiences reflected in positions of prominence the way white Catholics do. Exclusionary practices mean that a strong tradition of African-Americans pursuing these vocations never developed.

Now, as the Catholic landscape in cities like Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago changes, these centers of Catholic life in the United States are seeing many schools and churches close, with parishes being reorganized accordingly. These changes disproportionately impact the poor and racial minorities. At a time when economic inequality is growing rapidly and the effects of racism are being felt more strongly than at perhaps any time in the last 50 years, black Catholics who need their church the most are losing their resources.

Additionally, we see a failure in the church to support Black Lives Matter, which subsequently alienates the young people the church will depend on if it is to have a sustainable future. At the National Black Catholic Congress in 2018, Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri III of New Orleans spoke at a session for young black Catholics: “To the black youth, I apologize to you as a leader of the church because I feel we have abandoned you in the Black Lives Matter movement, and I apologize. Partly, I didn’t understand it, and by the time I did understand it, it was too late—the moment was gone.”

But that’s just it! The moment has not passed. We have not achieved a church that is a cosmopolitan canopy. The work of racial justice is ongoing. There is still time for church leadership to stand with and for young people if they only have the will to do so.

I have recently realized that I may lose my religion from writing this book. I may finish this book and be so disheartened and utterly convinced that the church will never change, that power will continue to reside where it has always been located, and I will not be able to be Catholic anymore. That is a risk I am willing to take because this work is so important. I still believe that the church can be its better self, even if it has to get there without me. So while I might lose my religion, I may gain a deeper faith in the process.

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JR Cosgrove
3 years ago

With about half the parishes I have been to Mass at having black priests, it’s hard to relate to the Catholic Church as an institution of racism. From what I understand there are over a thousand African priests in the US. Each of the parishes around where I used to live had one. From Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana. My current parish in New Hampshire has a priest from Nigeria.
The author brings up Black Lives Matter which is not conducive to any positive dialogue.

Wilson Gray
3 years ago

So, from your point of view, the Church is being overrun by black laity and clergy and their peculiar, essentially-racist "problems." My experience is different from yours. In 1948, I was the altar-boy for a visiting black priest at the now-extinct colored Catholic church in Marshall, Texas. The next time that I saw a black priest celebrating the holy sacrifice of the Mass was at the nuptial Mass of an Army buddy, in 1971. I have not seen a black priest under any circumstances since then, except in the print medium. Although I was born in the above-mentioned Marshall, I grew up in Saint Louis, where I was one of seven black students, among 800, who attended the local, Jesuit prep school, during the 1950-1954 school-years. One day, I was chatting with one of the Jesuits, when he said to me, "You know, I played a major part in getting colored admitted to this school. At a board meeting, I told them, 'We may as well admit the colored. If we don't, the archbishop is going to make us do it, anyway!'" And he said this with pride, as though he had been the Frederick Douglass of the Jesuits' Missouri Province! (At one time, all schools in the state of Missouri were as rigidly segregated as those of any state in the. Deep South. In 1945, after having had to threaten recalcitrant white Catholics with excommunication, the archbishop of Saint Louis had desegregated all Catholic schools in the state of Missouri by episcopal fiat. A decade or so later, when the archbishop of New Orleans tried to use this same tactic, it failed, because white Catholics, in their turn, retaliated by threatening the archbishop with schism. True, it’s hard to relate to the Catholic Church as an institution of racism, but it's easy to relate to white Catholics as instruments of racism. After all, the only aspect of this article that seems to have affected the emotions of white-Catholic letter-writers is her mention of Black Lives Matter, an organization that, so far, has done no harm to white people of any religious persuasion.

JR Cosgrove
3 years ago

Wilson, why did you have to lie about what I said with your first sentence? You then brought up instance of 60-70 years ago as experiences when the article was talking about today.

Maybe you should investigate Black Lives Matter and see if they are responsible for anything positive for anyone. They were part of an extensive discussion on this site a couple years ago.

Michael Bindner
3 years ago

Step one in dealing with the issues are to read the article and buy the book.

Step two is a red hat for Archbishop Wilton Gregory. He has certainly earned it. DC has shifted parish schools to charter schools. It is a step away from the evolution of elite parish schools.

Third, we should support DC statehood, BLM and SPLC. Heaven knows that in some parts of Alabama, Catholic Churches are still burned. My niece and her family live in St. Louis and are Black. Given the conduct of law enforcement in that part of the world, I see BLM from a different lens.

Fourth (or maybe now), get out of the GOP coalition. All but one of the Catholic justices will not, nor should they, seek the repeal of Roe, including the three appointed by Bush 43 and Trump. This will be obvious if June v. Gee reverses the Fifth Circuit and overturns Louisiana Trap Law per Curiam. We will know on October 7th. There should be no room in the GOP white supremacists and the Church and the former won't leave. The latter must unless the party embraces a middle class negative income tax for each child. Those who won't can stay with the White reactionaries.

Nick Heckman
3 years ago

Catholics shouldn’t work against Roe which makes abortion a constitutional right, something Pope Francis has spoken against countless times?

Michael Bindner
3 years ago

Stressing Roe prevents working on family based wages and tax policy that will provide them.

I am saying that telling people that voting GOP in order to overturn Roe is a deliberate fraud.

Andrew Strada
3 years ago

Where and when was the last Catholic church burned in Alabama?

Michael Bindner
3 years ago

A missionary priest from there stated it was a current problem. The Crackers still believe that the Pope is the anti-Christ

Andrew Strada
3 years ago

We are often told in the age of Trump that facts matter. Some random unnamed person saying something is still a problem is no substitute for factual information. Where was the last Catholic church in Alabama burned and on what day?

John Butler
3 years ago

BLM? Have you read what they propose- their aims? The hate towards police officers they articulate?
You had me interested, until you mentioned them.

NANCY CHISM
3 years ago

Tia, I've just published a book about Father Boniface Hardin. Also did a journal article about his struggles with the Church In J African American History. His story confirms your points. Best to you.

Robin Vestal
3 years ago

I worry a lot about the church in this country and it's general indifference to the people of God. There are notable exceptions but in general the oppression of people of color, immigrants and refugees are not at the forefront of the American church, to it's shame. I was grateful to Cardinal Tobin for his witness in NJ re; ICE but yes, the silence on BLM, institutional racism has been distressing to say the least. It's shaken my faith. I still see those who are staking their lives of the love of God but there is a lot of going along with evil here.

David Gray
3 years ago

VERY Interesting! I've been talking and writing about the Jim Crow Black Catholic Church for many years. I would love an advanced review copy of this book! Contact david@davidlgray.info

But Tia... if your faith isn't to the point where you can distinguish between THE faith and the actors in the faith, then stop writing this book - you're not ready for it. You should not even have in your mind the idea of abandoning Christ Jesus, the Holy Eucharist. I LOVE your honest, but put the book away unless you can make that mature distinction.

Deum Vernum,
David L. Gray

John Placette
3 years ago

.

Vince Killoran
3 years ago

There's no denying the history of racism in the American Catholic Church. Still, the author is fairly thin with details ca. 2019. Yes, schools and parishes continue to close in many cities but that has happened in many old white ethnic parishes as well in recent decades. Are parishes with a large number of Black parishioners unique? Also, it is important to ask whether (& how well) dioceses and religious orders have engaged with their racist pasts. I may be reading incomplete reports but I understand them to be moving in the right direction. I don't want to appear satisfied with their progress; we need concrete examples, however, on how they are falling short.

As for BLM as the exclusive organization for racial justice, it is important to know that there are many others, including the multitude of citizen power organizations that have been around for decades and worked on important issues such as the living wage and affordable housing. The East Brooklyn Congregations and Baltimore's BUILD are two excellent examples. Catholic parishes, along with Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim congregations, make up their membership. (There is some trenchant criticism of BLM from the Left about its focus, methods, and articulation of goals. It isn't perfect, and it isn't the only group out there.)

Overall, I'd love to read more about all this. How about a more expansive approach, including addressing the relationship between Hispanic and Black Catholics?

William Gallerizzo
3 years ago

Thank you for this. It is about time. I am not African American. I am an Italian American from the DC area where our two histories are closely entwined where we worked and lived side by side during the building of the expansive government development of the early 29th Century. African Americans introduced us to much of our,assimilation, including language, american folkways, and music. At that time, Italians were not permitted full access in "white" churches and my old home parish in DC, Holy Rosary, was commissioned by Cardinal Gibbons as part of his effort to alleviate that discrimination. My grandfather hired African Americans to work in his store at a time when to do so would hsve been a crime, and my uncles and cousins all played in police bands and local jazz bands with the locally rich musical culture of the time. Our Italian history in DC, unfortunately, was commissioned to someone with little knowledge and limited access to what really happened and although a book exists, it is highly flawed. In the case of the African Americans the same has been true up until now. So I thank you for this monumental work, and may it serve as an example of the importance of the journey of minorities that made America great in the face of opposition, and unfortunately continues today unless truth prevails.
Deacon William Gallerizzo

Vincent Gaglione
3 years ago

In the catalog of sins usually preached in church pulpits, racism is rarely if ever mentioned and defined. That’s because the preachers give no thought to it, most of them having been raised in the privileges of their own ethnicity and races. It was never recognized or taught as such in a seminary curriculum either. It is probably a unique example of why black lives matter!

I appreciate Deacon Gallerizzo’s remarks because I detected the same discrimination in some genealogy work that I had done. My father’s immigrant parents settled into a black neighborhood in the New Jersey town in which they lived. When my mother married my father, she was subjected until my birth to a family freeze by her Irish relatives.

In its history there have been outstanding priests who have recognized the racism of the USA Catholic Church and have worked diligently to overcome it, for example Father Bernard Quinn of the Brooklyn diocese. These men and the USA lay Catholics who learned from them have been and still are too few and far between. I often wonder what the reckoning will be at our judgments for this ubiquitous sin

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