There is time for the church to support black Catholics—if it has the will to do so
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.