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Black Catholics Searching for Recognition, Identity

The Brooks family — Joe, Desiree, Gabrielle and Alyssa — pray after arriving for Sunday Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Alexandria, Va., in this 2011 file photo. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

The Catholic Church in the United States likely encompasses every cultural group. African Americans, who comprise about 3% of the membership, bring a unique perspective, yet also face challenges of identifying with leadership and contemporary societal issues.

Anthea Butler (Twitter | Bio), Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (USA) shared with AirTalk, a program of Southern California Public Radio, about the relationship between Black Catholics and the Catholic Church at-large in America.

Interview summary and audio link | Audio only 

Introduction of the segment and Anthea Butler (0:00)

African American Catholics have a long history in the [United States], tell us a little about that. (0:54)

Is there still a connection between the Catholic Church and Black America? (1:40)

AB (2:15) I do think, for Catholics, there’s a sense in which the universality of the church makes you, in one way, try to overlook some of the ethnic things that are happening. On the other hand, you have to deal with them because of the different ethnic communities and parishes.

What role does racial identity play in Catholic worship services? (2:32)

AB (2:35) It plays a very big role- if you think prior to Vatican II, there wasn’t a lot of racial identity. Everybody was forced into the same kind of worship styles and all of that. Post-Vatican II, Black Catholics were able to explore different musical styles with gospel music…so there’s a lot of different ways in which Black Catholics have put forth their culture within the Catholic Church.

How is it different from the way that other Catholics conduct services? (3:08)

AB (3:31) I think the difference is in how Black Catholics were perceived by other Catholics in the church. If you think about immigration and all the ethnic Catholics we have — Polish Catholics, Irish, Germans, Italians, everybody always focuses on them for a culture within the Catholic Church, but nobody looks at Black Catholics, and I think our unique history has a lot of cultural implications, because we’ve had to straddle the line between being Black Americans and being Black Catholics.

What effect has [the rise in Latino demographics in the US] had on black parishes? (3:59)

Has [this effect] led to a number of Black Americans, maybe, not identifying as Catholics? (4:51)

AB (5:10): I do think, however, that by not paying attention in some places- I’m not going to say all- to the needs of Black Catholics, especially with the kinds of priests that are assigned to diocese and parishes, that has caused a real problem. Let’s say you have a priest that does not understand the unique kinds of cultural needs for African American Catholics and they’re, say, from the Philippines or even African priests. That causes a lot of problems.

AB (6:18) It’s really hard, sometimes, to integrate Black Catholics into other parishes if those parishes don’t have Black people already in them, if you know what I mean. It’s hard to put together people and just say “Well, because you’re all Catholics, that’s going to work”. Enculturation just doesn’t mean that you can just throw everybody together and it’s going to be okay. Sometimes, people are really upset about that. That can create a lot of tension.

Pope Francis has spoken out a lot about poverty, corporate greed- he’s remained silent, though, on issues like use of force or recent civil unrest that we’ve seen in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri- what do you think Black Catholics are hoping to hear from the Pope during his visit? (6:40)

AB (6:56): I think that they hope to hear several things: One is, I think they would like to hear some comment about racism in America. The Catholic Church’s history with race has been a troubled one in a lot of ways. You have to think about missionary activity and slavery- even though popes spoke out against slavery and issued papal bulls, slavery still happened. This racial situation we are currently in in America right now, especially with mass incarceration and police brutality, I think would be something very important for the Pope to say that Black Catholics want to hear.

Second, I just think that Black Catholics would like to be recognized. We have a huge history here in the United States, the first black Jesuit in the country, Patrick Healy  was the president of Georgetown [University], we have an order which was started by Henriette Delille, the Sisters of the Holy Family, people are hoping that maybe the cause for her sainthood could progress. There’s lots of different ways in which Black Catholics could be recognized by the Pope and I am hoping that we hear something from him while he is here in the United States.


Discussion questions:

What problems can arise from leadership that is not aware of the cultural needs and contributions of a segment of the congregation?

How can a congregation meaningfully engage with different cultural communities within its membership?

Whose cultural identity is most prevalent in your worship service? How do you see this?

How can a congregation appropriately relate to its complicity in past injustice and respond to contemporary challenges?



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