What it means to be Black and Catholic

A new study breaks ground and adds insight:

The African-American community’s relationship with the Christian faith is well known and has been thoroughly documented, but a new study focusing on Black Catholics specifically, challenges common assumptions about one of the Black community’s less popular Christian churches.

Overall, the findings show that the U.S.’s estimated three million Black Catholics are highly educated and deeply engaged in the church; they value the social and communal aspects of religious worship and are concerned about the status of racism within the church.

Commissioned by the National Black Catholic Congress and the University of Notre Dame‘s Institute for Church Life and Office of the President, the survey sought to test the validity of long-held beliefs about Black Catholics and their religious engagement. The study, coauthored by Notre Dame social scientists Darren W. Davis and Donald B. Pope-Davis, stands as the largest sample of African-American Catholics ever surveyed on their faith.

According to the survey, African-American Catholics are considered stronger in their faith than white Catholics; with 78 percent of Black Catholics reporting that their parish meets their spiritual needs compared to only 69 percent of white Catholics.

Similarly, 76 percent of African-American Catholics say their parish meets their emotional needs, compared to 60 percent of white Catholics.

Significantly, 48 percent of African-Americans attend church at least once per week, compared to only 30 percent of white Catholics.

Researchers say, African-American’s increased appreciation of religious social interactions and tendency to attend all-Black parishes contributes to their satisfaction.

“This finding also shows up among African-American Catholics who attend predominantly Black parishes,” Davis said. “A greater sense of community that comes from worshipping with others who share cultural heritage heightens religious engagement.

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13 responses to “What it means to be Black and Catholic”

  1. The history of the African-American Catholic Community is a really rich and fascinating history. Here is a people who have stuck with our Church despite the many indigignities heaped upon them by us–fellow Catholics!

    Take a look at the History of Black Catholics in the United States, and it is still quite timely. Of particular interest to me is the saga of Fr. Augustus Tolton, surely a candidate for beatification, if not canonization.

  2. Those who think concerns about white racism may be overplayed need to bear in mind the reason Catholics have identifiably black parishes today. Here in Atlanta, the first black parish was founded only after white Catholics bought into the racist ideology of the South in the early 20th century. Blacks, in short, were told to go elsewhere, and there are people alive today who remember those very words.

    It took funding from Katharine Drexel–now a saint–to put our parish in place, and keeping it alive has sometimes been a struggle even up to recent times. In fact, it was only weeks after we celebrated the canonization of Katharine Drexel that the archdiocese announced it was shutting down our parish school as well as the school at a nearby parish with a largely black student body. This came about after both parishes had been promised a new consolidated inner-city Catholic school. At the meetings which followed the decision, archdiocesan consultants told us we could not have a new school after all because it was obvious from parent surveys that we “wanted too much.”

    For a sobering read about black Catholics today, I highly recommend Father Bryan Massingale’s challenging book, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church.

  3. It is a shame that many urban Churches have had to close removing alternative quality schools for many in need amoung them many African Americans. If only the government had allowed vouchers and choice to the parents of poor kids to escape the bonds of the poor public schools systems, many of these parishes would have been able to remain open.

  4. The faithfulness of African-American Catholics is encouraging, particularly because I expect a powerful influence of Africans re-evangelizing the Catholic Church in the U.S. A century from now, if they resolve political and infra-structure issues, Africa could be the powerhouse driving the world economy. Just as 19th century Europe and 20th century America exported vital Christian expressions with our economic expansion, it’s rrasonable to suppose 21st century African nations will reach out to us with their own powerful Catholic life. A strong black Catholic community in the U.S. could be an excellent point of entry into U.S. culture for African evangelists.

  5. When I was young if a black family came to our Catholic church they would get stares and I’m sure many weren’t friendly…they were probably wondering where they lived (not on their street!)
    Now, as a multi-racial couple, I love our church’s in our Ct city…blacks, Indians, Spanish, all together in one church. The blending of cultures brings much to our groups, music, everything. I wish more church’s would have this experience and see we are all one family.

  6. My parish is 20% each of Af.Am white..Latino, Vietnamese and Filipino. Pastor said at St Francis Oct combined Mass with 4 languages ‘ Look Around..This is what heaven will be like’

  7. Not sure when it was — and thus do not know which bishop inspired this idea — but I do remember a Bishop of Cleveland contacting many — if not all — of the affluent parishes in the suburbs of his diocese and asking them to “adopt” an inner city — primarily African American — parish. Nor do I know how successful that idea was.

    I do not recall the Archdiocese of Cincinnati ever suggesting that idea.

    I also know that the one Diocese of Toledo “nationality parish” dedicated to African Americans — St. Benedict the Moor — was wiped out by the right-of-way of Interstate 75 through the central part of that city — way back in the 1960’s. In modern times, an old Irish “nationality” parish of St. Ann was “suppressed” and the members — who were mostly African American anyway — were allowed to reopen the existing facility as the parish church dedicated to St. Martin de Porres (also an African-American)

    I do know about a few parishes in many of Ohio’s dioceses that were closed completely because the neighborhood they were located with had turned heavily African American non-Catholic Evangelical/Pentecostal. I also know about at least one parish of predominantly African American Roman Catholics was formed from the remnants of — I think — four of the “Ellis Island” nationality parishes and still thrives well.

  8. My last visit to Saint Bernadette Parish in Springfield Virginia (a Washington DC suburb) was on “Mission Sunday” and that year the pastor and the parish leadership team had encouraged all of the various nationalities within their congregation to wear their special national attire. The place was packed!

    I could recognize three different cultural traditions of African American, a similar number of Latin American, and a similar number of Asian American. There were even several distinct sub-cultures of White/Anglo folks The celebrant was local; the visiting homilist was an African priest but he spoke with a distinctly British accent; the Lector spoke with a distinctly Boston accent; one of the gentlemen who got up to serve as a EMHC was obviously an Army Officer from nearby Fort Belvoir; and the Cantor chose to sing the Great Amen from “Lilies of the Field” and accompanied it himself on a banjo.

    Unbelievable experience!

  9. Deacon Norb’s posting reminded me of something important here.

    Many years ago, I was a very good friend with a African-American pastor from the Church of God in Christ tradition. During one of our many conversations, he shared with me an insight I really had never considered before. Within the African American tradition, there are almost as many sub-cultures as their are within the White communities.

    My friend pointed out that our White majority easily accepts that they could be German-American; Irish-American; Italian-American; Polish-American; etc.

    On the other hand, White folks tend to think — if they ever consider it — that all African-Americans are a part of multi-generational family-lines which stretch back to the Southern slave experience prior to the American Civil War/War Between the States.

    But — my friend insisted — that simply is not true. Yes, a large plurality of African-Americans are descendants of those slave families but not all in any stretch. A surprising number are Caribbean whose families were never touched by the slave trade at all; others are descendants of recent (post World War II) immigration from post-colonial Africa but also from sections of Central and South America as well.

    Perhaps the different attitudes many of our Roman Catholic congregations have toward African Americans can be explained by that insight of my friend who was a non-Catholic pastor.

  10. Well I would think Caribbean blacks largely arrived in the New World due to the British or French, or sometimes Spanish, African slave-trade. That’s maybe churlish as I do think this is a good point. “Blacks” aren’t monolithic anymore than other groups.

  11. “few parishes in many of Ohio’s dioceses that were closed completely because the neighborhood they were located with had turned heavily African American non-Catholic Evangelical/Pentecostal.”
    That’s happened too many times in too many places around the country. I wish that, instead of closing those parishes, the bishops would’ve taken the opportunity to serve those neighborhoods and revive those parishes with new Catholics. They could’ve (and still could) take advantage of the Charismatic movement (since the new neighbors are of Pentecostal background) and Black Catholic ministries to help serve the needs of these people and evangelize the neighborhoods.

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