African American Catholics and “the Black Church”

By: Edward K. Braxton

April 8, 2021

The Black Church in American Public Life

Are African American Catholics considered part of what is popularly called “the Black Church”? In most instances, it would seem we are not. When you hear about the leadership of “the Black Church” pressing for racial and social justice, you are likely to think of Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock, former pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, formerly served by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the first African American senator from Georgia. And when you think of African American Catholic parishes, you are more likely to think of parishes served by white priests. “The Black Church” is not a single Christian community. The expression usually describes a collective of African American Christians in certain Protestant Christian communities. Because the three million African American Catholics are a very small number of the 68-million-member Roman Catholic Church in the United States, we seem invisible to many who speak about “the Black Church.”

Are African American Catholics considered part of what is popularly called “the Black Church”? In most instances, it would seem we are not.

Most African American Christians are Baptists, though not Southern Baptists. Many are members of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. The AME has about two-and-a-half to three million members, including a significant number of communities in Africa. Many African American Protestants would be surprised to learn that the approximately three million African American Catholics is equal to and possibly larger than the AME membership in this country. And yet, African American Catholics are often not mentioned in conversations about “the Black Church.” Is this because the Catholic Church is such a large worldwide community of faith? Is it because of the Church’s shameful past history of racial discrimination in this country? Is it because some Catholic beliefs are not compatible with the positions held by some Christians who identify with “the Black Church”? Or, is it because the Eurocentric style of Catholic liturgy is so starkly different from the Afrocentric style worship experienced in African American Protestant churches? These difficult questions are not easily answered.

According to the eminent African American Catholic historian, Father Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., the first Catholic of African descent to enter the territory now known as the United States was probably a Spanish-speaking enslaved African man named Esteban, a form of the Christian name, Stephen, who arrived in 1536. This fact of history reminds us that Catholics of African descent were in this country long before the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Baptists, now considered the traditional home of “the Black Church.” By Father Davis’ account, Esteban “was a resourceful, intrepid explorer who survived shipwreck, disease, captivity, and physical hardship as much by his wits as by his personal courage.” These qualities are an apt description of the African American Catholics who have enriched and challenged the Catholic Church and this country through the centuries.

Catholics of African descent were in this country long before the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Baptists.

These challenges were particularly forceful during the period of the African American Catholic Congresses. Between 1889 and 1894, five Congresses of Colored Catholics were held, inspired by Daniel A. Rudd of Cincinnati, Ohio, editor of The American Catholic Tribune, a paper published by and for African American Catholics. Significantly, the 1889 Washington, DC Congress passed a resolution expressing sympathy for the plight of the people of Ireland, “our brethren of the Emerald Isle, who, like ourselves, are struggling for justice.” In an “Address to Their Catholic Fellow Citizens,” African American Catholics complained that “the sacred rights of justice and humanity are still sadly wounded.” They pleaded for African American Catholic schools and societies, as well as for help in eliminating discrimination by labor unions, employers, landlords, and real estate agents. 

Despite Catholic Congresses and Daniel Rudd’s newspaper, African American Catholics remained a small minority. There were about seven million African Americans in 1883, and an estimated hundred thousand were Catholics. Most European American church leaders were not outspoken in their zeal for African American evangelization and racial justice. Archbishop Ireland, in 1891, insisted that efforts be made to “blot out the color lines.” He advocated equal political rights, equal education, and equal opportunity for employment. Further, the urban nature of American Catholicism minimized its contact with the greater part of the African American population, still predominantly rural. In 1900, African Americans were only 2% of New York City.

The urban nature of American Catholicism minimized its contact with the greater part of the African American population, still predominantly rural.

In 1987, the National Black Catholic Congress movement emerged as the spiritual successor to Daniel Rudd's Colored Catholic Congress movement of the late nineteenth century. The next gathering of the congress is scheduled for 2023. If we are going to speak about leadership among African American Christians, the long history of the National Black Catholic Congress should be counted as an important component of “the Black Church.” There are other important leadership groups among African American Catholics that should be heralded when talking about “the Black Church.” These include: the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ sub-committee on African American Affairs, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons, the National Black Sisters Conference, and the National Association of Black Catholic Administrators.

The Catholic voice in “the Black Church” can be heard in landmark pastoral letters: What We Have Seen and Heard: A Pastoral Letter on Evangelization from the Black Bishops of the United States (1984), Brothers and Sisters to Us (1979), and Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love (2018). The latter two received critical input from the African American Catholic bishops and other representatives of the African American Catholic community.

“The Black Church” is impoverished if it ignores the outstanding African American Catholic clergy, religious, and laity who, throughout the centuries, have exemplified heroic virtue in their love for God, discipleship of Jesus Christ, concern for the needy and the oppressed, and commitment to the authentic teachings of the Church, even when the Church was marred by the sin of systemic prejudice and racism. Fortunately, in recent decades, some of their extraordinary stories have been carefully studied, and they are now under consideration for canonization as saints by the Catholic Church. They are: Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1776–1853), Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange (1784–1882), Venerable Henriette Delille (1813–1862), Venerable Fr. Augustus Tolton (1854–1897), Servant of God Julia Greeley (c.1833/1848–1918), and Sr. Thea Bowman, FSPA (1937–1990).

'The Black Church' is impoverished if it ignores the outstanding African American Catholic clergy, religious, and laity who have exemplified heroic virtue in their love for God.

Many African American Catholics are converts from Protestant traditions. Guided by the impetus of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1964), they have incorporated elements of the Black Church’s worship style into African American Catholic liturgical celebrations that are “authentically Black and truly Catholic.” Mr. Joseph M. Stewart, an African American Catholic layman and a descendant of the enslaved free human beings sold by the Jesuit order to cover the expenses of Georgetown University, is president of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation. This foundation, an initiative of Jesuit leadership, is committed to raising at least $100 million to benefit the descendants of those who were enslaved. With an African American Catholic at the helm, this foundation is one of the most ambitious efforts at “reparations,” an issue of growing concern in “the Black Church.”

In the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth, drawing from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, teaches us to love God with our whole being and love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37–39, Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18). Jesus asks, “Who was the true neighbor to a man who is violently attacked?” When we respond, “The one who showed compassion.” Jesus tells us, “Go and do likewise!” (Luke 10:25–37). African American Catholics pondering this parable with their sisters and brothers in “the Black Church” know well that Black Lives Matter because All Lives Matter to God, who so loved the world that he sent his only son to be the Savior of all (John 3:16). Unfortunately, there are many reasons to believe that in the coming decades, it is unlikely that there will be significant growth in the size of the African American Catholic communities. This lamentable fact should not lead us to conclude that African American Catholics cannot be considered to be, in a certain sense, associated with “the Black Church,” while maintaining their uniquely Catholic identity.

African American Catholics pondering this parable with their sisters and brothers in 'the Black Church' know well that Black Lives Matter because All Lives Matter to God.

When 23-year-old Amanda Gorman, the first National Youth Poet Laureate, proclaimed her remarkable “The Hill We Climb” at the Inauguration of Joseph Biden, the second Catholic president in American history, commentators took note of her Harvard education, her prefect diction, her exquisite beauty, her poise, and her radiant yellow Prada coat. But very few took note that she was a member of St. Brigid Catholic Church in Los Angeles. Few took note that she was an African American Catholic woman giving voice to “the Black Church” when she proclaimed:

“Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
and no one shall make them afraid.
If we're to live up to our own time,
then victory won't lie in the blade.
But in all the bridges we've made,
that is the promise to glade,
the hill we climb.
If only we dare.”

This essay is part of a series co-sponsored by the Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) at Columbia University and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The series is co-curated with CARSS Director Josef Sorett of Columbia University and Ahmad Greene-Hayes of Princeton University. ​

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