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Black and Catholic

Special Report Writer

“Everywhere I go around the country, black people come up to me and say, ‘I used to be Catholic.’ They say it in such a matter-of-fact way, without any regret or shame or guilt.”
-- Fr. George Clements, director, One Church One Addict Program

“I fear we’re reaping the whirlwind. The problem goes way back to the church’s maintenance of slavery, its acceptance of segregation and its failure to develop a native clergy.”
-- Sam Dennis, sociologist, Washington

“With attention and emphasis on Hispanic needs and concerns, many feel that issues in the African-American community are ignored. Many African-Americans still view the church as a racist institution.”
-- Jacqueline Wilson, former president, National Association of Black Catholic Administrators

“The institutional church does not have a clue how to relate to blacks and has no desire, does not put forth the effort and will not take the time to find a clue.”
-- Fr. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina’s Church, Chicago

In 1989 Franciscan Sr. Thea Bowman, then in the advanced stages of bone cancer, addressed a meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops from her wheelchair. “What the church’s people need to do is walk together,” she said. “If we as a church walk together, don’t let nobody separate you. The church is a family ... and the family got to stay together.”

She then asked the bishops to rise and sing “We Shall Overcome” and to cross their arms and join hands. “You got to move together to do that,” she said. “See, in the old days you had to tighten to do that so that when ... the tear gas would come, when the dogs would come, when the horses would come ... brothers and sisters would not be separated.”

And so the black-suited, pectoral cross-wearing assembly bunched up together and, some even swaying, sang forth with unusual gusto the words of the civil rights anthem.

During the past 15 years the hierarchy has issued an impressive series of documents underscoring the importance of African-Americans to the church, the special contributions of black culture and the whole church’s responsibility to the poor and marginalized. The documents include “What We have Seen and Heard” (1984), “Brothers and Sisters to Us” (1989) and “Keep Your Hand on the Plow” (1996).

Programs have been launched and organizations established. Yet nothing has altered the slow leakage of African-Americans from the church; nothing has changed the kind of malaise that seems to grip veteran black Catholics. Despite a lot of activity, the family is not holding together.

Two years ago, in “A Study of Opinions of African-American Catholics” commissioned by the National Black Catholic Congress, 51 percent of the respondents declared, “The Catholic church as a whole does not seem to care about the needs of African-Americans.”

Sixty percent said, “I sometimes feel discriminated against in the church because of my race.” And another 63 percent called for a more “African-American focus” in the Mass and sacraments.

The results of this poll are especially interesting because almost half of the 632 respondents were black priests, sisters, deacons and bishops. Of the lay respondents, 87 percent said they attend Mass every week or almost every week, and 79 percent of these feel “welcomed and comfortable” in their own parishes.

The vast majority (79 percent) showed no enthusiasm or interest in a separate and distinct African-American branch within the church. Given the level of personal and parish commitment of these Catholics, their sense of dissatisfaction with the church as a whole is noteworthy.

There are no reliable figures on the number of African-American Catholics in the United States or on population changes from year to year. Yet virtually every authority NCR consulted on the subject said the black community is slipping -- or, at best, barely holding its own thanks to immigration from Africa and the Caribbean.

A tentative hold

In the 1970s the number of black Catholics was generally given at about 1 million. Then, based solely on the results of a Gallup study in the early 1980s, the accepted number soared overnight to 2 million and has remained about the same ever since. As a working figure, the Secretariat for African-American Catholics, an affiliate of the U.S. Catholic Conference, claims 2.3 million African-Americans today.

Even under this optimistic estimate, black Catholics still represent a minority within a minority: Less than 7 percent of the 33 million U.S. blacks are Catholic, and less than 4 percent of the 61.2 million Catholic population is black. Clearly, the church’s hold on black Americans is tentative at best.

Meanwhile, the erosion that Fr. Clements referred to can be observed at many levels. According to Sheila Adams, the Chicago archdiocesan consultant for African-Americans, the archdiocese claimed 125,000 black Catholics in 1985 and currently claims 100,000. Adams is quick to point out that this does not mean 25,000 blacks left the church, since some shrinkage is due to migration outside the metropolitan area.

The number of black Chicago parishes has declined in the 13-year period from 55 to 45 (while movement out of the inner city has expanded the number of “integrated” parishes from 11 to 40).

The number of American-born black priests has declined from 22 to 16, black sisters from 18 to 12 and religious brothers from five to two.

One measurable area of black growth is in permanent deacons, from 45 to 48.

An especially ominous figure is the number of native born blacks studying for Chicago in the major seminary: zero. In fact, the archdiocese has not ordained a black priest since 1992.

The archdiocesan Office for Black Catholics ceased operation in 1990 when its activities were placed under the umbrella of the Office for Ethnic Ministries, which oversees outreach to all special population groups. Adams remains the sole consultant for black Catholics. The cutback, she said, “took away our programming efforts. Now we rely on joint efforts with other archdiocesan agencies like the liturgy office.” Currently, noted Adams, a major joint project sponsors sensitivity workshops in parishes where blacks and Hispanics live among whites.

Adams said her greatest concern is the departure from the church of young blacks, ages 18 to 35. “This is something we really didn’t experience in the ’70s or ’80s,” she noted. In those days young blacks may not have attended church in great numbers but still considered themselves Catholic. “Now,” said Adams, “they’re looking for something the church isn’t giving them,” and that includes “solid Bible study, adult education and especially a personal relationship with Jesus.” Typical of the trend, she said, are two close relatives who have emigrated out of the church -- one to the Baptist denomination, one to the United Church of Christ.

‘No mass exodus’

Beverly Carroll, director of the Secretariat for African-American Catholics, acknowledged “some attrition” within the church but insisted “there’s no mass exodus.” The attrition, she believes, stems from the remnants of racist attitudes still festering within Catholicism.

“We’ve seen an increase of incidents of racism in Catholic neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and Brooklyn and Chicago and other cities,” she said. “It’s still there raising its ugly head. I believe if the church is going to enter the millennium with wholeness, we’ve got to rid ourselves of racism.”

The church’s continuing tardiness in developing black leadership is disturbing to Carroll and other observers. The 13 U.S. black bishops (of whom four head dioceses) represent 3 percent of the nation’s hierarchy. The 300 black priests constitute just a little over half of 1 percent of American priests. The 600 black sisters represent seven-tenths of 1 percent of America’s nuns.

Few diocesan agencies are headed by blacks -- probably fewer than 10 years ago, since many dioceses (like Chicago) have merged their office for black Catholics into an all-embracing ethnic ministry office.

“Change is very, very incremental,” said Carroll, “and we’re still only scratching the surface.” Still, she believes African-American Catholics will never turn in great numbers to Protestant churches or to Bishop George Stallings’ Imani Temple. Stallings, a former Washington priest, broke with the Roman Catholic church to start his own denomination.

“We’re not ready to give up on the church,” she said. “We’ve been around too long.”

Less optimistic is Sam Dennis, a sociologist who has studied black migration in this country and around the world. “We’re losing numbers steadily,” he said, “and if we don’t do something we’re going to to lose a lot more. The old injury has not been healed.”

The lingering “injury,” in Dennis’ view, includes the church’s long reluctance to condemn slavery, its indifference to segregation and, above all, its historical failure to encourage black vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, said Dennis, urban blacks flocked to Catholicism. It was in part a prestige thing, he said, “and perhaps the converts were not always deeply evangelized.” But they -- and their children and grandchildren -- have since experienced racism in various forms, and in the aftermath of the civil rights era they are less inclined to accept second-class status in church or society.

“The racism’s not as blatant now,” said Dennis, “not insults, just a kind of shunning that said you’re not welcome here. So folks are saying, the heck with it! If you don’t want us, we’ll go our own way.”

Fr. George Clements, who headed highly successful Holy Angels parish in Chicago for many years, disputes any suggestion that black converts were not deeply evangelized.

“They were just as deeply evangelized as the generations of Polish or Irish who came before,” he declared. “That’s not the problem at all.” In his view, the problem is economics: “Blacks are passé, we’re a liability now. Black parishes are not bringing in money; they’re taking it out.” Of course, Clements acknowledged, most black parishes were never financially solvent, but for much of the last 50 years the larger church was solvent and could afford to be generous to poor minorities.

“No more!” he said, “because we don’t have the troops any more -- the priests and nuns who could run the schools and organize the convert classes.” Now, he said, the trend is to “circle the wagons, close down the parishes and schools that can’t make it on their own.”

Scarcer than in years past, he said, are clergy and religious deeply committed to black and poor communities. After several years of work in the inner city, said Clements, they say, “I have fought the good fight, now there is laid up for me a crown in the suburbs.”

Meanwhile, in the face of Catholic competition, he said, black Protestant churches have poured renewed energy and creativity into their services and outreach programs, engaging African-Americans who take the gospel message seriously. “We have to face it,” said Clements, “the church is primarily a white, racist institution. That hasn’t changed.”

So he has turned his focus toward a national program, based in Washington, to persuade parishes -- black, white or whatever -- to give opportunities to recovering drug addicts. As he promotes this work, Clements marvels at those who commend the effort while confiding they’re no longer part of the church. “They have an attitude of nostalgia for the welcoming church as they first experienced it,” he said, “but in time they’ve come to see it as white and racist.”

In a speech to the assembly of bishops gathered at the Synod for America in Rome last December, Jacqueline Wilson, currently director of the Office for Black Catholics for the Washington archdiocese, said, “While many African-American Catholics are excited and enthusiastic about their Catholic faith, too many more clergy, religious and laity are hurt, angry, disappointed and feel isolated and marginalized. With attention and emphasis on the Hispanic needs and concern, many feel that issues in the African-American community are ignored. African-Americans still view the church as a racist institution.”

Church leaders, she said, “must propose ways to reach the people of God with new attitudes of total inclusiveness that ask ‘Who is missing?’ and ‘How shall we include them?’ not in a patronizing way, but with the love of Jesus Christ.”

She later told NCR that there’s “a sense that no one cares. We see parishes closing, racial tension growing in places and little true sensitivity training for those ministering in our communities.” At the same time, Wilson said, the church’s outreach to the Hispanic community is visible and quite impressive. “I don’t think this should be an either/or situation -- blacks or Hispanics,” she said. “Both should be served, but you have a kind of natural animosity when one group seems to be getting more attention. ... People are losing steam because of this.”

But, like Carroll, she foresees no mass departure. “African-American Catholics have been faithful over many generations,” said Wilson, “often with little or no support from the institution. So we’re not going to give up. We’ll stay and be of service just as our ancestors were -- even if we have to evangelize ourselves on our own!”

One indication that a solid core of active African-American Catholics is alive and well was the success of the convention of the National Black Catholic Congress in Baltimore last August, the eighth such gathering this century (NCR, Sept. 19). An estimated 3,000 persons attended, including 50 bishops. During the convention, delegates were transported to Washington in 75 buses for the solemn dedication of Our Mother of Africa Chapel in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The $2.5-million chapel was financed largely by donations from black parishes, organizations and religious communities all over the country, according to Hilbert Stanley, executive director of the congress.

Downside of integration

Beyond that solid core that supports symbols like the new chapel, Stanley said, are great numbers of black Catholics frustrated that “the top leadership in our church is not as African-American as it ought to be.” In addition, he is concerned about how the cohesiveness of black Catholicism has been, ironically, disrupted by integration.

As blacks move up the economic ladder, out of central city ghettos and into suburban areas, they encounter styles of worship and preaching that are unfamiliar and perhaps off-putting, he noted. Some go back to their old parishes on Sunday, said Stanley, but some who try out their new, local parish miss the more emotional spirituality they were accustomed to; if combined with a few experiences of racially motivated inhospitality from fellow parishioners, the experience can be enough to cause a break with Catholicism.

The Congress of Black Catholics, which has three full-time employees and contacts in 130 dioceses, concentrates on advocacy (mostly to keep black parishes and schools open) and training (through programs to steep church leaders and ministers in black culture).

Fr. Michael Pfleger, the outspoken white pastor of St. Sabina’s Church in Chicago, sees a decidedly bleak future for black Catholics without overwhelming change. Pfleger recently resigned from an archdiocesan task force on racism, saying the 9-month-old group was going nowhere. “Lay members were dropping out one by one,” he said, “because the mood of the meetings was ‘Now, now, we can’t move too quickly.’ Blacks see this sort of thing as arrogant paternalism, a cover-up for our failings.”

In Pfleger’s opinion, “Nobody wants to understand the depth of racism in society or in the church. Nobody wants to face the fact that color is still the determining factor for success or failure in this society. And the church just puts up with it. We teach tolerance instead of justice.”

The church, he argued, will never make serious inroads into black America until it learns how to adopt elements of black spirituality -- a spirituality grounded first of all in Christ as individual savior. “In slavery blacks could not look for help from American citizens or the institutions of society,” he said. “Only their faith enabled them to survive. So what happens? African-Americans now send their kids to Catholic school and they learn dogmas and rituals. We give them a relationship with an institution instead of a relationship with Jesus. We’ve got to give people the word of God, show them how to use the word to live their marriages, to grow their families, how to use it as a sword for justice in the world.”

If people aren’t “getting fed” in their parishes, Pfleger said, they go where nourishment can be found -- or they go nowhere. Pfleger’s effusive, strongly evangelistic, intensely personal approach to the faith has borne considerable fruit at St. Sabina’s, where hundreds of African-Americans -- and a surprising contingent of whites too -- flock every Sunday for spirited, interactive three-hour-plus liturgies (see sidebar).

Although he laments the scarcity of African-American priests in the church, Pfleger does nothing to encourage seminary enrollment. “I’ve watched too many young men in theology school leave the seminary and leave the church,” he said.

“They don’t get support from the institution or their fellow students or from the liturgy. They encounter racism, and it’s simply overwhelming. It’s like a huge albatross around the neck of this church.”

Like Wilson, Pfleger contrasts ministry to African-Americans with current ministry to Hispanics. “What we keep hearing is that Hispanics are the future of our cities,” he said. “So Spanish as a second language is required in the seminary, seminarians and priests go down to Mexico to be immersed in the culture, we support missions in Latin America.”

In 1990 the Chicago archdiocese closed Quigley South Seminary, a high quality high school that had attained a reputation for nurturing black vocations and developing black lay leaders. That decision, said Pfleger, had a catastrophic, real and symbolic impact on black Catholic priests, parents and teens. The closing is still widely regarded among South Side African-Americans as marking the abandonment of their community, despite repeated assurances to the contrary by church leaders.


Indeed, the American church appears to have few institutions that clearly model black Catholicism at its best. Asked to name the black parishes that set high standards, national observers repeatedly fall back on a rather short list: St. Augustine’s in Washington, Corpus Christi in New Orleans, St. Bridget’s in Los Angeles, St. Charles Borromeo in New York City, St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima in Cleveland, St. Sabina’s in Chicago and a handful of others.

Diana Hayes, Georgetown University theologian, places much of the blame for this on the church’s failure to take seriously its responsibility to “inculturate” the faith. Commenting on the level of concern expressed in the National Black Catholic Congress study of African-American opinion, she asks, “Must we adapt ourselves to the styles and forms of worship of our Euro-American brothers and sisters, who, although they share our faith, do not share our historical experience of enslavement, oppression and continuing discrimination? ... Or can we be free to inculturate the Christian faith and its Catholic expression into our own culture and historical traditions?”

In the book, Emerging Voices, Emerging Challenges, Hayes makes her point in stronger terms: “What has historically taken place as a result of Christianity’s growth and development throughout the world has come to be seen as a static and unchanging legacy, unable and unwilling to further grow. ... A Europeanized Christianity has been artificially universalized and thrust upon people of widely different cultures. This failure ... negates Christian history and tradition.”

What sort of radical change could reverse the trends? Besides shifting to a more personal theology and a liturgy better attuned to African-American sensibilities, the church could take some practical, immediate steps, according to Fr. Pfleger:

  • Integrate the faculty and staff of every Catholic grammar school, high school and college. (Pfleger, whose personal survey of Chicago Catholic high schools revealed only 19 blacks among 874 teachers, claims that the parochial school system is more segregated than the city’s public system.)
  • Develop diocesan-wide purchasing programs that set aside substantial percentages of business for minority firms.
  • Organize in each diocese advisory groups that rely on the wisdom of non-Catholic community leaders and successful non-Catholic black clergy -- besides the usual in-house clergy and acceptable lay members who inhabit such committees.
  • Revamp the seminary system from high school-level up with mandatory courses and experience in African-American, Hispanic and Native American culture.
  • Spearhead organized dialogue among business, economic, educational, political and religious leaders on the overall problems of racism in society. (By reason of its size and authority structure, the church, in Pfleger’s view, can promote, even compel, change in the church and the world; it should be “an engine, not a caboose.”)

Beverly Carroll of the Black Secretariat believes that U.S. Catholicism, as well as the black church, could benefit from a strong infusion of black culture. “Ours is more an oral than a written tradition,” she said. That relates to the way evangelization is carried out -- through “personal contact,” she explains, rather than by disseminating documents; it relates to the way preaching is done -- “with emotion, not wedded to the clock”; and it relates to the “gospel flavor” that should mark catechetical materials, school texts, even marriage preparation classes.

Jacqueline Wilson of the black Catholic office in Washington said much could be accomplished through effective sensitivity training so that “ministers at every level are prepared to work in a pluralistic world.” Catechesis at every level, she said, should be “enlivened and adaptable,” rather than rigid and cold. Especially important, she said, is transforming seminaries into “welcoming, open, non-patronizing” institutions. “Surely,” she said, “we can present the message of salvation more joyously than we do now.”

One stopgap solution to the erosion of black Catholicism is recruiting black priests and nuns from other countries. Some 400 African or Haitian priests are already working as pastors, associate pastors, chaplains, campus ministers and in other ministries in dioceses like Brooklyn, N.Y., Boston, Harrisburg, Pa., and in Texas and Louisiana, said Dominican Fr. Aniedi Okure, a Nigerian native and coordinator of ethnic ministries for the U.S. Catholic Conference.

Some 150 African nuns are also engaged in teaching, nursing and social work here. Some dioceses are educating foreign-born blacks in their seminaries, and the number is likely to grow, said Okure. Thus far, he reports, the situation has worked out well, with few complaints or pastoral complications. African-American leaders like Carroll and Stanley express no objection to the assignment of these missionaries to parishes, and Clements speculates that priests from Africa would surely be “no less sensitive” to African-American culture than the Irish-born or native white pastors they replace.

But Okure said it would be a grave mistake to think a black African can instantly fit into a black parish.

“Only with a proper cultural reorientation is it possible,” he said. “It is one thing to know about racism’s effects from books; it’s another to relate to it in real life.”

Some 134 years after the end of slavery, it would appear that the entire American Catholic church -- not just new African missionaries -- stands in need of a more effective “cultural reorientation.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 13, 1998