Black Catholic History Month: An Invitation to Remember

Sister Thea Bowman, a leader in the Black Catholic Community, c. 1980
Sister Thea Bowman c. 1980

November is Black Catholic History Month.  This designation stands in its 24th year, named in 1990 by the National Black Catholic Congress of the United States “to celebrate the long history and proud heritage of Black Catholics.”  Who knew, right?

As you might imagine, there’s not a lot of resources online for delving into this topic.  Besides searching through DT’s archives and those of our partner blog, Raids Across the Color Line, here are few good places to start:

1. An article about why Black Catholic History Month, from the National Black Catholic Congress.

2. A very helpful timeline on the history of Black Catholics in the United States, from eminent historian Cyprian Davis.

3. A few articles and an engaging book review discussion in America Magazine’s recent July edition, which focused on Black Catholicism in the US.  With contributions by Chris Pramuk, Vanessa Wilmore, Bryan Massingale, Cyprian Davis, Shawn Copeland, Kim Harris, Andrew Prevot, and Cecilia Moore.

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Now that you have a sense of beginnings and resources, I’d like to issue an invitation for you to write and reflect on Black Catholic History (BCH) Month.  Because I believe strongly in the power of this exercise, I’ll be re-posting any and all efforts to write and reflect on BCH Month.  Simply comment with a link to your post beneath this one.  Your reflection can be pastoral, historical, systematic, ethical, pedagogical, or anywhere in between.  Anything and everything is welcome.  I look forward to reading and entering into conversation!

Below is my own reflection on the importance of BCH Month.  As always, I invite your comments, critiques, questions, and thoughts.

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To me as a casual Christian, BCH Month is an excellent way to celebrate and remember the valuable legacies of Black Catholics. To me as a theologian, Black Catholic History Month and Black Catholic Theology (more generally) stand as a necessarily interruptive force in the context of cultural normativity and theological ignorance. I will explain through two avenues: first, the context of Catholic liturgical practices and second, the context of systematic/moral Catholic theology.

In the context of Catholic liturgical practices, BCT indicts an American Church that has never adequately addressed the spiritual and physical needs of Persons of Color.  The problem is one of normativity: not simply the philosophical concept of normativity in theology, but a specific iteration of normativity in the cultural expression of Western-European whiteness of Catholic America.  Prof. Bryan Massingale explains:

“In a white racist church, ‘Catholic’ means ‘white.’ In U.S. Catholicism, only European aesthetics and cultural products are truly Catholic–regardless of the church’s rhetorical commitment to universality.  Thus the US catholic church is a white church not only by numbers (though this is changing), but also in its cultural self-identity.  A white church will not–indeed cannot--be responsive to the existential concerns of African-Americans and other groups of color, if by ‘which church’ we mean a church identified with and complicitous in racial privilege and dominance.”[1]

I have no problem with the “acculturation” of Christianity in principle–that is, with any culture adapting Christianity through its particular customs, music, and rituals.  I do, however, have a problem when the institutional history of acculturation in the US is not differentiated from the institutional history of the United States generally.  As the Catholic Church has grown with the United States, it has rarely–if ever–stood apart and above the common culture of the US when it comes to Persons of Color.

Thus we return to normativity.  The dominant force in US politics–that which is normative–remains the white male, despite the skin color of the President.  Exceptions like Barack Obama do not point the way to a post-racial society–exceptions prove the rule.  If there are cracks in the hegemonic reign of white-maleness in the US, they look pretty small to me.  I will accept a multi-cultural vision of Congress and Senate the first time I see someone wearing something other than the typical White Male Business Suit from the 1950’s–and not getting removed from the House floor for doing so.

The same goes for the Catholic Church’s hierarchy here and in Vatican City.  The presence of Pope Francis has not flipped the switch and made us all liberation-focused capitalism-hating People of God all of the sudden.  No, the presence of Pope Francis has served to highlight the fact that we’ve all be generally quite apathetic towards theologies of liberation and the “spirit” of Vatican II over the past many years.  As the first ever Papal representative of the modern Global South, Francis is attempting to reignite a spirit of congeniality and consensus which will hopefully bring us toward being liberation-focused Vatican-II loving people of God.

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In Systematic Theology, Black Catholic Theology serves both as an indictment of the past–as written above–as well as interruptive provocation of the present.  In her presidential address to the Catholic Theological Society of America ten years ago, M. Shawn Copeland channeled a concept of interruption as an essential piece of systematic theology moving forward.  Copeland argues that a true political theology must interrupt the narratives of contemporary Catholic theology–even practical, liberation-based theologies:

“The state of our national and global condition interrupts all theological agendas and moves to the fore our participation and collaboration in a migration already begun from behind our desks and closed office doors to encounters with working and nonemployable poor, with homeless and hungry children and women and men, with prisoners, with battered women, with victims of sexual abuse, with Latino/Latina and African American youth ripened for suicide by our nation’s callousness and disdain.” [2]

Following German Catholic theologian Johann-Baptist Metz, Copeland writes that such an interruption, provided by political theology, must critique the Church “whenever it attempts to evade the dangerous memory of the crucified Jesus by slipping into…a ‘fatal banality’ or an irenic conformity so passive that it glides over the resolute work of authentic peace, thereby, betraying its mystery.” [3](79)

This critique–this place of Black Catholic Theology within “mainline” Catholic Theology–is not only one of an interruption upon normativity, but a definition as to what that interruption means.  For Copeland, the wages of sin, of slavery, is a broken body of Christ not only in the US but around the world.  The only possible hope of recovering the unity of this body is in a vision of interruptive, liberative solidarity based in Christ.

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As a White Male, I can’t help but recognize my difference from the writings and person of Shawn Copeland.  I do not descend from slaves of the African diaspora. I have never been called a racist or misogynistic slur.  I have never personally felt the effects of widespread casual racism (some would call this White Privilege).  I can never call for a renewed Black Theology or Black Catholic Theology, because, whether I appreciate it or not, my theology will always be White.  Maybe it will be White-in-Solidarity or something else White-with-Conditions or White-Apologetic, but my identification of that dominant framework is invaluable in such an exercise of considering race in contemporary theology.  Just because I love the Blues and Gospel Music, it does not make me Black.

When Copeland borrows from Metz, then, I am beginning to see that she borrows methodologically and not personally.  Metz, you see, was forcibly enrolled in the Army of the Third Reich during World War II (much as Ratzinger–Pope Benedict XVI–was forcibly enrolled in Hitler Youth).  At one of his first deployments, he was sent to a nearby village with a message.  When he returned the next day, he discovered everyone–everyone–in his unit dead, as a wave of bombs and tanks from the Allies had taken out his entire force, leaving him alone in the carnage.  Metz describes this experience as one of the first real glimpses into the horrors of war and death, and employs it, quite powerfully, in his reflections upon the horrors of Auschwitz and the other death camps throughout Germany.

But it is from this place, from the place of the flesh of the attacker, the Christian-German, the non-Jew, the enlisted-not-imprisoned, the free-man…it from this place that Metz wretches, theologically.  He recoils against any theology that is not actively pro-Christian-Jewish engagement, that does not actively promote the well-being of not just Judaism, but Jews as individual people.  He combats any theological conception of history that fails to take into account the enormity of the millions murdered in the mass prisons of the Third Reich.

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Thus, when Metz employs the concep of interruption and political theology, his words are explicitly and necessarily in the framework of the oppressor, not the oppressed:

There is no truth for me which I could defend with my back turned toward Auschwitz.
There is no sense for me which I could save with my back turned toward Auschwitz.
And for me there is no God to whom I could pray with my back turned toward Auschwitz.

We see the difference clearly between Metz and Copeland, in that Metz can only ever write from the dominant/normative (Christian) theological framework.  While Metz was in theological training to become a Priest and professor, it was nowhere assumed that the concept of Auschwitz would be a dominant interruptive piece in theological thought.

Thus, while Metz’s words might seem obvious to us–of course we wouldn’t turn our back on Auschwitz–they speak into a concept of the disconnectness of certain truths from real life.

“There is no truth….There is no sense…There is no God.” Not the truth that Jesus is God, not the truth of the celebration of the Eucharist, not the truth of the salvation from Sin. Not the sense of the Spirit moving.  Not the sense of religious music swelling.  Not the God of beauty and light, nor the God of difficulty and crucifixion.

Since there can be no quelling the role of Christianity in anti-Semitism for the last two thousand years, there can be no proper conception of Christian Theology without a radical reconception of Christian Theology in light of the horrors of Auschwitz.

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Since, like Metz,  I can identify with the oppressor far more than I can with the oppressed, I would like to transform Metz’s words into a reconsideration of Black Catholic Theology for White Theologians:

“There is no truth for me which I could defend with my back turned toward Slavery and Its Lasting Racist Effects.
There is no sense for me which I could save with my back turned toward Slavery and Its Lasting Racist Effects.
And for me there is no God to whom I could pray with my back turned toward Slavery and Its Lasting Racist Effects.”

Since there can be no quelling the role of Catholicism in anti-Blackness–perpetrated as Slavery, Lynching, Jim Crow Laws, Segregation, Gerrymandering, Police Brutality, Mass Incarceration, Poverty Rates, Public Education, and many more–for the last 500 years, there can be no proper conception of Catholic Theology without a radical reconception in light of the horrors of Slavery.

This, to me, is the importance of Black Catholic History.

What is Black Catholic History to you?

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1. Bryan Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, page 81. (go back)
2. M. Shawn Copeland, “Political Theology as Interruptive: CTSA Presidential Address.”  CTSA Proceedings v. 59 (2004), page 78.  Publicly accessible here.  (go back)
3. Ibid., page 79.(go back)
4. Johann-Baptist Metz, “Facing the Jews: Christian Theology After Auschwitz,” in The Holocaust as Interruption, edited by Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and David Tracy, 1984: page 28.  (go back)


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