The Catholic Church defines itself as a welcoming home for all believers. In fact, the word “catholic” comes from the Greek adjective katholikós, which literally translates to “universal.” As a Catholic, this idea of universality resonates deeply with me as a notion of truth and sharing in love and faith with all. However, as an African-American, I struggle with the church’s past and the pain that it continues to cause black American Catholics today. Despite statements of universality and promises of salvation for believers, the American Catholic Church has failed to embrace all members of the faith. The church has contradicted its claim to be universal by failing to transcend and overcome this country’s history of racism over the last 200 years.
Since its foundation in Maryland in 1785, the American Catholic Church has owned and sold slaves, succumbed to Jim Crow laws by segregating Catholic schools, and remained mostly silent on the topic of race. It has only issued a pastoral letter on the topic in 1979, and has since failed to be a consistent voice against the sin of racism. Georgetown University is not exempt from these atrocities. Georgetown, along with the Jesuits of Maryland, held and sold black people as chattel. In 1838, 272 black men, women, and children were sold by the Jesuits of Georgetown to plantations in the Deep South. Georgetown has directly profited from the unethical sale of black human beings, but still hesitates to offer reparations to the descendants of the enslaved group.
Patrick Francis Healy, S.J, president of Georgetown from 1874 to 1882, was mixed-race and of black descent. Only because of his light complexion was he able to seize a white identity and become a leader in the religious community. Healy, in a great position of power, failed to be a moral voice and advocate for his black brothers. For many years, including during Healy’s lifetime, other black men of the church were denied ordination into the priesthood because of the belief that they were inferior and therefore unable to act in persona Christi, or as Christ. Healy, a black man and Jesuit priest, did nothing. Instead, he assimilated into white culture and turned a blind eye to the racial injustices occurring around him.
It is baffling that a morally sound religious institution, one that claims to be universal, could condone such blatant racism. The church used black bodies to build its foundation in the United States, and yet minimizes and ignores the black bodies that fill its pews. Unfortunately, black American Catholics like myself must come to terms with the fact that they worship in a predominantly white church that has not only failed to provide spiritual solace against racism, but has committed its own racist and prejudiced acts.
My relationship with my faith can best be described as an ongoing religious crisis. Not fully embraced by my community of worship for all aspects of my being, I sometimes feel at odds with my experiences as a black woman and my desire to live out the Roman Catholic faith and tradition that I believe in my heart to be true.
My experiences at Georgetown have been shaped by my involvement in the Catholic community, and I have sought and gained great spiritual growth on the Hilltop. However, as president of Catholic Women at Georgetown, I look at the sisterhood that has been a major part of my four years here and see no faces that look like mine. Often, I feel that my involvement with a majority-white group is spent avoiding the topic of race and how it makes my experience as a Catholic woman different. This unwillingness to address the complexities of race within the Catholic community here at Georgetown represents a greater theme of ignorance within the church.
Black American Catholics are often marginalized within the church community. Instead of being recognized for the gifts and contributions we have to offer, black Catholics are pressured to fit into the mold of white Christianity. To the church, black people only fit in if they dress like white Catholics, speak the same language, and like the same style of praise and worship music. This kind of thinking communicates to me and other black Catholics that we are not truly welcomed—we are only tolerated. Our differences and the injustices that our ancestors faced are ignored, and our existence is placed in the background. I believe that the American Catholic Church must fully reconcile with its past actions by working to uplift its black members and embrace its growing diversity.
In 1999, Pope Saint John Paul II, during his pastoral visit to the United States, declared that racism went against the sanctity and dignity of all human life. He challenged America to put an end to every form of racism, a plague which he called “one of the most persistent and destructive evils of the nation.” The American Catholic Church is becoming less homogenous, with the percentage of culturally diverse parishes rising. In line with Pope John Paul II’s message, the church needs to fully embrace this diversity and love all believers.
It is no secret that Christianity in the United States is struggling. In general, attendance among millennials and younger people in Christian churches has been on the decline, and the Catholic Church is not exempt from this phenomenon. Instead of marginalizing its black members, the American Catholic Church needs to recognize that it is being transformed by them and that their numbers are rising. Black Catholics, with our unwavering faith and continued dedication to a church that has caused us such pain, bring strength, energy, and new life to the institution. Quite frankly, black people are keeping the Catholic Church alive, and if it wishes to continue, it must embrace and uplift us.
Image Credit: Egan Barnitt