Catholicism and Race

Last Thursday, Rocco Palmo wrote, “You know, I haven’t seen anything in these parts over the last week and a half about Rosa Parks.” The “nothing from many, if not any, of us, from the bishops, from our pulpits, nothing” isn’t necessarily evidence of racism. But perhaps it does show a lack of awareness of the subtle presence of racism in our society – and our churches. The August 2002 issue of US Catholic reported on a survey of African-American Catholics:

“About half (49 percent) of those who replied to our survey say they have felt discriminated against in the church, and being refused the Sign of Peace was the most commonly cited example. In fact, one California woman has taken to waiting to extend her hand until the other person does so first to avoid being snubbed. Other African Americans say white parishioners refuse to sit next to them, hold their hands during the Our Father, or drink from the Communion cup after them. All in all, black Catholics say they feel pretty unwelcome in the church, especially in predominantly white parishes. Nearly half of those who responded to our survey say they believe the Catholic Church, as a whole, does not seem to care about the needs of African Americans.”

And this is over a hundred years after the Fourth Black Catholic Congress (1893) declared (after movingly linking the “rights of man” to the revelation of Christ):

“Though the practice of the Church is consistent with her divine doctrine, we must deplore the fact that some of her members in various parts of the country have, in the words of our very distinguished friend, the Most. Rev. John Ireland, ‘departed from the teaching of the Church in the treatment of the colored Catholics and yielded right to popular prejudice.’ As children of the true Church, we are anxious to witness the extension of our beloved religion among those of our brethren who as yet are not blessed with the true Faith, and therefore we consider it a duty, not only to ourselves but to the Church and to God, that we draw the attention of every member of the learned Roman hierarchy to such violations from Catholic law and Catholic practice.”

But perhaps the silence that Rocco noted about Rosa Parks’ death has more to do with the fact that many Catholics do not wish to dismiss African-Americans but still find black history and traditions, with a few exceptions, to be foreign to their own religious experience. Would such perceptions be accurate? Albert Raboteau, a leading historian of African-American religion and an Orthodox Christian, has identified important analogies between the historical traditions of his people and Christian spirituality. Of course, what he says below about Orthodoxy should also be valid for Catholicism:

1. “Traditionally, African spirituality has emphasized the close relationship, the ‘coinherence’ of the other world and this world, the realm of the divine and the realm of the human. The French poet, Paul Eluard expressed this insight concisely when he said, ‘There is another world, but it is within this one.’ Orthodoxy also emphasizes the reality and the closeness of the kingdom of God, following the words of Jesus, ‘The kingdom of God is within [or amongst] you.'”

2. The African reverence for ancestors as mediators between the human and divine can correspond to the Christian veneration of the saints as “ancestors in the faith.”

3. “African spirituality values the material world as enlivened with spirit and makes use of material objects that have been imbued with spiritual power. Orthodoxy sees the world as charged with the glory of God and celebrates in the feast of Theophany the renewal of the entire creation through God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus.”

4. “The person in traditional African spirituality is conceived not as an individualized self, but as a web of relationships. Interrelatedness with the community, past as well as present, constitutes the person.” This goes well with the corporate character of Christian identity.

5. “African religions speak of human beings as the children of God, who carry within a spark of God or ‘chi,’ a bit of God’s soul that animates the spirit of each man and woman. Orthodoxy, following Genesis, teaches that we are created in the image and likeness of God and that it is our basic vocation to be ‘divinized’, becoming more and more like the image in which we are created.”

6. Neither African nor Christian spirituality dichotomizes body and spirit.

7. “Worship in African-American tradition is supposed to make the divine present and effective. In ceremonies of spirit-entranced dance, the human person became the representation of the divine. And divine power heals and transforms.” In Christian worship, God becomes present, most clearly in the Eucharist, which is, as St Ignatius of Antioch said, “the medicine of immortality, our antidote to ensure that we shall not die but live in Jesus Christ for ever.”

8. “The African-American spirituals placed a strong emphasis on a tone of sad joyfulness that reflected African-Americans’ experience and their perspective on life. In Orthodoxy, the sad joyfulness of the liturgical chant tones poignantly expresses the attitude of penthos or repentance which characterizes the Orthodox Christian’s attitude toward life. This tone of sad joyfulness relates directly to the third major area of analogy between African-American spirituality and Orthodox, the experience of suffering Christianity.”

Perhaps if we meditate on what Dr Raboteau calls “the deep affinities and resonances between Orthodoxy and African-American spirituality,” we will find ourselves growing closer to our still marginalized African-American brothers and sisters – and we’ll recover a more authentic practice of our own faith. Then, there will be no more “nothing from many, if not any, of us, from the bishops, from our pulpits, nothing.”


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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