Varieties of Catholic Racial Experiences

By Karen Johnson. How have Catholics, especially black Catholics in the North, navigated race in twentieth century America?  Today I want to explore this question using three new books: Tim Neary's Crossing Parish Boundaries, Matt Cressler's Authentically Black and Truly Catholic, and my own One in Christ: Chicago Catholics and the Quest for Interracial Justice. Throughout the twentieth century, racial and religious geographies were key contexts for how Catholics experienced race.  The migration of African Americans from the rural South to northern cities coupled with post-World War II suburbanization framed their experiences in profound ways.
Black Catholicism is, as Tim and Matt argue, a story of conversions.  African Americans became Catholic often through the Catholic schools, which required parents to participate in religious education.  As students and their parents practiced the rituals of Catholicism, many of them found themselves becoming Catholic.  They were baptized into a faith that they believed was universal, transcending race with the quiet dignity of its masses.  While Catholicism was universal in terms of its liturgies, those practices actually emerged out of a particular tradition that contrasted mightily with other forms of Black religion. The majority of Black Catholics from the 1920s through the 1960s were grateful to participate in this universal church.

A small minority, however, worked to combat the discrepancy between the church's theology and its practice of racial exclusion institutionally.  While black Catholics might have the same ways of being Catholic as other Catholics, they were not free to attend any parish they wanted and they were set aside as a separate racial group in Chicago at the same time that the archdiocese was Americanizing white immigrant groups.  During the 1910s and 1920s, these Black Catholics organized the Federated Colored Catholics, which was a group promoting respectability and black advancement within the Catholic Church and American society.  Wary of the influence of white priests, these black lay leaders wanted white priests' support but wanted to maintain control of their own organization.  

By the early 1930s, many of these black Catholics decided to promote "interracial justice" over black advancement.  My own book explores the history of interracialists.  These interracialists saw the Church's racial practices as a problem, and wanted to help their beloved Church practice its universalist theology at the same time that they promoted equal access to housing and ending workplace, educational, and religious discrimination.  In short, they wanted to remake society.   By the 1960s they wrote themselves as civil rights pioneers, and a key point to note is that interracial justice's end was not integration.  It addressed fundamental economic and social issues, reflecting Catholic Social Thought's vision of a "third way" between capitalism and communism.

Interracialists insisted that black and white people do the work of interracial justice together, expressing their unity in the Body of Christ. This commitment to interracial relationships was not just strategic (because white people controlled institutions, etc.), but was fundamental to their understanding of the Mystical Body of Christ.  They believed themselves to be ontologically united, to be one in Christ, and therefore needing to embody that.  Their perspective was different from local activists in the South who worked for integration because it was a means to the ultimate goal of ending African Americans' second class citizenship.

In Chicago, interracialists worked officially and institutionally under the leadership of Bishop Bernard Sheil.  Sheil's CYO, which Neary explores, facilitated thousands' of youth's experiences interracially, especially through sports.  Young people's interracial encounters in these venues might be called a "soft" form of interracialism, emerging from Sheil's growing commitment to interracial justice.  

Another, more intentional form of interracialism was the lay activist form.  Though under Sheil's protective covering, these lay activists (whose story my book traces) worked largely outside the official structure of the archdiocese until the late 1940s, although some parish priests did support it.  They believed that they were the "true church" and wanted to change the institutional church (and their fellow Catholics).  When the modern civil rights movement gained national attention, these folks facilitated Catholic involvement in the movement in part because they had laid the organizational groundwork.

Throughout this period of interracial activism from the 1930s to the mid 1960s, most black Catholics and white Catholics were not involved.  After 1968, with the rise of Black Power in a post-Vatican II era, some Black Catholics (but not all, and as Matt shows, this is key), began practicing new ways of being Catholic, which they called Black Catholicism.  They identified essential ways of being black that needed to be protected and promoted Black self-love and unity.  But like the interracialists before them (and unlike many Black Power advocates), they did not want to abandon the Catholic Church, even if it was a white institution.  Rather, they wanted to renew it from within, believing they were the true Church.  Slowly, their way of being Black Catholics became more common.

Questions of unity and diversity within Christianity are as old as the religion itself.  Matt's, Tim's and my book together shed light on the ways that Catholics have navigated race, theology, and practice throughout the twentieth century, showing how context matters and the ways race and people's racialized expressions of their faith have varied over time.


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