In 2009, Sr. Loretta Theresa Richards, FHM, a Black religious in a church where Black Catholics are a minority, was clear,
“The Catholic Church wouldn’t be Catholic if it wasn’t for us.”[i]
From the 15th century start of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Catholic slaveholders from Spain and Portugal forcibly transported African and African descended peoples to the Americas with papal approval. Nicolas V (Dum Diversas, 1452) and Alexander XI (Inter Caetera, 1493) both sanctioned trafficking and slavery. Many of those who were kidnapped were practicing Catholics as the Kingdom of Kongo converted to Catholicism in 1491. From 1619 until 1740, the majority of Africans that were brought to the Americas were from Central Africa which included the Kingdom of Kongo. As the brutal enterprise expanded with more colonial powers throughout Europe joining in, over 12.5 million people were stolen, trafficked, sold, raped, tortured, and killed.
While those with institutional Catholic power became the largest corporate slaveholder in the Americas, Catholic women of color contested the legitimacy of slavery and slave-holding peoples. After the Civil War when the Catholic Church largely supported segregation, Black Catholic women faithfully and effectively contested discrimination and segregationist policies in white Catholic parishes, schools,hospitals, convents, seminaries, and neighborhoods[ii]and changed the trajectory of Catholicism in the United States.
Yet, the witness, contributions, and faith of Black Catholic women is not well known in most white Catholic circles. To date, there are no African American Catholics who have been canonized, although there are extraordinary efforts underway to canonize Henriette DeLille, Thea Bowman, Mother Mary Lange, and Julia Greeley.[iii]
Recently, the critical role Black Catholic women play in shaping our tradition is receiving new recognition. According to Pew, 89% of Black Catholic women believe women should be senior religious leaders and 75% say that gender equality is critical to their faith.[iv]
Further, the voices and witness of Black Catholic women are rising as they call the U.S. Bishops to reject racist practices and show authentic leadership in confronting the evils of white supremacy within the Church and white nationalism in society.
As Black Catholics face the disproportionate concentration of parishes and schools slated for closure, sociologist Tia Noelle Pratt, who researches systemic racism writes,
“We see churches closing in our diocese that serve large Black Catholic populations. Black churches bear the burden of that when dioceses decide that churches need to close and parishes need to reorganize.”[v]
Kathleen Dorsey Bellow, director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies in New Orleans observes that in the face of white supremacy, the killing of Black women and men by law enforcement, and the white nationalism that has become a destructive, brutal political force throughout the United States, “Black Catholic women are not fully represented in the public dialogue of current events…”.[vi]
While, “leadership of our U.S. Catholic Church struggle to respond to the current state of affairs with moral authority, Gospel value clarity and a consistent praxis that reflects its own teaching”, Bellow sees that:
Black Catholic women are very clear that Black lives matter. Some of us have taken to the streets to protest; others are responding creatively — in word, music, the arts,mask-making. We are busy raising children, checking the wellness of spouses and friends, caring for elders. Some have responsibility for multiple generations of Black lives in an age when support and resources — health care, education,internet access, paycheck protection, rule of law — are reserved for those who can already well afford them.
Olga Segura, now Opinion Editor for the National Catholic Reporter, asked if the bishops believe Black lives matter.
I believe that the church must explicitly declare:Black Lives Matter. This would allow the church and its leaders to work with a group that has the experience and policies already in place for working toward racial justice — especially with a younger generation of activists who have worked to fight for issues many in the Catholic Church fight for, including immigration reform.[vii]
Black Catholic pastoral theologian Valerie D.Lewis-Mosley points out the obvious, but ignored reality of Black women:
Historically no one could hear, protect or defend Black women, as they were brutalized, maimed and raped by those who had legal although illegitimate jurisdiction over the bodies of our African matriarchal ancestors.
Generations later, attacks on the bodies of Black women continue. This also occurs in the unjustified challenges to the Black feminine voice. The breaking of their bodies and shedding of their blood by police force and brutality often ends in loss of the very sanctity of life and dignity of the human womanist life force. It is the killing of the Imago Dei in the feminine spirit…the aborted life of Black women and girls…[viii]
The scourge of clergy sex abuse and the coverup can be found in the earliest records of the slave trade when clerics purchased andraped African women at will.[ix] Rev. Bryan Massingale points out that the racist stereotyping that portrayed Black women as sexually promiscuous began during the era of slavery is present today such that “Black victims of sexual abuse are even less likely to be believed than white victims.”[x]
Black Catholic women, consecrated and lay, have been at the forefront of resisting and dismantling white supremacy, segregation, and white nationalism. But the stories of their resistance are just beginning to be heard. "The saga of America's black women who have dared to be poor, chaste, and obedient is largely untold," wrote Sister Mary Shawn Copeland in 1975. "It is an uneasy story, not only because it is rooted in the American dilemma – racism - but also because the position of [a] woman in an oppressed group is traditionally delicate and strategic."[xi]
The National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC) is one important example of Black women organizing to challenge racism and white supremacy in the Church and in society. Established in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Sr.M. Martin De Porres Grey took up leadership challenging white privilege, power,and racism.
In their first position paper written in 1969, “The Survival of Soul” the NBSC set out their work:
We, the members of the National Black Sisters Conference pledge to work unceasingly for the liberation of black people.
The reality in American society today makes it inescapably clear to us that our attempt to free black people must begin with a forthright denunciation of the problem recognizable as white racism.Expressions of individual and institutional racism found in our society and within our Church are declared by us to be categorically evil and inimical to the freedom of all men everywhere, and particularly destructive of black people in America. We are cognizant of our responsibility to witness to the dignity of all persons as creatures of God, and are acutely aware of the fact that failure to denounce white racism, in fact, perpetuates this evil. Moreover, our failure to speak out against this evil exposes us to the risk of miscarrying and betraying that scared trust which God our Father has seen fit to place in our hands (published in "Stamped with the Image of God: African Americans As God's Image in Black).
Since that time, the National Black Sisters’ Conference has consistently called for Church leaders align themselves with the Gospel. When the head of the USCCB, Archbishop Jose Gomez publicly demeaned Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements, the NBSC spoke up:
As president of the Bishops’ Conference, Black Catholics had hoped that you and your brother bishops would have acted in solidarity with those who have suffered at the hands of white supremacy since first being kidnapped from their homeland and enslaved with the blessing of the Catholic Church.
In 1968, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus declared that the Catholic Church is a “racist institution”, and while significant progress has been made, the Church continues to fail its African American members by its frequent silence and now its condemnation of Black Lives Matter.[xii]
Finally, it is a sign of hope when white Catholic women stand in solidarity and work alongside Black Catholic women. Most recently the Leadership Conference of Women Religious joined the National Black Sisters’ Conference in decrying efforts to suppress the vote in the United States calling the right to vote, “sacred.”
The National Black Sisters Conference (NBSC) and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious(LCWR) strongly oppose all attempts to restrict that participation by limiting the sacred right to vote. The strength and vibrancy of our democracy is dependent on right of all people to vote regardless of their race, zip code,economic status, or party affiliation.
We must call out elected officials, at every level, who continue to introduce measures that would return us to the era of “Jim Crow.” They are celebrating our dark past by enacting laws that limit participation and threaten our democracy. We pledge to oppose them at every turn, and we promise to support legislation that will ensure all people can exercise their precious right to vote.
[i] Williams, Shannen Dee. From her presentation of February 14, 2022 for Call To Action Baltimore.
[ii] Williams, Shannen Dee. https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/church-must-make-reparation-its-role-slavery-segregation
[vi] Dorsey, Kathleen Bellow. https://www.ncronline.org/news/coronavirus/black-catholic-women-voice-embodied
[vii] Segura, Olga. https://www.ncronline.org/news/coronavirus/black-catholic-women-voice-embodied
[viii] Lewis-Mosley, ValerieD. https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/my-unbridled-tongue-challenges-inequities-threaten-black-womens-lives
[ix] Heywood, Linda M. “Slavery and its Transformation in the Kingdom of Kongo: 1491 – 1800.” Journal ofAfrican History. 2009, Vol. 50. No. 1 (2009). pp 1-22. Cambridge University Press.
[x] Davidson, Madeleine. https://www.ncronline.org/news/accountability/panel-racism-compounds-clergy-sex-abuse-crisis-black-catholics
[xi] Copeland, Sister MaryShawn, OP, “Black Nuns: An Uneasy Story,” National Catholic Reporter, 7 March1975, 9, 14 as cited in “Forgotten Habits, Lost Vocations: Black Nuns,Contested Memories, and the 19th Century
Struggle toDesegregate U.S. Catholic Religious Life” by Shannen Dee Williams.