Centering black Catholics, reimagining American Catholicism

By Peter Cajka


When John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency in 1961, many Catholics came to see themselves as fully American. A few years later, though, at a gathering in Detroit in April 1968, black Catholics charged their Church with being a “white and racist” institution. In his April 2018 lecture at Notre Dame, historian Matthew Cressler asked his audience to reimagine American Catholic history in light of this incongruity. For Cressler, these two developments—a Catholic Church becoming “American,” and then critiqued as “white and racist”—realize an important and productive juxtaposition. American Catholics allegedly entered into the mainstream of American society, yet for black Catholics, who numbered 3 million in the 20th century, Catholic problems had not lightened, but in fact had become more glaring.


Cressler, who is assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston and author of Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migration (NYU Press, 2017), argued that the overlapping of black Catholicism and Black Power in the late 1960s forces historians to “reckon with the limitations of our concepts.” Specifically, he showed how this move brings us face-to-face with the “elisions and erasures” that accrue when American Catholicism is construed as a race-neutral category.


In an elegant line of his lecture, Cressler said: “When we say that ‘Catholics became American,’ we do not mean that Catholics became Nat Turner or Harriet Tubman, Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin or Angela Davis. Instead our turns of phrase—‘mainstream,’ ‘middle class,’ ‘American,’—mask our meaning.” What do scholars really mean when they contend that Catholics became indistinguishable from their fellow citizens? When scholars detail how Catholics became American, Cressler argued, they unconsciously reproduce a story of immigrants making sacrifices to become good, white Americans. They elide and erase the self-congratulatory function of such a story and pave over the institutional and personal brutality that made it possible.


Cressler suggested three paths for future scholarship to go about reimagining American Catholic history. First, this rethinking entails introducing a new cast of characters in the story and seeing them as essential rather than peripheral. We must truly see the slaves that built Catholic churches in the antebellum era. We must stop to think deeply about the indigenous populations—black, Hispanic, Native American—oppressed by the institutions of the colonial church. Scholars are obliged to tell these stories and see these subjects as fully human.


Second, after placing black Catholics at the center of the story, historians must reassess what they think they already know and understand. The story of Catholics “Americanizing” over the course of the 20th century by attending college with the help of the GI Bill or purchasing suburban homes inaccessible to African Americans must be recast as a move toward becoming white. By placing Black Power in the narrative of modern American Catholic history, scholars can bring these trends more fully into view. As such, the bussing riots in Chicago and Boston in the late 1960s, and the mobs of white protestors who greeted Martin Luther King, Jr., with chants of “white power” in 1966, become signature events not only in American history, but also in American Catholic history.  


Finally, centering black Catholics would mean thoroughly reckoning with these and other facts, beyond merely acknowledging them. The process of becoming American, Cressler contended, can no longer be understood as innocent. “It is not enough to say that bishops and priests and sisters owned slaves; we must reckon with how holding human beings as property fundamentally shaped what it meant to be Catholic in America,” Cressler explained. We must also reckon with immigrant Catholics lynching black bodies in the New York City draft riots of 1863; white Catholic suburbanization and the creation of the “inner city;” and how American freedom was “physically built and philosophically premised” on the institution of slavery.


Cressler’s lecture and his 2017 book furnish the beginnings of a broad reimagining of American Catholic history.


Peter Cajka is a postdoctoral research associate at the Cushwa Center.