African-Americans and Catholicism

Catholicism as a religious tradition in the United States has been the minority since before the country was independent. Going to school in Maryland, I was taught that George Calvert founded the state as a “haven” for Catholics persecuted in England. In reading books, and in knowing about the historic nature of John F. Kennedy’s presidential election, I understand that despite having approximately 20% of the United States population, Catholicism still pales in comparison to Protestant denomination numbers. Black Catholics, therefore, would be a minority within a minority.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishop released this information on the demographics of African-Americans within the Church. There are currently 3 million African-Americans within the United States that identify as Catholic, mostly in the South. This makes sense, though, to me, because of the Spanish presence in Florida and the French in Louisiana and the surrounding areas.

I find it unique how the Catholics took a step back from their normal proselytizing within the United States. The Catholic Church converted much of Latin and South America upon arrival, and yet, we’ve discussed in class that this wasn’t so much the case in the United States. The Catholic Church feared marginalizing themselves further from the mainstream Protestant society. In the Sernett book, there was a section from the First African American Catholic Congress in 1889. At it, they recognized the Reverend Father Augustus Tolton, a “trusted and worthy brother in race as in creed” (Sernett, 297). The conference continued to discuss the idea of education, which we haven’t really talked about a lot this semester. I think that church-run education institutions can be very effective at increasing membership, especially if the education is “the great and fundamental means of elevating it to the higher planes to which all Christian civilization tends” (Sernett, 298). If these schools offer the best education, and if the Church also offers other social programs, like orphanages, hospitals, and other places, they give themselves a much better face for the country. And in turn, they also receive more members. 

I think that even though African-American Catholics are not always thought of immediately when discussing African-American religions, or when discussing religion in the South at this time, they are an important part of the religious culture of our country. I think something interesting about the church in the video has is their powerful music, a unique approach to Gospel and the Word, in a way that both connects their African roots and their Catholic elements. 

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