Expert: Racial division is hurting the Church

4 mins read
Black Catholics
Worshippers recite the Lord's Prayer during a Black Catholic History Month Mass at the Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in New York City Nov. 18, 2023. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

(OSV News) — Daryl Grigsby, the well-known African American commentator, author and convert to Catholicism 25 years ago, hosted a March 7 webinar on the thorny subject of racism, apparent indifference to it and what can be done about it in the Catholic Church.

Titled “Synodality, Black Catholic Spirituality and the Racial Divide,” Grigsby’s hourlong talk was presented by the National Black Catholic Congress.

Kimberley Hefner, NBCC’s project coordinator, told OSV News that Grigsby delivered a “standing-room only” presentation on the subject at the NBCC’s convention last year, and he accepted their request to repeat the presentation virtually.

The three-part presentation examined “synodality,” which Grigsby explained “is a way of listening to each member of the Church.”

Grigsby’s session asked listeners to ponder these three questions: First, what do you love about the Catholic Church? Second, what breaks your heart about the Catholic Church? Third, what would you like to see in your local parish?

Daryl Grigsby, pictured in an undated photo, is a well-known commentator, author and convert to Catholicism 25 years ago. He hosted a discussion titled “Syndodality: Black Catholic Spirituality and the Racial Divide” March 7, 2024, sponsored by the National Black Catholic Congress. (OSV News photo/courtesy Daryl Grigsby)

Legacy of Black Catholic worship

While the majority of Black Americans identify as Protestant, Grigsby pointed out, “There are 3 million Black Catholics in the United States, which is more than the number of African Americans who worship in the Christian Methodist Episcopal churches, or even the AME Zion Church.” Both of those Black Christian denominations count 1.5 million and 1.4 million members, respectively.

Since becoming a Catholic in 1998, Grigsby said, “I have been impressed with the incredible legacy of Black Catholic worship on even Black non-Catholics.”

“Authoress Toni Morrison, singer/civil rights activist Harry Belafonte and legendary actress-singer-dancer Lena Horne are just three examples,” he said. “Inside the Church, we have the Black spirituality of Father Augustus Tolton, Sister Thea Bowman, Daniel Rudd and Dr. Lena Frances Edwards.”

Both Father Tolton and Sister Bowman are among six Black Catholics with active causes for canonization.

Edwards, Grigsby noted, “was one of the first African American women to practice medicine as an OB-GYN, and provide safe health care to underserved, poor women in New Jersey and Texas.” Born on the feast day of St. Francis, Edwards came from a devout Black Catholic family and was awarded the presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Daniel Rudd (1854-1933) was a Black Catholic layperson who is credited with founding the first newspaper about — and for — African Americans, the Cincinnati-based American Catholic Tribune.

Not the majority

Grigsby referenced Pew Research data highlighting that 75% of Black Catholics attend a church where they are not the majority; 80% of white Catholics attend mostly white parishes; 67% of Hispanics attend predominantly Hispanic parishes; and 68% of Black Protestants go to predominantly Black churches.

Grigsby summed up the study this way: In a positive way, he noted that “clearly, while Black Catholics would prefer a Black church, most out of faithfulness to the Catholic Church go to Mass with other races.”

“This is a profound reality: that Black Catholics are uniquely poised to bridge racial divides for they — and no other race — worship predominantly in spaces where they are not the majority,” Grigsby said.

The Church is poised to address racial divide

“Likewise, the Catholic Church is uniquely poised to address the racial divide within itself, because we are so diverse and global, and because when we are listening to each other, we are listening to the Holy Spirit,” Grigsby noted.

At the same time, Grigsby’s presentation emphasized that racism is “real,” it has “infected the Catholic Church,” but it can be addressed, particularly though synodality.

“We can either accept this (status quo) or embrace the words in Ephesians 1:10, which says, ‘Gather up all things in him (Christ), things in heaven and things on earth,'” he said.

What’s missing

His presentation pointed out some things that are generally missing: “an absence of homilies that address racial justice or white supremacy,” a lack of recognition of the gifts of Black Catholics and an absence of white Catholics “acting as either allies or advocates,” Grigsby said. He qualified that this was a general observation with exceptions, as some of the “most devoted” and “most aware” people on the racial divide are white Catholics “even at cost to themselves.”

He cautioned that the Church also has other divides to contend with, including those dealing with “gender, sexual identity, politics, class and religious traditions.”

“The main thing is for us to not wait for bishops, priests, hierarchy or institutions,” Grigsby said. “There’s a lot we ourselves can do.”

Action steps

He encouraged people to take action steps, among them, watching the documentary “Black Faith Matters” with Ansel Augustine (who has also written extensively on the connection between racial justice and the pro-life movement); turning to fellow Black Catholics for spiritual nourishment; and initiating discussions with Catholics of other races through the “conversations in the Spirit” recommended by the Synod on Synodality’s synthesis document.

“I believe it could go a long way to lift Black Catholic spirituality up and heal the racial divide,” he said. Grigsby underscored that Catholicism involves “unity in difference” and the dialogue involved in the synodal process can bring that out.

Grigsby also addressed a range of other questions posed by OSV News.

Church leadership makes the difference

On the lack of African Americans in upper leadership of the Catholic Church, Grigsby said, “It is a challenge.”

“There seem to be fewer African American bishops (and priests) than there were several years ago,” he said.

According to a 2023 report by The Black Catholic Messenger, the number of active Catholic bishops who are Black peaked at 13 in the 1990s and has since dropped to a near 50-year low, with the Vatican failing to maintain, let alone increase, their numbers in the U.S. episcopate. Today, the only African American bishops actively leading U.S. dioceses are Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington, Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre of Louisville, Kentucky, and Haitian-born Bishop Jacques E. Fabre of Charleston, South Carolina.

“One of the reasons I converted to Catholicism is that my parish had a Black Jesuit priest,” Grigsby said. “Definitely African American Church leadership makes a difference, and white priests with an open eye and heart to African American life would help also.”

Grigsby also indicated that the involvement of Black Americans at every level of the Church helps with its vitality and its mission of evangelization.

“Surveys show that African Americans are more ‘religious’ than almost every racial group in America,” he said. “Perhaps due to slavery, its aftermath, sensitivity to injustice, whatever, Blacks have a rich religious heritage. If the Church tapped into that resource — with music, liturgy and outreach — it would attract more African Americans and enliven the Church.”

At the same time, Grigsby indicated that the Church has a mixed record, including closing predominantly Black Catholic schools and parishes that serve Black communities, and offering a witness on Black lives and dignity that does not seem to get the same energy as the rest of its pro-life commitments. Addressing these could make a big difference.

“Our churches overall lack full engagement in the cause of racial justice,” he said. “If the Church had a fraction of the passion regarding ‘right to life’ for the lives of African Americans and others, we would have a remarkable witness and impact.”

Robert Alan Glover

Robert Alan Glover writes for OSV News from central Kentucky.