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Significant Numbers of Black American Catholics Think Church is Racialist

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Black Catholics

A study, coauthored by Notre Dame social scientists, Darren W Davis and Donald B Pope-Davis, focusing on African American Catholics, challenges common assumptions about one of the Black community’s less popular Christian churches. Commissioned by the National Black Catholic Congress and the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life and Office of the President, it tested whether anecdotal accounts that Black Catholics were becoming increasingly disengaged from their religion were true. It is historic in that it is the largest sample of African American Catholics ever surveyed on their faith. Although the focus of the survey is on African American Catholics, a comparison is made with white Catholics, yielding notable findings about them too. Among the findings of the survey are:

  • On almost every measure of religious engagement, African American Catholics are considered stronger in their faith than white Catholics:
    • 78 percent of Black Catholics report that their parish meets their spiritual needs compared to only 69 percent of white Catholics.
    • 76 percent of African American Catholics say their parish meets their emotional needs, compared to 60 percent of white Catholics.
    • 48 percent of African Americans attend church at least once per week, compared to only 30 percent of white Catholics.
  • A major difference in the religious engagement between African American Catholics and white Catholics is the importance each group attaches to social networks in the parish.
    • 29 percent of African Americans considered it was important that friends attended their church, while only eight percent of white Catholics considered it important.

African American’s increased appreciation of religious social interactions and tendency to attend all Black parishes contributes to their satisfaction. Davis commented:

This finding also shows up among African American Catholics who attend predominantly black parishes. A greater sense of community that comes from worshipping with others who share cultural heritage heightens religious engagement. Whatever forces are working against white Catholics’ religious identity and engagement were set in motion decades ago and those forces do not appear to be working against African American Catholics. Thus, it is quite possible that understanding African American Catholicity may inform us about the religious challenges of white Catholics. Too often we approach questions of religiosity in a vacuum. Comparable studies of religiosity are critical.

While there is generally high satisfaction with various aspects of Mass and church service, such as preaching, music, readings and prayers, Catholics’—both white and black Americans—level of satisfaction with these aspects of Mass are noticeably lower than Protestants. Pope-Davis noted:

This finding is interesting because we often hear anecdotal complaints about the Catholic Mass as quiescent, but most Catholics do not share this view. But, relative to the components of Protestant church service, Catholics are not as satisfied.

Racial Discontent

Despite their high level of religious engagement, African American Catholics are not completely satisfied with the scope of racial inclusiveness in the Church:

  • About one in four African American Catholics perceive racism in their parish:
    • 32 percent say they are uncomfortable because they are the only person of color in their parish
    • 26 percent say that fellow parishioners avoid them because of their race,
    • 24 percent say that fellow parishioners reluctantly shake their hands
    • 25 percent say they have experienced racial insensitivity toward African Americans from their priest.
  • African American Catholics see room for growth in the racial positions of the Catholic Church:
    • 37 percent are satisfied with the targeting of black vocations
    • 38 percent are satisfied with the Church’s emphasis on black saints
    • 40 percent are satisfied with promoting black bishops
    • 40 percent are satisfied with the Church’s support for issues like affirmative action
    • 44 percent are satisfied with the Church’s position on problems in Africa
    • 45 percent are satisfied with the promotion of racial integration in the Church.
  • But 23 percent of African Americans consider the Catholic Church racist against African Americans.

Davis points out:

Asking questions about abstract racism in the Church breaks down somewhat when asked about specific elements of the Church. This is not that unusual in survey research. But, it is clear that while there are still challenges for many African American Catholics in their parishes, the views of the institutional Church are more jaundiced or jaded.

The survey also uncovered notable national demographic trends that are evident within religious denominations that have great consequences for the future church:

  • 53 percent of African American Catholics and 53 percent of African American Protestants are at least 45 years old, compared to 63 percent of white Catholics and 62 percent of white Protestants
  • 33 percent of African American Catholics and 35 percent of African American Protestants are married, compared to 21 percent of white Catholics and 14 percent of white Protestants.
  • A larger percentage of African American Catholics have college degrees than African American Protestants, but a larger percentage of Catholics are college educated.

Summary

The US’s estimated three million Black Catholics are highly educated and deeply engaged in the church. They value the social and communal aspects of religious worship and some are concerned about the status of racism within the church—some are discontent about racial inclusiveness in the church. Nearly one in four respondents felt that the Catholic Church is racist against African Americans. More than 31 percent say they are uncomfortable because they are the only person of color in their parish, and about a quarter say that fellow parishioners avoid them because of their race, that fellow parishioners reluctantly shake their hands and that they have experienced racial insensitivity from their priest.

The research team hopes that the information gathered in the survey will help the Catholic church respond more efficiently to the needs of parishioners. Pope-Davis observed:

The forces that shape white Catholicity are different from the forces that shape African American Catholicity.

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Written by mikemagee

13 December, 2011 at 9:25 pm

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