Explorations of History at the Intersection of Our Traditions and also the Feminine Genius

I hope it is encouraging to Mr. Farris Blount that I took his thoughtful posting as an invitation to explore what I could find out about the experience of the Black Church at the closest intersection to my own tradition, Roman Catholicism.  I am woefully uninformed about the history and experiences of these brothers and sisters in Christ within the Church.  While I have always had the privilege of going to church with black families and individuals in the various parishes we’ve been a part of (yes, even at the Latin Mass!), knowing a few individuals is vastly different from studying the history of both the particular graces and challenges that the Catholic men and women who are also black have experienced.

Indeed, I am mostly struck by the impossible task Mr. Blount faced as he wrote his piece for this project!  To attempt to represent the entire Black Church in a roughly 1500 word essay must have been daunting, to say the least.  I felt his pain in my struggle to represent 2000 years of Catholic tradition, though Mr. Blount’s task was a bit more akin to the excellent post we had on the Pietist Tradition, in that he seeks to capture a strain of something that runs across and through countless denominations, including my own.  

The history I encountered was vast and varied.  On the one hand, some of the earliest Catholics in the New World arrived as slaves who were Catholic before their capture.  St. Peter Claver, a stalwart Jesuit, called himself ‘Slave of the Africans’ and did his best to serve them.  On the other hand the Catholic Church writ large was a participant in the slave trade, both actively and passively.  Catholic religious orders of various stripes owned slaves.  After the emancipation of American slaves there were truly heroic orders of African-American nuns who served the poor with a will.    There were brilliant black priests, like Augustus Tolton, whose canonization is underway.  He  was a freed slave who went on to join the priesthood, studied in Rome and came back to the states to serve Chicago with immense success.  Likewise there were orders of white nuns who started parochial schools to serve growing black communities.  Religious orders in America often went through processes of integration that mirrored patterns across the country: sometimes moving with charity on both sides, sometimes with ugly resistance that clearly didn’t reflect the love of God.  To this day, the experience of black Americans in the Catholic Church includes both positive and negative realities in both parishes and parochial schools across the nation.  Some of the contemporary articles I read were delightfully inspiring.  Others made me very sad, and disappointed in the race struggles my tradition still wrestles with.

Mr. Blount states in his response to my posting: “For many years following the emancipation of American slaves and context of Jim Crow and legalized segregation, the Black Church was the primary, if not only, institution that would take care of Black people in a world that constantly questioned or disregarded their very humanity. The Black Church was a place of refuge, providing African-Americans with food, economic support, transportation, and countless other needs that the larger society was unwilling or unable to offer.” I truly hope that the Catholic Church, in both its black and white expressions, can be included among those that attempted to serve black communities in the spirit of Matthew 25.  At the same time, it is surely true that at the very same moments of good work, the Catholic Church participated, in its broken places, in the racism that has plagued our country.

I am grateful for this opportunity, with the help of Mr. Blount, to look into this history.  As a convert especially, it is not a history I know well.  It raised the question for me of whether or not there was a sympathy between black Catholics and black Protestants, where there was deep division and even hatred, between white Catholic and white Protestant communities.  Did their shared experience as black people in America make it easier for them to love one another despite deep theological disagreement?  Did black Catholic families hang out with black Protestant families, or was it more likely for black Catholics to associate with white Catholics, especially at times when Catholics were generally marginalized?  I’m truly curious about this, and I don’t really know where to begin to find the answers.  IF, however, there was connection and unity in the Black Church in an overarching way, despite denominational differences of Catholic vs. Protestant, it seems worth it to study that model.  It would offer insight to our ecumenical conversation here, perhaps.  

This also brings me to a place where I must mention the Catholic Church in its representatives in and from Africa, and what they bring to the table of Roman Catholicism as a whole.  Our family knows many more African immigrant families who are Catholic than we do African American Catholics (I guess because we live in New England?).  Our observation is that these African Catholics often arrive and engage with a fervor and orthodoxy that can put American Catholics to shame.  They face such difficulty as they deal with the push and pull to both embrace the good parts of American culture, even as they stare down the challenge of staving off the bad influences our culture can have on their children.  We certainly know African families whose moral compasses are often more clear (more Catholic?) than so many sleepy American Catholics around them.  Indeed, the Catholic Church in Africa can generally be described as more orthodox than its North American counterpart.  Many would suggest that our best hope for leadership in the Catholic Church lies in Africa.  

I would commend Cardinal Robert Sarah as an exemplar of this fiery orthodoxy of Catholicism, and of the strength of African bishops.  In an address he gave in 2019 in Paris, near the ruins of the recently burned Cathedral of Notre Dame, which he sees as a sort of picture of the ruins of the Western Church in need of rebuilding, he proclaimed:  “My dear friends, the world has no use for a Church that offers nothing more than a reflection of its own image!”  And later in the address, “The faith enlightens our family, professional and cultural life, not only our spiritual life. In the West, some call for tolerance or secularity, and impose a form of schizophrenia between private and public life. Faith has its place in public debate! We must speak of God, not to impose him but to reveal and propose him. God is an indispensable light to mankind.”  This address discusses the deep concerns he has for the materialistic crisis of faith in so many of its facets!  I’m not sure if the likes of our dear Cardinal Sarah count as members of ‘The Black Church,’ since his voice comes to us from a distant shore, but he has so much to offer to followers of Jesus, as do many of his African peers.  

I want to end by responding to Mr. Blount’s very thoughtful questions about the all-male priesthood in the Catholic Church.  He asked such fair and candid questions in his kind response to my posting.  He posed his question about both Catholic and Black Church spaces with male leadership, and pondered: “Following Jesus should be done without restriction or regulation unless Jesus Himself places limits on us. I am just concerned that, with the current male-oriented infrastructure of many Roman Catholic and Black Church spaces, following Jesus could become more of a burden than a blessing for many women who have a commitment to these institutions.” While I certainly cannot speak for women in Black Church spaces outside of my own tradition, I am very happy to answer as a Catholic woman!

Because the Catholic Church teaches, embraces, and celebrates the differences and complementarity of the sexes in men and women, as well as the unity before God that emerges in Christian marriage, this ends up being less of a problem than you might think.  As Catholics, we believe the Church is the bride of Christ, and we are all called to be a part of this mystical body, this mystical marriage between Christ and his Church.  The priest plays a special role to represent Christ in the Mass, and even in his full life of sacrifice for his bride here on earth.  Cardinal Sarah, in the same address mentioned above explains: “…the priest is fundamentally a continuation among us of the presence of Christ. He is essentially an adorer, a man who holds himself constantly under God’s gaze. He must not be defined by what he does but by what he is. He is ipse Christus, Christ himself.”  When a priest fully understands this, he can give his whole life (all the hours of his day, his chastity, his worldly goods, his very life) to his bride the Church, or us, the people of God.  While it is true that we are part of the priesthood of all believers in that we all assist at the holy sacrifice of the Mass, the consecrated priest actually gives his whole life to this service, every day.  He lays down his life for us, as a husband is called to do for his wife, and as Christ did for his bride the Church.

The most wonderful aspect though, which prevents the question of ‘female leadership’ or the lack thereof from being a burden, or any kind of issue of contention for me, is Our Lady!  May is the month we dedicate to Mary, and this most holy mother for Catholics is considered the highest of all creatures!  That she bore the God of all creation in her womb, making the way for God to save all mankind, distinguishes her in a way most glorious.  Her relationship to each member of the Trinity (daughter of God the Father, Mother of Christ the son, Spouse of the Holy Spirit) then becomes a model for all humanity.  Both men and women must each follow her example as we seek to be children of God, bearers of Christ and wed to the Holy Spirit.  But for women particularly, Mary illuminates the special way in which women are called, in all of the particularities of our femininity, to serve God.  She always points to her son, as she did at the wedding at Cana : “Do whatever he tells you.”  

Mary is so celebrated in her womanhood, and in her unique role, that if we see her as our model we don’t feel slighted as women in the least.  Our role is different as daughters, mothers and wives, but certainly not less.  We don’t need to be able to do the same thing as men, because we have our own important role to play, which men cannot do.  For some women this might be consecrated religious life as a nun or sister, for others as wives to men, and consequently often as mothers to the children they bear in their bodies.  But the Catholic Church teaches that all women are called to a spiritual motherhood of some kind, even if we don’t bear children physically.  Our souls are formed for this unique work, whether it happens in the home, in the Church, or in the world.  To actually bear a human soul made for eternity in one’s body is a radical gift from God.  But, bringing about new life in another human soul can be spiritual as well. 

Mary models for us how spiritual motherhood is also a unique and powerful call from God.  From the cross, Jesus gives the Apostle John (the disciple whom he loved) and his own mother Mary to one another (John 19:26-27). Catholics see this as the moment Christ gives all who love him dearly to Mary as her children, and likewise gives to Mary the motherhood of those who love her son.  Mary only bore one child, our Lord Jesus Christ, in her womb, and yet her spiritual motherhood to the rest of us is just as astounding.  This ‘feminine genius’ is articulated in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Mulieris Dignitatem” or “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.”  He writes, toward the end, “The Church desires to give thanks to the Most Holy Trinity for the “mystery of woman” and for every woman – for that which constitutes the eternal measure of her feminine dignity, for the “great works of God”, which throughout human history have been accomplished in and through her. After all, was it not in and through her that the greatest event in human history – the incarnation of God himself – was accomplished?”  There is too much dignity in womanhood celebrated so regularly, and so prominently in my tradition (I haven’t even mentioned all the female saints!) for me to feel wounded by a male priesthood.

There is so much to wonder at, when it comes to contemplating Our Lady and her role, and what that might mean for my own femininity, I feel sure I will never get to the bottom of it in my lifetime.  To be like her in my own female body and soul is such a gift.  I suppose that women in at least the Catholic corners of The Black Church have known and enjoyed this gift of womanhood through Mary, our Mother.  I pray that all Christians could find solace in this most holy Mother, and that women particularly could feel the joy of being like her, fit for a unique role in God’s Kingdom.  

Dear Farris Blount, thank you for your posting!  It has raised great questions for me about my tradition and yours that I look forward to exploring further.

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