Why Pew’s new study on black Catholicism is essential for US church leaders

My whole career has been about ending the erasure of black Catholics from academic and public discourse. A refrain I’ve heard throughout my career across religious and racial divides is “I didn’t know there were black Catholics.” After more than 20 years of work, this refrain persists despite decades of brilliant and influential work by Black Catholics on Black Catholicism.

This is one of the reasons why I started the #BlackCatholicsSyllabus and articulated from the outset that the purpose of the program is to prioritize the voices of Black Catholics in creating our own narrative. It’s also why this week’s Pew Research Center report, “Black Catholics in America” are the data I dreamed of having as an undergraduate and graduate student. I also dreamed of having a report like this in the years after I graduated from graduate school.

Much of my efforts have focused on ending erasure in the Catholic sphere. However, black Catholics are not only erased from Catholic narratives – they are also erased from discourse about the black church. For example, last year PBS aired a two-part documentary, “The Black Church: It’s Our Story, It’s Our Song“, hosted by Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. In four hours of coverage, despite incorporating Catholic imagery, such as iconography from St. Sabina’s Church in Chicago, the documentary did not address black Catholics.

This double erasure is why the Pew Research Center report is so important. With the one from last year “Faith Among Black Americans”, this week’s survey of black Catholics is urgently needed. Both are poised to be considered landmark studies. The 2021 report speaks to issues unique to Black Americans, such as the role of the black church. The result is a groundbreaking study that examines religion among Black Americans in a way that has not been done to date by a major survey. Its large representative sample of more than 8,000 respondents allowed Pew researchers to dig deeper into the diversity of black religious experience in the United States and conduct analyzes of groups often excluded from these discussions, including African immigrants, black Catholic people with no religious affiliation. This level of analysis will allow researchers to look to this data for many years to come.

For four years, I consulted with Pew researchers on the project before the project even officially began. In January 2018, I was invited to the Pew offices in Washington, D.C. to give a presentation about my work and discuss the type of data Pew could collect that would be especially useful to qualitative researchers such as myself and to executives. of church for pastoral planning. purposes. As a result, Black Catholics were on the research team’s radar from the start of the project and played a crucial role in centering the experiences, beliefs and attitudes of Black Catholics.

“Black Catholics in America,” published March 15, examines black Catholics as part of a larger Catholic contest and as part of “Faith Among Black Americans”. Academics, practitioners, and people of goodwill who just want to know more haven’t had a study that does all of this at once. It’s deep. These are data and a context that simply did not exist when I started my training in sociology. I often remember that I write the things that I wanted to read as a student. Consulting both “Faith Among Black Americans” and “Black Catholics in America” means I have been part of the knowledge I desperately needed but was not available when I was a student.

The new study tells us that 6% of black Americans are Catholic. Although this percentage is admittedly small, it still means that there are almost 3 million black Catholics in the USA. Millions of people need to be included in the conversation about what it means to be Catholic in our country if the conversation is to be complete. Additionally, we learn from this study that 20% of black Americans born in sub-Saharan Africa and 15% of black Americans born in the Caribbean identify as Catholic while only 5% of black Americans born in the United States identify as Catholics. These numbers tell us that black Catholics in the United States are not a monolith. These starkly different numbers deserve closer scrutiny by academics and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as dioceses and parishes. Church leaders should keep this in mind when dealing with black Catholics and creating pastoral plans. Similarly, researchers need to incorporate this knowledge into their research.

The information provided by the study can and should inform researchers like myself in addition to national, diocesan and parish leaders in our work. The large scale of this week’s report offers data that a qualitative researcher simply cannot collect and it confirms what my own research has found over the past 20 years. I was not surprised to learn of full report that only 17% of black Catholics attend a predominantly black church and that 18% of black Catholics report a combination of call and response and other expressive forms of worship during Mass. my research involves looking at liturgy as a form of identity work where I have discussed this type of worship experience in detail. I have discussed at length how African American Catholics integrate music, preaching, and church aesthetics into the liturgy to create a unique identity as African Americans and as Catholics.

Only 41% of Black Catholics said they had heard a homily on race in the 12 months preceding the survey and only 31% said they had heard a homily on political engagement during the same period. The record of systemic racism we have seen over the past year has demonstrated that it is high time for the Church to consider racism as a pro-life issue. For this reason, these results are also a call to action. a thunder 77% black Catholic said that “opposing racism is essential to what being a Christian means to them”, but only 41% said they had heard a homily on race in the twelve months preceding the survey. Many black Catholics do not receive a message at Mass that they identify as something essential to being a Christian.

While most of the data was collected before the reckoning of systemic racism began in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, these shocking, but not surprising, numbers will add to the loss of black Catholics if we don’t see not our church fighting with, and for, us for racial equality. This week’s report also tells us that 46% of black adults who were raised Catholic no longer identify as such. The aforementioned disconnect between the themes Black Catholics hear about at Mass and what they see as essential to being a Christian provides insight into why so many Black Catholics are leaving the church. The results for young adults only exacerbate this situation.

Pew’s 2021 study reports that 46% of Gen Z young black adults (aged 18-23 at the time of the survey) rarely or never attend religious services. Organized religion – through denominations – ignores this discovery at its peril. The sexual abuse crisis has already damaged the credibility of the church across generations. This reality, coupled with Pew’s finding that nearly half of all young black American adults rarely or never attend church services, should be a wake-up call to Church leaders that concrete action must be taken now.

Since the summer of 2020, the American Episcopal Conference has welcomed “Walking together” as an ongoing series of events focused on young adults and those caring for young adults. Although this is a concrete action directed at young adults, it reaches those who are already actively involved in the church. Evangelism must be directed to those young adults who are not, or only very little, engaged. Refusing to critically engage this group does not bode well for the sustainability of parishes and schools in the decades to come.

The Pew Report, “Black Catholics in America” ​​as well as last year”Faith Among Black Americansare concrete steps to ending the erasure of Black Catholics. It provides urgent data on Black Catholics who are so often excluded from discussions of the religious attitudes and experiences of Black Americans, and who do not receive the consideration needed in Catholic discourse. This study is a call to action for scholars and church leaders. It tells us concretely that, like any church, Black Catholics are not a monolith. The Future of the church depends on deepening our understanding of this in order to serve and create policies accordingly.

Martha J. Finley