I am a bit of an oddball in this community. I am not an “ex-” or “lapsed” or “I-was-raised Catholic” Catholic, but a bona fide Catholic member of this UU congregation. (Trust me, it’s complicated.) I preached on what I called the Catholic humanist tradition, on why I am committed to the dignity of and justice for all human beings not in spite of my Catholicism but because of it. I stood before the congregation and shared some of the gifts I’ve been given from this Catholic humanist tradition – the tradition of saints Francis and Clare, of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, of Cesar Chavez and Oscar Romero, of Sr. Thea Bowman and Fr. George Clements – in the hopes of offering some lessons from one humanist tradition to another. But I knew that, for good reason, UU churches serve as spiritual safe havens for all sorts of people, including many “recovering Catholics.” And so, before I invited the congregation to see Catholicism anew, I confessed that, even as a self-identified “practicing” Catholic, I consider myself in good company with those who have been hurt, marginalized, oppressed, and enraged by Catholics and the Catholic Church. Two days later, the Pennsylvania grand jury released their report on a generation of abuse and violence perpetrated by priests and enabled by the institutional apparatus of the Church itself, a report that (once again) revealed the moral bankruptcy of an institution more invested in protecting its own power than in safeguarding the lives of its parishioners. If you read my sermon, you will note that my sense of what it means to be Catholic, what it means for me to claim a “Catholic humanism,” stands apart from that institutional apparatus. It has roots in it without a doubt, but also remains both deeply skeptical and robustly critical of it. Needless to say, I could not have written this particular sermon if I had been preaching this Sunday instead of last. So, as I share the text of my sermon, I want to say that today (as I do every day), I write as one of those hurt and enraged by Catholics and the Catholic Church. And when friends ask me how I can remain Catholic in the face of such moral monsters, I can tell them about my own sense of the tradition and what keeps me calling myself Catholic. But I can also say, truthfully, that there are more than enough reasons why someone would decide that they cannot and will not make that distinction. And I, for one, will not work to convince them otherwise.
I recently had the privilege to lecture at the University of Notre Dame on the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Black Catholic Movement in April 1968. The lecture, “Centering Black Catholics, Reimagining American Catholicism,” was sponsored by the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. The Cushwa Center supported some of the dissertation research that eventually became my book Authentically Black and Truly Catholic, so it was especially cool to come full circle, as it were.
Interested in a brief intro to my book Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migration (2017)? Check out my short video for Religion News Service! If you post comments and questions, I’ll write replies and answers.
When I tell people that I study black Catholics, most kind of blink their eyes and go, “What?” We assume Catholicism is European in its essence, and that black people are Protestants. But the majority of black Christians in the Western hemisphere are actually Catholic, and the majority of Catholics in the Western hemisphere and the Americas are not white.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of chatting with Emma Green of The Atlantic about my book and the history of Black Catholics in the United States. Check it out!
I had the pleasure of answering Pete Cajka’s great questions about Authentically Black and Truly Catholic for the Religion in American History blog recently. Enjoy!
Thank you, dear & brilliant friends, for encouraging me to finish this syllabus for the spring (mostly). Sadly, as with all syllabi, so many good things didn’t make the final cut. But, now that it’s done (again, emphasis on mostly), feel free to check it out. And do share your thoughts!
I am excited to say that my first book, Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migrations (NYU Press, 2017), is officially out in the world. It’s a real book!!! You can purchase it at nyupress.com and preorder it on Amazon.com (ships November 14). This is the culmination of the better part of a decade’s worth of reading, research, writing, and revising. But it started in conversations with Black Catholic Chicagoans themselves. And so, it is dedicated to all the Black people who made and continue to make Catholic Chicago. If you get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it, I hope you learn something, and please, let me know what you think. You can reach me, as always, on Twitter @mjcressler or by email at email@example.com.