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Wed Mar 16, 2022, 11:01 AM

Why Pew's new study on Black Catholicism is critical for US church leaders


The new study tells us that 6% of Black Americans are Catholics. While this percentage is admittedly small, it still means that there are nearly 3 million Black Catholics in the U.S. Millions of people must be included in the conversation about what it means to be Catholic in our country if the conversation is going to be comprehensive. Furthermore, we learn from this study that 20% of Black Americans born in sub-Saharan Africa and 15% of Caribbean-born Black Americans identify as Catholic while only 5% of U.S.-born Black Americans identify as Catholic. These numbers tell us that Black Catholics in the United States are not a monolith. These drastically different numbers deserve further consideration by scholars and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as dioceses and parishes. Church leaders must keep this in mind in ministering to Black Catholics and creating pastoral plans. Similarly, scholars must incorporate this knowledge into their research.

The information provided by the study can, and should, inform scholars like me in addition to national, diocesan and parish leaders in our work. The large scale of this week's report offers data that just isn't possible for a qualitative researcher to collect and it affirms what my own research has found over the last 20 years. I was not surprised to learn from the full report that only 17% of Black Catholics attend a predominantly Black church and a comparable 18% of Black Catholics report a combination of call-and-response, and other expressive forms of worship during Mass. Part of my research involves examining liturgy as a form of identity work where I've discussed just this type of worship experience in detail. I've discussed at length how African American Catholics incorporate music, preaching and Church aesthetics into liturgy in order to create a unique identity as African Americans and as Catholics.

Only 41% of Black Catholics report having heard a homily on race in the 12 months prior to completing the survey and only 31% reported hearing a homily on political engagement in the same time period. The reckoning around systemic racism that we have seen over the last year has demonstrated that it is long past time for the church to regard racism as a pro-life issue. For this reason, these findings are also a call to action. A thunderous 77% of Black Catholics said that "opposition to racism is essential to what being Christian means to them," yet, only 41% reported having heard a homily on race in the twelve months prior to completing the survey. Many Black Catholics are not getting a message at Mass that they identify as something essential to being a Christian.

While most of the data were collected before the reckoning around systemic racism began in the wake of George Floyd's murder in 2020, these shocking, but not surprising, numbers will add up to losing Black Catholics if we don't see 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 consider essential to being a Christian provides some insight as to why so many Black Catholics leave the church. The results for young adults only exacerbate this situation.

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