Academic journal article Theological Studies

Tradition and the Traditions of African American Catholicism

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Tradition and the Traditions of African American Catholicism

Article excerpt

TO SPEAK ABOUT TRADITION and the traditions of African American Catholicism is not without contention.(1) Almost from the beginning, indeed, even now, the faith praxis of African American Catholics has been met with arrogance and suspicion. These reactions stem chiefly from the notion that African American Christianity is restricted to, if not identical with, a certain form of Protestantism. This misconception has been absorbed not only into our religious, cultural, and social commonsense, but has been formalized in scholarship, that is, in the prevailing American religious and social historiography. On the one hand, authoritative voices among Catholic historians, sociologists, and theologians treat the notion of the immigrant church as the primary interpretative paradigm for Catholic life and thought in the United States. But since African Americans are not immigrants, this paradigm is not only insufficient to mediate the experience of African American Catholics and, thus, cannot account for their appropriation and transmission of the faith, but reduces African American Catholicism to a 20th-century phenomenon.(2) Moreover, these scholars isolate African American Catholicism to certain geographic areas, specifically, New Orleans and Baltimore, thereby, correlating authenticity with geography. On the other hand, social historians, sociologists, and theologians of African and African diasporic experience, assuming African American Catholicism to be a 20th-century phenomenon, have rendered African American Catholics either invisible or a curiosity before the 1960s.(3) But most importantly, these scholars take little, if any, notice of the spiritual and religious agency of Black Catholics, and too often impute opportunistic motives to their embrace of the faith.(4)

It would seem, then, that given the intimate relation between history and Tradition, the theologian who wishes to reflect on the Black Catholic community's reception and transmission of Tradition confronts either an excessively limited or apologetic, and nearly impossible task.(5) However, with the publication of The History of Black Catholics in the United States,(6) Black Benedictine monk and historian Cyprian Davis laid down a serious challenge to the contentions that the Catholic Church in North America is an immigrant church and that African American Christianity is identical to a certain form of Protestantism. Although, there had been challenges to this conceptualization of American religious history prior to Davis's work, his research has mounted the most sustained and detailed overview of African American Catholicism.(7)

In The History of Black Catholics in the United States, Davis presents a complex portrait of African American ecclesial loyalty and sanctity in the teeth of segregation and rejection, indifferent pastoral care, and few episcopal champions. He has found and reconstructed the lost and overlooked history of slaves and free people of color in Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, and New York; of the men and women of the Lay Society of the Holy Family who, after nearly two years of weekly meetings for prayer, singing, catechesis, and devotional reading, found themselves and their library pushed by a deliberate load of lumber from the Baltimore basement of Calvert Hall.

The History of Black Catholics in the United States fills in our picture of women living vowed religious life behind the veil of segregation--Elizabeth Lange, Henriette Delille, and Juliette Gaudin; of Mathilda Beasley;(8) of the struggles of the first recognizable Black Catholic priests Augustus Tolton and Charles Uncles;(9) of the heroic charity and goodness of Pierre Toussaint; of the determination and courage of Harriet Thompson who, in 1853, wrote directly to Pope Pius IX protesting the shabby treatment of Black Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York;(10) of evangelists Lincoln and Julia Valle who began Milwaukee's St. Benedict the Moor Mission;(11) of Professor Thomas Wyatt Turner founder of the 1916 Committee for the Advancement of Colored Catholics which had among its purposes "the propagation of the Faith among colored people. …

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