Allow African-Americans to Influence the Church

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 1997 | Go to article overview

Allow African-Americans to Influence the Church


Expression -- language, music, art -- is culture's DNA. The ultimate cultural expression is religious worship. Consider then the circumstances of Cyprian Rowe, formerly a Marist brother, leaving the Roman Catholic church to become a bishop in the African American Catholic church. That congregation was founded in 1989 by a former Roman Catholic priest, Fr. (now Archbishop) George Stallings.

Being African-American and Catholic in a church that says it pays more than lip service to the premise of inculturation should mean the opportunity, the right to practice, probe, play out, expand, re-create its culture within the entirety of that church. Not to dominate the church, but to enjoy a freedom freely given in order to develop this burgeoning identity-whether the final product is bits that blend in or bits that stick out or much of both.

Though some black U.S. Catholic bishops may argue otherwise, African-American Catholics find it difficult to develop their burgeoning spirituality in the Catholic church.

Racism to one side (easier said than done), the reason African-American Catholics are not allowed to both blend in and stick out is "political" as much as it is theological or liturgical. It is political in precisely the same way that "bilingualism" is political in the broader society. You've joined us, the one-culture forces say, now be enough like us to suit us.

The church institution, like society, wants the final say. In one sense, that's easy enough both to understand and to nod one's head to. But if we nod too quickly, what then are we culturally if we're not in/of the dominant group? The English poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold (in Culture and Anarchy, 1869) quoted a bishop to the effect that culture has no better motto "than to make reason and the will of God prevail." But Arnold added that culture has "a great passion: the passion for sweetness and light." And "a greater passion: the passion for making them prevail."

Now back to Rowe and African-American Catholics. "African" connotes a diversity of cultures. There is a unity to those cultures that stems from a continental homeland, a spiritual legacy, a set of hues and shared colonial history. …

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