The challenge of being black and Catholic in the U.S.

A few years ago I interviewed my friend, Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, about being “black and Catholic in America”. It is worth revisiting during Black History Month, as Deacon Harold addresses a number of important topics. Here is one of them:

IgnatiusInsight.com: What specific challenges and issues do black Catholics face in the United States today? How are they being addressed?

Deacon Burke-Sivers: I believe that in the black Catholic community, the challenges are two-fold: material (substance abuse, violent crime, absent fathers and the disintegration of family life, as mentioned above) and spiritual (moral relativism, sexual promiscuity, subjective truth, and the influence of liberal theology). Both the material and spiritual influences represent serious affronts to our Catholic convictions and gravely hinder evangelization efforts.

In the face of these challenges, combating the tangled web of systemic racism cannot be the sole response since racism cannot answer the deeper, more serious questions that black Catholics need to ask: Where are our husbands and fathers? Are we so preoccupied with getting drunk or high, or so obsessed with material wealth that we cannot notice what is happening to our children, to our future? Why have street gangs replaced families? Are we so busy watching pornography or sleeping around that we have become completely oblivious to the fact we are treating each other as “things” and objects, and not as equal persons made in the image and likeness of God? Do we even care? To answer these questions we must not simply look outward at the culture in order to accuse and blame. We must also take a serious look inward: we must examine ourselves, rediscover the beauty and truth of our Catholic heritage, and renew our commitment to live the teachings of our Catholic faith with courage, fidelity and enthusiasm!

The most critical issue that black Catholics face today is also the principal threat to our existence: abortion. “Historically, children were always welcomed in African American families, no matter the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy. Tragically, that tradition is changing before our very eyes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Black women are about twelve percent of the female population, but account for thirty-five percent of all abortions” (Michelle Williams, “Abortion and the Black Community”). According to census data for the year 2000, abortion has eliminated between fourteen and fifteen million of black Americans since 1973, a total equal to the combined population of eight mid-western states. “Abortion is shrinking our churches, schools, communities and congressional districts, as well as our future” (Gloria Purvis, “What Will It Take to Respect Life in the Black Community?”).

As a people, African Americans do a great job raising awareness around issues such as poverty, affirmative action, racism and civil rights, but if we continue to kill ourselves through this egregious abuse of our freedom, there will not be enough of us around for anyone to notice. When we allow abortion, we actually assist in and encourage the elimination of our race, something that hate groups could not accomplish for decades in this country (cf. Purvis). For the black Catholics, and indeed for the entire African American community, abortion is not about opinion or choice: it’s a matter of life and death.

In order to combat the challenges of contemporary society and culture, we must rediscover and build upon the solid foundation of our faith; a faith that forms the heart and soul of our spiritual identity as Black Catholics. “Inasmuch as all people are called to a life of holiness, we as black people faithful to the Holy Spirit and our Church’s teachings, must seek to pray and work in the spirit of our ancestors in the Faith” (NBCC Congress IX, Spirituality Principle). We must respond with courage, conviction, and unwavering faith to our baptismal call to holiness, to answer Christ’s challenge to “be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 6:48): to “shoulder the responsibility laid upon us by our Baptism into the Body of Christ. This responsibility is to proclaim our faith and to take an active part in building up the Church” (What We Have Seen and Heard, 18). In short, we must nurture and cultivate a deep and abiding love for our Lord Jesus Christ in his one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

Read the entire interview on Ignatius Insight. For more about Deacon Harold and his apostolate, see Jim Graves’ profile, “Becoming Men of Christ”.


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About Carl E. Olson 1112 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.