Sinful and Holy: The Human Nature of the Church

The Church, like every human organization, is susceptible to sin.

Christ, who established the Church as a universal community of believers to proclaim the kingdom of God, recognized the godliness and the human frailties of those he called and upon whom he built the Church. The Church has persevered over millenia despite the failings of its members, leadership, and at times, the whole Christian community because its fundamental nature is human and divine, sinful and holy, praise God! Effective catechesis of this diunital truth ought to inspire the active engagement of the faithful in the Church, confident in its traditions and works. Committed, despite the stinging critique of conservatives and progressives; constant even when the Church’s scandals make the evening news. The intention of this essay is to shine historical light on racial injustice in the Body of Christ and its impact on the beloved of God, who are charged by Christ with carrying out the evangelizing mission of the Church in the modern world.

The Catholic Church officially planted itself in the U.S. national culture that, according to any version of history with integrity, was founded on and is dominated by the heresy of white supremacy.

Thus, for the purposes of this discussion, the following definitions will be used: white supremacy professes the superiority of the white race and culture over all others. The doctrine of white exceptionalism entitles white folk to unique socio-economic privileges, key among them is the dominance of white culture in the establishment of the status quo. Anti-Blackness is a prominent feature of white supremacy that presents in racially prejudicial thoughts, words, actions and attitudes against Black life. Racism is the indiscriminate and structural abuse of power on the basis of race.[1]

The Catholic Church’s engagement with white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and racism is evidenced in the European-American transatlantic slave trade that lasted from the 16th to the 19th century.

European Catholic bishops, governments, religious congregations, missionaries, enslavers, and merchants participated in the procurement, sale, purchase, and transportation of natives from West and Central Africa to various points in the Americas for the purpose of building New World economies and cultures. Pope Gregory XVI condemned the slave trade in his 1839 apostolic letter, In Supremo Apostolatus. In the United States, the Catholic Church was so invested in the business of domestic slavery – bishops, priests, religious, and laity “owned’ and trafficked enslaved people – that Pope Gregory XVI’s ban and the moral dilemma it raised in light of the gospels were virtually ignored.[2]

By the end of the Civil War, there was no ignoring the predicament, but “(t)he bishops did not bring credit to themselves in their failure to work for a unified and practical way to meet the crisis caused by the emancipation of the slaves…Men like Spalding and Verot appreciated the gravity of the situation. Many of the other bishops, however, perhaps sharing too much in the resentment many felt toward the freed slaves after the Civil War, could not understand the concern for blacks.”[3]

Entrenched as they were in white supremacy and anti-Black sentiment, the U.S. hierarchy could not mobilize in any meaningful way on behalf of those formerly enslaved.

Some Catholic clergy extended spiritual care to Black people. Their efforts at evangelization and catechesis transmitted the faith in the European Catholic culture of the day. In Sunday liturgy, the Good News was preached as Black congregants stood outside or in the back of churches.  If they could even receive Holy Communion, black communicants received last. Although pastoral ministry was erratic and compromised by race relations of the times, through God’s grace and the people’s faithful endurance, African Americans were initiated into the Church. Many neophytes grew strong in communion with the Body of Christ, despite the fact that they were treated, at best, as second-class members of their Church.

This very concise snapshot of the root of the infection of white supremacist ideology and racism that has grown up inside the Body of Christ in the U.S. Catholic Church shows that, for all its good and faithful service, the institutional Church consistently stands in solidarity with the ignorance of American anti-Blackness rather than the wisdom of the Christian gospels.

Centuries of complicity in the dehumanization of Black life continue to present in anti-Black mindsets and racial injustice in Catholic structures, from the highest levels of Church leadership down to the neighborhood parish. Despite these systemic failings, the Church perseveres and even thrives where it stands in the light of Christ.  A persistent Black discipleship looked beyond the racism of the Church to follow Christ’s lead. From a few seeds of faith, hope and love grew a Black Catholic community nurtured by African American congregations of women religious, clergy, lay leaders and organizations who evangelized their own people and others as well. 

People of God, the Church is human and divine, sinful and holy, praise God!

By the mid-20th century, social revolution throughout the world necessitated St. Pope John XXIII’s call for Vatican Council II (1962-1965). Preserving the core of Catholic dogma and doctrine, the council opened the windows of the Universal Church to encounter 20th century society with its ills and blessings, to more effectively evangelize. The first conciliar document, Sacrosanctum Concilium sets a tone:

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebration which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people” (1 Peter: 2:9; cf.2:4-5) is their right and duty by virtue of their baptism.[4]

In the subsequent documents, the council connects the role of the laity in worship with equally “full, conscious and active” engagement in the life of the Church and society. Lumen Gentium (1964), realigns the true nature of the Church to reflect the whole people of God and its mission to share the good news of Christ with the world. Christ, the light of the world, is present in the Catholic Church that is not perfect but on its way to the Kingdom of God. Gaudium et Spes (1965) situates Christ right in the middle of the modern world, emphasizing his relevance in every aspect of human life. He is central to the dignity of humanity and its calling: the environment and communities where God’s people live; their human cultures: family, work and neighborhood; their politics – local, national and international.

The Second Vatican Council happened during the course of the U.S. Civil Rights/Black Power movements. Between them was a confluence of ideas regarding full participation of folks previously relegated to the margins. The Pre-Vatican II role of the laity was passive: pay, pray and obey. As African Americans fought to achieve full citizenship in the nation they built, segments of the Black Catholic community were energized by council teachings that affirmed Christ’s solidarity with the struggle for Black liberation and welcomed Black gifts in the life of the Church.

Although social and Church doors were opened for the U.S. hierarchy to evangelize in spirit and in truth after the council, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and racism virtually closed those doors on African Americans as the hierarchy downplayed council teachings that called all the faithful to maturity through a “full, conscious, and active” participation of faith.

The promise of Vatican II was never fully realized, to the detriment of the entire U.S. Church.

In this modern era, the Black Catholic Church celebrates the recent news that Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C. has been appointed by Pope Francis to the College of Cardinals. At the same time, the Black Catholic Church notes a decline in the numbers of African American priests, African American bishops in active ministry, and African American religious sisters. Yes, there exists a modest library of official U.S. Catholic documents on the topic of racism. And this current season of unrest has provoked hot and heavy dialogue in Catholic circles about the disparities of the pandemic in Black communities, the recurring involvement of police in the murders of unarmed Black women and men, and the noisy demands for social justice in Black Lives Matter protests. However, once again, we are reminded of Cyprian Davis’ reports of the U.S. hierarchy in the post-Civil War era: the bishops do not “bring credit to themselves in their failure to work for a unified and practical way to meet the crisis.”

For me, it is fool-hardy to expect perfection of any human being, group, or institution, particularly one comprised of millions of members as is the U.S. Catholic Church. We are the Church, a flawed and sinful community of faith, in holy communion with the Creator God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit – in whose image and likeness every human being is made – none superior to another! We in the company of the Blessed Trinity, Mother Mary, the Saints and the saints, our beloved ancestors in faith intercede for us unceasingly! As a body of Christ in the modern world, let us be lifelong learners of our Catholic faith in order to promote Christian holiness and challenge the ungodliness in our midst.

Kathleen Dorsey Bellow, D.Min., is Director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies of Xavier University of Louisiana, a program of graduate pastoral theological studies and continuing education for Black Catholics, persons who minister with African American communities, and the Church at-large.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of Daily Theology’s Symposium on Racism, White Supremacy, & the Church. Click here for more information or sign up for our email list below to be notified of new posts!

[1] For more theological definitions of these terms, I refer you to Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics, eds. Vincent W. Lloyd and Andrew Prevot, (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2017).
[2] Cyprian Davis, The History of Black Catholics in the United States (New York: CrossroadPublishing, 1990), 39-41.
[3] Ibid, 121.
[4] Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 14.