The Church and Racial Questions

With today’s push for the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) and Critical Race Theory (CRT), Catholic schools need to be on guard as they open up again, as do our other Catholic institutions. It’s embarrassing to see would-be Catholic college athletic teams brandish BLM insignia on their uniforms, apparently unaware of the positions of that organization, which are diametrically opposed to the teachings of the Church. Similarly, not a few Catholic school administrators have jumped onto the CRT bandwagon, rather uncritically, requiring diocesan officials to undo the damage, often at the behest of disturbed parents.

The Jesuits of Georgetown have committed themselves to pay reparations to atone for their slave-holding years. Indeed, the “Catholic Gentlemen of Maryland” (the legal name of the early Jesuits) were among the largest slave-owners – in open violation and defiance of consistent papal teaching forbidding both the trading and holding of slaves. If they want to right the record, let them pay, but why force their students to pony up? Neither the students nor their parents or grandparents were born then.

Just what is the Catholic score on racism and segregation in this country? Some, like New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Rummel excommunicated racists. Sadly, others – like the Jesuits – defied Church teaching or attempted to “massage” that teaching to blend in with the culture. On the whole, however, our story is positive and needs to be known by Catholic clergy and educators, the better to lead an informed conversation.

In the face of great opposition, the Church opened and maintained schools for blacks, whether Catholic or not.  That opposition often turned violent; in more polite circles, the sisters teaching in those schools were sometimes called “N****R nuns”!

Not infrequently, one hears the allegation that historically black parishes were evidence of “systemic” racism. In some instances, such parishes were established out of necessity where state laws prohibited “mixed” houses of worship. In the main, however, the erection of black parishes followed the same line of thought as was the case for the numerous “ethnic” parishes, desired by the ethnic groups themselves as a way of preserving their cultural heritage and of actually giving their own opportunities that might have eluded them in a “melting pot” scenario.

All four of my grandparents joined “national” parishes when they arrived in America and raised their children in them. No one thought they were thus marginalized; in point of fact, the move to eliminate such parishes met with no small degree of resistance, precisely because of the benefits.

The Church’s commitment to the education of black students is especially clear at Xavier University, one of the “historically black universities,” founded in 1925 by none other than St. Katherine Drexel as part of her apostolate of tending to the needs of people of color.


As a seminarian, I served as vice-principal of an inner-city parish school in Trenton, New Jersey. When the original furnace (from 1910) failed to fire up in 1972, the pastor announced that the parish did not have the $162,000 for a new model and that the school would probably not be able to re-open. The Black Ministerial Association of the West Ward informed the pastor that “Blessed Sacrament can’t close; the future of our community is in that school.” A special collection in all the black churches of the area came up with nearly $200,000 in less than two weeks.

In light of the above, it is unfortunate and unhelpful to have Catholic clergy fuel the flames of a negative narrative on the Church’s racial record.  On February 16, Al Roker of NBC’s TODAY show (black and a former Catholic, now on his third marriage) interviewed Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington (the highest-ranking black cleric in America), about Gregory’s elevation to the College of Cardinals, asking him why it took so long to get a black cardinal in America. Cardinal Gregory bewailed the allegedly pervasive racism in the country and indicated that this is also a serious phenomenon in the Church.

He observed that when he is dressed in clerical garb, he is treated with respect and even deference; in lay clothes (which he shouldn’t be), he has had negative experiences. A few days later, Father Bryan Massingale (a black priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, professor at Fordham University, and an LGBT activist) commented in similar fashion on the race issue (as is his wont).

I would like to apprise the two reverend gentlemen of some interesting data. I am not in favor of “affirmative action” (giving special consideration to representational recruitment/promotion), but if we’re going to have it, let’s consider a few home truths:

• There are roughly 3 million black Catholics in the country, with 250 priests (out of 40,000) and 16 bishops (out of 434). In other words, 6 percent of black priests are bishops.

• There are 9 million Polish Catholics in America, with approximately 2000 priests and 27 bishops. Simple math reveals that, while 6 percent of black priests are bishops, fewer than 1 percent of Polish priests are bishops.  Interestingly, every black bishop in the country is a convert owing to his attendance at a Catholic school, the only exception being Bishop Joseph Perry, auxiliary of Chicago, who was born into a Catholic family.

The criteria for an office ought to be competence and suitability, not race. But using the standard of “representation,” it should be Polish Catholics on the grievance line, not black Catholics.

When I worked for the Catholic League and engaged in conversations with Jewish leaders, I always counseled acknowledging past failures without dwelling on them, so as to move forward in a positive fashion. I counsel the same approach on the racial front today.

Two questions can serve as good conversation-starters: Are there white racists who hate blacks? Are there black racists who hate whites? Both groups of racists have a good chance of keeping each other company in Hell – if they don’t repent. The rest of us should co-operate in the Church’s main task: bringing all into the Kingdom.


*Image: Students singing in class at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Huntsville, Alabama, 1963, the first year that white students attended the school. [Photo by Jack Hamilton, Salvatorian Archives]

Father Peter Stravinskas holds doctorates in school administration and theology. He is the founding editor of The Catholic Response and publisher of Newman House Press. Most recently, he launched a graduate program in Catholic school administration through Pontifex University.