National Black Catholic Survey and Congress

The National Black Catholic Congress, with some 3,000 delegates representing the nation’s 3 million-plus African-Americans, is meeting in Indianapolis from Thursday, July 19th ending Saturday, July 21, 2012.  Rocco Palmo has the background story here. He wonders about how likely this story will be covered by the Full-Salaried Media given all the attention that surrounded last week’s triennial General Convention of the Episcopal church in Indianapolis, which has a million less members. 

His article inspired me to do a little searching myself. Lo and behold, this Congress will have a presentation based upon a major study, the first of its kind, of African-American Catholics done by Notre Dame social scientists Darren W. Davis and Donald B. Pope-Davis. The press release of November 17, 2011 struggled to get off the ND website but eventually landed on NCR in a story of February 2, 2012, entitled “Black Catholics are more engaged.” NCR asked for and received access to the full study in late December 2011, so they have more information.

Summary of the Study

We have long known but often ignored the fact that black Protestants (66%) are more engaged than white Protestants (46%) in their congregations. This study showed that black Catholics (59%) are more engaged than white Catholics (35%) in their parishes.

While the study found only 30.4% of white Catholics attended church at least once a week, 48.2% of African-American Catholics said they did so, rising to 57.6% in a predominantly black parish. Ethnicity of the parish helped church attendance with only 33.9% reporting weekly attendance in predominantly white parishes.

Social networking was most important for black Protestants (36.5%), then white Protestants (28.4%) and black Catholics (26.9%), while only to 8% of white Catholics said that it was important to have friends that attend the same congregation.

Both the attendance and social networking findings are very important since the book American Grace found these two variables together produce greater health, life satisfaction, and giving of time and money to both religious and civic organizations

The generation gap experienced among white Catholics has not affected younger black Catholics (not much detail on this).

Black Catholics are much more likely to seek the advice of a priest than white Catholics.

Less than a fourth of U.S. black Catholics thought their church is racist against African-American Catholics, but only 37 percent to 45 percent were satisfied or very satisfied with the way the church promoted or supported various black issues.

Interpretation of the Study

Some might dismiss these findings as not interesting since the combination of ethnicity and religion, e.g. Polish Catholics, Irish Catholics, generally produces greater religiosity, especially when the ethnicity is under duress from outside forces. The situation of African American Catholics, however, is much more complex and its understanding deserves greater attention.

Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington who has served African American parishes for all but four years of his priesthood has some interesting interpretations of the study on his blog.

On the positive contributions of Black Culture to liturgy, Msgr. Pope says:

Blacks, unlike most Whites,  share a kind of “sacred culture.” What I mean by this is that spirituals and Gospel Music permeate Black culture…And this shared “sacred culture” finds a vibrant expression in the Mass in the form of Gospel music, joyful exuberance, call and response, lively interaction with the preaching though affirmations like “Amen!….Yes!….Go on preacher!…..Yes Lord!…..Hallelujah…….applause, a stomp, raised hands and so forth.

I think it is this shared sacred culture which has made the “New Mass” work so well in the African American setting. The traditional Latin Mass had a kind of “built in” culture and ethos, a certain music that was prescribed and so forth. But the new Mass stripped a lot of that away, and allowed the local culture to supply more.

That of course works well only when there is a sacred culture to draw on. White America had become largely secularized by 1970 and so the “culture” we ended up drawing on was questionable at best, a kind of Peter Paul and Mary folk sound, and a hat tip to the “protest songs” of the 1960s college crowd.

But in the Black community a sacred music and culture was ready at hand for Catholics to draw on, a music and ethos that powerfully and creatively lifts up God and praises his glory, sings of our “troubles,” but also describes how God brings us “through.” And in Gospel music, the focus is always on God rather than the “gathered community” so often emphasized in Catholic contemporary music.

 There were also many other elements I have already mentioned (e.g. spontaneous acclamations) that made the “participatory” element in the New Mass an easy transition for African American Catholics.

On the challenge of Black Culture to Catholic preaching, Msgr. Pope says:

Yes, frankly, we in the Church have not done so well in training priests and deacons to minister well in the things valued most highly by African Americans. Preaching is highly valued among Blacks, and they generally prefer a longer sermon than most Whites. However, more than time, the sermon moment that is preferred is one in which the preacher carefully breaks open the Word of God in a way that is enthusiastic, creative, informative and easily applied for the up coming week. Most African Americans don’t what to hear only the “what,” but also the “so what” and the “now what” of God’s Word.

 The “say it in seven” mentality, common in Catholic training, that prizes brevity over anything else is also not a helpful approach. It is quite difficult to preach a transformative homily, (wherein the Word is read, analyzed, organized, illustrated and applied), in seven minutes. Hence African Americans are often less than satisfied with the Sunday sermons they hear from most Catholic priests and deacons, especially compared to what they hear in the Protestant settings they often have contact with.

Pray Tell readers may have some observations and interpretations of their own.

From the Congress program: A four page Executive Summary of the National Black Catholic Survey conducted by the University of Notre Dame is available hereA single page of highlights with some interesting charts is available here.  A complete copy of the National Black Catholic Survey is available for purchase. Each booklet is $15 and it will provide an in-depth look into the survey that has helped shape our pastoral plan for 2012-2017. Please contact Megan Purpora at 410-740-5077 or email to place your order.

Jack Rakosky, who drafted this post, has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology, and spent twenty years in applied research and program evaluation in the public mental health system. His current main interest is voluntarism, especially among highly educated people at retirement age.


7 responses to “National Black Catholic Survey and Congress”

  1. Fr. Ron Krisman Avatar
    Fr. Ron Krisman


    Perhaps your first sentence should read: 3 million-plus African-American Catholics, ???

    1. Jack Rakosky Avatar
      Jack Rakosky

      @Fr. Ron Krisman – comment #1:

      You are correct. Unfortunately I am not a very good proof-reader. I test at about the level of an average nineth grader.

  2. Ann Riggs Avatar
    Ann Riggs

    I think most whites are generally ignorant of the rich history and tradition of black Catholics in the U.S., esp. in places like Baltimore, St Louis, and New Orleans.
    One place where mass texts do reflect a “white” mentality is in the Preface for Mass for Thanksgiving (the November holiday). There is a line in there about “our fathers” coming to this land in search of freedom. Most blacks came deprived of their freedom (and the Hispanics were already here).
    I highly recommend the book by the Rev. Brian Massingale of Marquette University, entitled _Racial Justice and the Catholic Church_ for an insider’s view of black Catholicism in the U. S.

  3. Samuel J. Howard Avatar

    I’m skeptical of the usefulness of “African-American” as a category in this kind of survey work. Here in New York at least, this is a very heterogeneous group. We have some historically black parishes (e.g. in Harlem), but a great proportion of “African-American/Black Catholics” seem to be made up of recent immigrants from Africa, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.

    Questions like the greater religious engagement of younger African-American Catholics as opposed to that of “white” Catholics. How much of this is related to an effect of the recent immigration… the younger average (it seems) age of the population, etc. etc. “African-American” barely scratches the analytic surface it seems.

    1. Jack Rakosky Avatar
      Jack Rakosky

      @Samuel J. Howard – comment #4:

      It is unfortunate that this study did not follow the practice of Pew and other media savvy research organizations who release an executive summary which serves as a press release that enables everyone to decide whether of not they want to “dig deeper” and the full study often in both html and pdf format. This enables people who are interested to generate more stories and interest by bring their experience and interpretations to the data.

      No many people or organizations are willing to go to NCR’s length of requesting the full study. It means that you do a story out of the news cycle, and when you do the story there is no easy way to check how much selectivity NCR did in their reporting. Even if I ordered the study and wrote it up for PTB, you would have similar questions and would be more likely to respond to the study if you had access to it on the internet. I have a lot of questions about the study I would like answered, too.

      I might not even have posted the story, except that I came across Msgr. Pope’s interesting comments, and decide to use them as a means of trying to elicit additional observations and comments.

      This study is good PR for African-Americans, for its says that not only are African American Protestants in historic Black denominations much more religiously engaged so also are African American Catholics in predominately Black parishes.

      This study is good PR for American Catholics because it says that we do not have to go to Conservative denominations for a model of religious engagement, we have one right here in predominantly Black parishes. It is the Catholic Mass and it is in English.

      Too bad it seems to be getting little attention anywhere.

  4. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky

    Black Women Are Among Country’s Most Religious Groups

    On July 6th the Washington Post published this article in a local section, and of course it was picked up by only a dozen other entities.

    according to a nationwide survey conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser F amily Foundation. The poll, the most extensive look at black women’s lives in decades, reveals that as a group, black women are among the most religious people in the nation. Although black men are almost as religious as their female counterparts, there is a more stark divide along racial lines.

    The survey found that 74 percent of black women and 70 percent of black men said that “living a religious life” is very important. On that same question, the number falls to 57 percent of white women and 43 percent of white men.

    But in times of turmoil, about 87 percent of black women — much more than any other group — say they turn to their faith to get through. Black women, across education and income levels, say living a religious life is a greater priority than being married or having children, and this call to faith either surpasses or pulls even with having a career as a life goal, the survey shows.

    But cultural influences probably account for the racial gap, said Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Colby College in Maine.

    Gilkes, an African American ordained minister and assistant pastor at a Baptist church in Massachusetts, said she has even heard as much from her white academic colleagues. “They say, ‘If my parents had taken me to a church that had music like yours, I might still be religious,’ ” Gilkes said.

    African Americans are more likely to have grown up with gospel music in the background of their lives, as well as with a mother or grandmother who insisted on all-day church on Sundays and Bible school in the summers

    1. Jack Rakosky Avatar
      Jack Rakosky

      @Jack Rakosky – comment #6:

      MULTIMEDIA | Interviews with six black women focus on family life, success and self-esteem, which were identified as major themes in a nationwide survey conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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