A journal of academic theology

December 2000 editorial

After long silence, Theological Studies has begun to make amends for its shameful avoidance of the evil of racism in the United States. To accomplish this task, the editorial board has invited a team of African American Catholic theologians to reflect of this painful neglect especially in the light of the thirtieth anniversary of Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone, who also participates in this analysis. I am especially grateful to my colleague Professor M. Shawn Copeland for her collaboration and I have invited her in the following guest editorial to orient readers with introductory reflections.

Michael A. Fahey, S.J.

Guest Editorial

I am pleased to have been invited to write this guest editorial for the thematic issue of Theological Studies devoted to the Catholic reception of Black theology. For only the second time in 25 years, an entire issue of this academic journal has intentionally commissioned articles on a specific paradigm shift in theology. In 1975 the theme was women and the emergence of feminist theology; now in 2000, the theme is James Cones seminal role in the emergence of Black theology and its reception by Catholics. Still, this is not the first time Theological Studies has published a discussion of Black theology. In 1972 and 1974, John J. Carey of Florida State University attempted to grapple with and learn from Black theology and to involve Catholic theologians in the conversation. Since then, however, the pages of this journal have been silent about the most creative contemporary theological movement on the North American continent.

Now 26 years since Carey’s last article, Black Catholic theologians and historians have been asked to explore the fertility and proposals of Black theology in relation to our religious tradition. These reflections are enriched by James Cones serious reading and assessment. For, more than most Black theologians, Cone takes seriously Black Catholic theology and Black Catholic theologians. Indeed, over the years, he has made himself available to us for advice and encouragement, conversation and consultation, collegiality and friendship. Rather than offer specific responses to these articles, Cone engages, questions, and critiques the basic contours of an emergent theology committed to the experience of being Black and Catholic. He has identified four issues in doing Black Catholic theology: identity, authority, resources, and theological vocation. While Cone aims his critique and challenge directly at Black Catholic theologians, he has much to say to our White Catholic colleagues as well.

Identity: That the question of identity and identity-formation remains such a sharp point for African American Catholics discloses the pervasive and insidious character of White racist supremacy, as well as the putative normativity and privilege of whiteness. Historically, the normativity and privilege of whiteness have allowed the U.S. Catholic Church to treat the presence of Black Catholics as an anomaly or an embarrassment, to borrow a description from the African American historian of religions Charles Long. Thus, it is not surprising that Black Catholic retrieval of our presence, our history, and our contributions to the Church constitute a crucial dimension (perhaps, even a phase) in the development of Black Catholic theology. In this regard, Cone observes that Cyprian Daviss The History of Black Catholics in the United States has proved most persuasive. In this issue of TS, Davis further expands our knowledge of African and African American Catholicism by introducing to us a number of ordinary men and women who led extraordinary lives. My own article focuses on an incipient theological inclination among 19th-century African American Catholics, reads contemporary cultural retrieval as popular religion, and clarifies how traditioning contributes to the constitution of cultural, social, and existential identity. These efforts wish to uncover the particular, partial, and limited character of history and to contest the erasure and distortion of Black men and women as Church.

Still, Cone pushes Black Catholic theologians beyond retrieval and recitation of history, however important and necessary this may be. He is suspicious, and perhaps rightly so, of the romantic power of history. Cone is wary that Black Catholic theologians may linger too long at Clios well and forget that the original root of the word history connotes judging evidence in order to separate fact from fiction, or act from aspiration. But, if the cardinal sins of Black religious experience and Black theology are self-hatred and body-shame, then history has a crucial and healing function. It uncovers Black deeds and doings, nurtures identity, and affirms Black being and Black existence.

But, blackness remains a highly charged signifier. Cultural historians tell us that denial and degradation of the human potential and communal achievements of one cultural or ethnic group by an other is not unusual. In the U.S. such denial and degradation were part of the European immigrant experience. Still, this is a nation built on race: skin color was manipulated to demarcate one group from among others, to distinguish partial from whole humanity, to denote stigma and negation. For Blacks, negation is not only a cultural or social group experience, but deeply personal, intimate, and psychic. Black men and women endure negation as racial embodiment: to be Black is to incarnate negativity, criminality, to be what is foul, loathsome, and repugnant. To be Black is to be negationto be no thing.

White racist supremacy continues to have a profound impact on the Churchs mission, self-understanding, and love affair with the past and tradition. Cones critique resonates with those of two other contributors to this issue, Jamie Phelps and Bryan Massingale, both of whom reproach the slumber of our Church and our colleagues in the face of White racisms heretical appropriation of the gospel and its dehumanization of Blacks and Whites. Both of these authors help us to name White racist supremacy as personal and social sin, as a vicious and habitual way of seeing, judging, and acting. White racist supremacy is embedded in the meanings and values that (de)form us as persons and community, manifest in individual and social performance, and operative and integral to so many of our social, cultural, and ecclesial (administrative, pastoral, and educational) institutions.

Recently a Black Catholic student enrolled in the Institute for Black Catholic Studies, Xavier University of Louisiana, recounted a painful encounter while participating in the liturgy in a predominantly White parish. A White woman, after exchanging the greeting of peace with this student, wiped her hands with tissue as if to remove the soil. This scandalous example illustrates how White racism deforms the existential and sacramental realization of Eucharist. Consider too the protracted intransigence toward Black and Womanist theologies among otherwise well-read Catholic theological faculty members; the neglect of those faculty members to encourage Black Catholic students in theology; the failure of our most progressive and gifted theologians to interrogate the interaction of gender, race, and class; the overdependence upon European theological and philosophical sources so insufficient for dealing with White Americas intractable racism. When will White Catholic theologians acknowledge the insights of Black theology as a permanently valid theological achievement? What other name can one give to this refusal and exclusion of Black insights but scotosis? White racist supremacy is the scotoma of Catholic theology. If there is a need for a serious and exacting Black Catholic theology that goes well beyond historical retrieval, there is an even more urgent need for White Catholic theologians to critique White racist supremacy within Church and society.

Authority: The authority of Black theology is rooted in Black experience. From the outset, Black theology has understood itself as Black peoples theology, that is, a theology primarily of Black people, for Black people, and oriented toward their authentic well being. There is a synergy, then, between identity and theology, between Black identity and Black theology. For more than 30 years, James Cone has upheld the binding authority for Black theology in all matters as the Black experience of oppression. In Black theologys mediation of faith, this experience is the ultimate test of truth. As Diana Hayes spells out in her article, Black theology conceives and promulgates a narrative and a testimony that critiques the ideological deformation of the Christian tradition, that shatters structures of domination and injustice, and that fosters new and meaningful realities. This entails speaking the truth to Black people as well as to those forces and powers that seek to thwart the flourishing of Black humanity.

For Cones taste, Black Catholic theologians have been far too irenic on this issue. He insists that the distinctiveness and power of Black Catholic theology can come only from friction and intellectual resistance. Cone asserts that if Blacks are part of Catholic tradition, they should have no problem in critiquing that tradition. The absence of struggle is disappointing to him. In his judgment, the lack of critique insinuates a model of Black Catholic theology as assimilationist. I would ask, however, whether the obverse is not equally the case? If Blacks are part of Catholic tradition there ought to be no problem in working within the tradition.

Black Catholic theologians, like all theologians, make choices. No one ought to assume that the mere absence of public protest is synonymous with acquiescence and internalization of those iniquitous values and decisions detrimental to our people, our faith, and our theology. At the same time, because we are doing theology and history from within a Church with a highly stratified, complex, and deliberate polity, Black Catholic theologians and historians are obliged to employ more self-critical methods. We recognize our need to be ever alert to the dangers of silence, deference, and convenient assent, skills that serve shabby academic or ecclesiastical careerism but have no place in authentic scholarly and pastoral praxis. So when we Black Catholic theologians commit ourselves to fidelity to the authority of tradition, we take as our task the formulation of a critical theology that mediates between Black Catholic communities of witness and worship on the one hand and the racist religious and cultural matrices in which they exist on the other. We situate the authority of our theology in the mission and ministry, death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, as witnessed in Scripture and Black experience.

Resources: Here, Cones critique of Black Catholic theologians is most pointed. Some Black and White Catholics as well as Black and White Protestants would agree with his remarks. But, Cone, if any one, should know what it is to be rebuked for drawing upon the very best of ones theological education. His Black Theology of Liberation, published just 30 years ago, was challenged emphatically for its reliance upon the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth. Yet, openness to what is new or other or different is a hallmark of the African personality wherever it appears. In order to respond to the existential, social, and religious needs of Black Catholics, we as Black Catholic theologians must continue to steep our work in the resources of Black history, culture, and experience as well as the best of our confessional tradition. Indeed, Black Catholic theologians were among the first to employ social analysis and to grapple with African cultural retentions in doing Black theology. We will continue to draw upon the best theoretical resources and analytical tools that we can muster in order to articulate a theology that meets the material and spiritual needs of our people.

Theological Vocation: No disagreement exists between Black Catholic theologians and James Cone in grasping the purpose and task of Black theology as passionate participation in reasoned inquiry on behalf of Gods oppressed and despised people. If our theology is to be authentic Christian theology, it must be identified with the oppressed and despised, and it must struggle against their condition. Theology, then, concerns matters of life and death.

White racist supremacy constitutes a most grave threat to the Roman Catholic Church and to Catholic theologians. Racism coerces the surrender of the Absolute to the finite and arbitrary; it deifies the empirical, and the accidental. White racist supremacy contradicts the very nature of the Church. In an economic moment in which prosperity is joined to social Darwinism, Catholic theologians are called not only to rigorous doctrinal inquiry but to doctrinal defense of Black life and being, indeed, defense of the lives all women and men who are despised and hated for their very existence. In a cultural moment in which justice is confused and laden with racial and gender contradictions, Catholic theologians must advocate moral and ethical forms of Christian social praxis, attentive to particularity and authentic diversity. In a spiritual moment, awash in enervating fervor, Catholic theologians must advance a radical critique in which the Church’s sinful complicity with the crimes of White racist supremacy in the making of the modern world is rendered unmistakably clear. Only by confronting and combating White racist supremacy can we take the first steps toward realizing ourselves as the Body of Christ.

James Cone uncovers the poignancy of the social and confessional location of Black Catholic theologians: Black Protestants and White Catholics create a dilemma for us. On the one hand, Black Protestant theologians have given little sustained attention to doctrinal questions as these are articulated from within their respective confessional or religious traditions. These men and women have been preoccupied with the suffering and repression of Black people within a racist country that clings to its Christian heritage even as it grows embarrassed by that heritage. On the other hand, White Catholic theologians have concentrated on doctrinal questions and set their intellectual compass by Europe, Germany in particular. These men and women have accorded little attention to a theological interrogation of the intersection of gender, race, and class in the U.S. In the last decade, Black Catholic theologians have inserted these issues in doctrinal questions of theological anthropology and ecclesiology, and we have refused to separate intellectual rigorous theology from pastoral needs. We are not the only U.S. theologians, of course, attempting such a critically liberating analysis; indeed, our Latino and Native American colleagues know what intellectual courage, personal discipline, and emotional fortitude such work entails. But we Black Catholic scholars are conspicuous by the subtle and not so subtle rejections and exclusions we receive from Blacks and Whites from our own. Oddly, for neither group are we black enough! But, we take our bearings from Augustine of Hippo, the African theologian and bishop of the Latin West: we solve the dilemma by walking putting one foot after another on ground that sometimes is firm, that sometimes gives way, but we walk. We strive to mediate a theology that takes Black and Catholic experience seriously, that rejects segregation in any form, but that is forced by the pastoral neglect and disregard of white clergy and hierarchy to develop separate sites for the spiritual and intellectual life of our people. Moreover, history compels us to be wary of White Catholic attempts at integration and inclusion. We need only to recall the frustration of the work of the Black Catholic Congresses of the 19th century, the undermining of the Federated Colored Catholics in the early 20th century, and the waves of closure of Black Catholic schools and parishes.

The reader who suspects that these editorial reflections may be a kind of reply to James Cone is not entirely mistaken; however, these issues of identity, authority, the character and use of resources, and the demands of a theological vocation will continue to engage and stimulate Black Catholic theologians and historians. The idea for this special issue of TS began as a way to honor Professor James Cone for more than 30 years of fearless, serious, and intellectually imaginative theology. The authors fulfill this intention not so much by repeating what Cone has written, but by doing what he did and does. We make his obligation our own: to write a theology that critiques and challenges, that consoles and nourishes, that insists on and fights for the sacred character of a sacred Black human life, even and especially our own.

M. Shawn Copeland
Associate Professor of Theology, Marquette University

Scroll to Top