There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus – Galatians 3:28
The Catholic Church in the United States has a long history of confronting our nation’s ugly record of racism. There has been a branch of the church confronting our racist past since the founding. The Catholic activist and thinkers of the past create a heritage of anti-racism which is carried on through Catholic activists today. The key characteristic of this tradition is addressing the specific issues afflicting marginalized communities. Examples of these modern Catholic activists are Father Micheal Pfleger of Chicago and the late Father Theodore Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame I hope to share this proud theological tradition and show how Catholics continue to live it out today.
Growing up Catholic, I was always aware that my church tried to incorporate different cultures into the tradition. Many of the hymns that were instrumental to my faith development such as “Lead me, Guide Me” have their roots in different cultures. While I knew that Catholics had a tendency to reach out to people of all backgrounds, I knew nothing about the church’s campaigns against racial injustice. It would take until my high school years when I met Father Theodore Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame that I knew that Catholics had a role in the Civil Rights movement. Father Hesburgh marched with Martin Luther King Jr. I have since learned the proud record Catholics have in the struggle.
Great men such as Theodore Hesburgh are not made in vacuum. They are heirs to the deeds and thoughts of Catholics who came before them. Thinkers in the 19th century such as Bishop Francis Kenrick of Philadelphia argued that the slave trade and the ownership of a slave’s labor was wrong. While he did not specifically believe that slavery was entirely immoral, one can see that he began a stream of anti-racist thought in the American Catholic imagination. The maverick Catholic intellectual Orestes Brownson also came out against slavery as an institution. The revelation that there were Catholics fighting slavery in the 20th century surprised me. While I could probably assume that there were Catholics involved in the struggle, it was refreshing to learn their names.
Catholics also played a role in the most prominent Civil rights battles of the 20th century. These Catholics fought on many different battlefields. For example, Issel and Wold describe the Catholics role in public housing fights in the first half of the 20th century in San Francisco. Catholics also tackled education and integration. Catholics in Memphis formed the Catholic Human Relations Council (CHRC). DeLong describes these Catholics who fought to integrate Memphis Catholic schools and communities. One small practical way they accomplished this goal was through attending mass at churches where pastors were resisting integration. Similar to how the Catholic role in the anti-slavery movement was molded by great men, the CHRC in Memphis was led by Father Leppert. Father Joseph Leppert chose to integrate his parish when other pastors were fighting against integration.
Chicago also has a proud history of Catholics fighting against racism. Chicago Catholics were involved in the Catholic Interracial Council (CIC) which managed civil rights initiatives in the city. Catholics in the Second City also marched against the first mayor Daley and fought for equal housing. I believe that there is a prominent overarching concern of Catholic communities which fought racism in modern Catholic history. These Catholic communities focused on the specific issues which afflicted their marginalized communities. This Catholic culture of protest and fighting racism is what St. Sabina’s Father Pfleger was influenced by.
Born in Chicago in 1949, Father Pfleger grew up in an era where Catholics were marching for equal rights for all citizens. He was raised in part of Chicago where the CIC was very active. One can argue that he is the direct heir of the anti-racist tradition described above. Similar to how Catholics of generation past marched for equal housing, Father Pleger led his faith community in march that shut down the Dan Ryan expressway. Father Pleger is the pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church in the south side of Chicago. Known throughout the city as a passionate advocate for those who he believes the city has forgotten.
When I attended mass at St. Sabina, I saw first hand how Father Pleger is the heir to the Catholic tradition outlined above by focusing on the issues afflicting his flock. One way he reflects this tradition is through the art he displays. Prominently displayed over the altar is a depiction of Jesus as an African American. This image, which can be seen at the beginning of this article, helps to make faith real and personal for his predominately African American congregation. The Catholic tradition asks its followers to make their relationship with Jesus real and meaningful, but this is difficult to do when Jesus never looks like you. The guest speaker for the Sunday has been so moved by the mural that he has it tattooed onto his body. In other words, Father Pfleger’s aesthetic decisions in the church directly influence and nurture his church’s faith community. By displaying this artwork, Father Pfleger is attending to his congregation’s spiritual problems.
The second way Father Pfleger is the heir to the Catholic tradition of attending to his marginalized community’s needs is that he preaches on topics that directly concern his flock. At the mass I attended, Father Pfleger let a former parishioner speak during the homily. He was a young doctor who grew up at St. Sabina. The main point of his talk was that people in disadvantaged communities need to see themselves in prominent roles and positions such as medicine and law in order to be inspired to succeed. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, one way to give a homily is to take the Gospel and apply it to a real world situation. Using this definition, would not having a speaker talk about the specific struggles of a faith community be the perfect homily? Similar to how Catholics in American history tried to overcome the struggles of African Americans, Father Pfleger is weaving solutions to modern problems into his mass.
Finally, Father Pfleger turns his preaching into action. As mentioned prior, he shut down the Dan Ryan expressway in protest to the lack of opportunity in Chicago’s south side. He also has put pressure on important figures in Chicago such as Rahm Emmanuel. Recently, he has commented on and demonstrated against Officer Van Dyke who shot Laquan McDonald in 2014. The firery anti-racist spirit of the American Catholic church is live and burning in the hearts of people like Father Pfleger.
This is not to say that anti-racist Catholics throughout history and Father Pfleger do not have the critics within the church and outside it. Catholics found themselves at odds with the abolitionist movement in the 1800s who saw the Catholic church as an institution that enslaved minds. In the 20th century, many conservative Catholics found the idea of nuns marching against discrimination as deplorable. In an interview with a Chicago nun from 1965, Studs Terkel played the audio of a Catholic who thought nuns should remove their habits if they marched. In his view, this disrespected the Catholic tradition. In the contemporary period, Father Pfleger has had his share of criticism. In 2011, the then archbishop of Chicago suspended Father Pfleger after saying he would rather leave the church then St. Sabina. From my own personal experience, I have known Catholics in my northern Chicago suburban community speak disparagingly of Father Pfleger. A constant throughout American Catholic history is that there are always critics of those fighting for racial justice.
In sum, a constant theme in the American Catholic tradition is addressing the specific issues of marginalized communities. Father Pfleger is the heir to this tradition by representing his African American congregation in St. Sabina’s art, preaching on issues afflicting their communities, and working for justice in meaningful ways. At the beginning of my faith journey, all I knew was that the Catholic community incorporated diverse cultures into the mass through song. After my experience of reading about Catholics who campaigned against racism and experiencing the Faith Community of St. Sabina, I have learned about the long history of Catholics and their battle against racial injustices.
Father Pleger on the Dan Ryan Protests: https://wgntv.com/2018/07/09/father-pfleger-says-march-on-dan-ryan-was-first-step/
The Archdiocese of Chicago’s Black Catholic Initiative: https://bci.archchicago.org/
Father Pfleger’s biography on the St. Sabina website: https://saintsabina.org/about-us/our-pastors/senior-pastor-rev-michael-pfleger/rev-pfleger-s-biography.html
The Faith Community of St. Sabina: https://saintsabina.org/