Catholics and Civil Rights

 “This is important, because the Catholic Church has basically lost its moral authority, really. But he has been able to take St. Sabina and bring credibility back to that church.” -Haki Madhubuti 


This past summer, thousands of protesters marched on the Dan Ryan Expressway against gun violence. Many of the protestors were from Chicago’s South Side communities and felt action as large as shutting down an expressway is the only way marginalized communities can be heard. At the head of the protest was Reverand Micheal Pfleger of Saint Sabina Church—the largest African American Catholic church in Chicago. A religious community in the like minds of Father Groppi, a notable civil rights activist in the 1960s: “Marching… is not only a protest, it is a prayer” (McGreevy, 241). Marches continued to be a long-lasting favorite for Catholic activists. According to scholar John McGreevy, “Catholic participation in the southern civil rights movement culminated at Selma in March 1965” (McGreevy, 221). However, there is a difference between fighting for a movement which directly affects you and fighting for a movement you have the privilege to avoid. A complicated barrier to overcome, the predominately white Catholic communities in the mid-twentieth century did not always impact civil rights movements to the best of their ability. African Americans were distrustful to the Church’s declining moral authority as traditional, white Catholics saw Church involvement in the Civil Rights Movements as “destruction of their communities—once fostered by the church and now seemingly threatened by the church’s own representatives” (McGreevy, 243).

This week, the class visited mass at Pfleger’s St. Sabina Church. One of the most notable aspects of mass was the combination of a traditional Catholic mass and influences of other African American Christian churches. However, this adaption was necessary to attract a congregation when Reverand Pfleger started his service in Auburn Gresham. Especially since Pfleger is white, his childhood in a nearby neighborhood would not be enough to attract a large congregation in a black community. A 1960 conference in Chicago concluded “if the priest is not present [at protests], no amount of preaching will ever convince the Negro that the Catholic Church is his church” (McGreevy, 226). In San Francisco during the 1950s and 1960s, only 1.4% of the Catholic population were African American, leading to the tendency among white Catholics “to minimize the seriousness of racism in their midst” (Issel and Wold, 42). Without direct involvement in racism and civil rights, the Catholic Church would lose their authority over communities and would not be able to grow and expand as a religion. The Catholic Church needed to show that they always care for their members—although whether that is genuine or not is a separate discussion. Saint Sabina’s success is evident as Jerimiah White described in the New Yorker, “I accept him so much that you forget, oh, yeah, he really is a white guy.”

In a 1964 meeting with Chicago inner-city pastors, there was surprise to the consideration of “direct action protests on the civil rights question… since the pastors by and large in the Negro areas have been completely quiet on the race questions” (McGreevy, 225). Reverend Pfleger’s popularity in his church and the South Side combined with his own direct involvement in civil rights and other issues dominating African American communities showed the importance of a pastor’s response to “race questions.” A pastor has to be rooted in his community beyond his comfort zone for a church to survive and thrive with genuine trust from its congregants. As McGreevy discussed how by the 1950s, “young African Americans often ignored the priests and nuns that their parents treated so respectfully” (McGreevy, 225). As younger generations tend to be the generation who radically participate in activist movements, the younger African Americans may have noticed the disconnect between the church officials and the congregants.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Catholic Church continuously faced criticism that they were not doing enough, even when they were more involved than before. In San Francisco, “entire neighborhoods were still off limits to all but white residents; access to jobs, health care, education, and cultural opportunities continued to be difficult and sometimes impossible unless one qualified as white,” beyond the end of World War II (Issel and Wold, 23). The Archdiocese released comments in support of fair housing movements, but many “faulted the Archdiocese for failing to take a more active stand in the community at large and called for an all-out campaign to defend fair housing” (Issel and Wold, 40). Pfleger has also faced criticism for his activism and whether he has genuine intentions; according to the New Yorker, “some people in Chicago dismiss Pfleger as a huckster who is more interested in getting attention than in working to find solutions… [or] a moderate posing as a radical.” Even if Saint Sabina looked like a perfect example of a successful relationship between Catholicism and African Americans, any movement is subject to criticism.

Beyond the criticism and messy history of Catholics involved in civil rights movements, many Catholics still see social justice as part of their duty. Sister Mary Peters was interviewed by Studs Terkel in 1965 to discuss her involvement in Selma. She stressed that active involvement in the movement was her duty as a Catholic nun and fulfilled her vows. Bishops in San Francisco also stressed that the “duty of a citizen [was] to try to relieve racial tension” (Issel and Wold, 25). To many others, Pfleger has been genuinely involved in fighting for civil rights in his neighborhood and beyond Chicago—“This is important, because the Catholic Church has basically lost its moral authority, really. But he has been able to take St. Sabina and bring credibility back to that church” (Haki Madhubuti). There may always be questions of words versus actions, but there continues to be a more efficient involvement of the Catholic Church in civil rights politics. Hopefully, the involvement of the institution of the Catholic Church is beyond the desire to only regain their role as a moral authority and, in fact, coincides with motivations of Catholic figures to find solutions and be morally good.


Referenced Work:

Issel, William and Wold, Mary Anne. “Catholics and the Campaign for Racial Justice in San Francisco From Pearl Harbor to Proposition 14.” American Catholic Studies 119, no. 3 (2008): 21-43.

McGreevy, John T. “Racial Justice and the People of God: The Second Vatican Council, the Civil Rights Movement, and American Catholics.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 4, no. 2 (1994): 221-54.


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