Historic Study of Black Catholics Breaks New Ground

Findings show that while African-American Catholics are more engaged than their white counterparts, lingering issues of race persist within the church.

Posted: 11/18/2011 01:31 PM EST

The African-American community’s relationship with the Christian faith is well known and has been thoroughly documented, but a new study focusing on Black Catholics specifically, challenges common assumptions about one of the Black community’s less popular Christian churches.

Overall, the findings show that the U.S.’s estimated three million Black Catholics are highly educated and deeply engaged in the church; they value the social and communal aspects of religious worship and are concerned about the status of racism within the church.  

Commissioned by the National Black Catholic Congress and the University of Notre Dame's Institute for Church Life and Office of the President, the survey sought to test the validity of long-held beliefs about Black Catholics and their religious engagement. The study, coauthored by Notre Dame social scientists Darren W. Davis and Donald B. Pope-Davis, stands as the largest sample of African-American Catholics ever surveyed on their faith.

According to the survey, African-American Catholics are considered stronger in their faith than white Catholics; with 78 percent of Black Catholics reporting that their parish meets their spiritual needs compared to only 69 percent of white Catholics.

Similarly, 76 percent of African-American Catholics say their parish meets their emotional needs, compared to 60 percent of white Catholics.


Significantly, 48 percent of African-Americans attend church at least once per week, compared to only 30 percent of white Catholics.

Researchers say, African-American’s increased appreciation of religious social interactions and tendency to attend all-Black parishes contributes to their satisfaction.

"This finding also shows up among African-American Catholics who attend predominantly Black parishes," Davis said. "A greater sense of community that comes from worshipping with others who share cultural heritage heightens religious engagement.


However, despite the engagement of Black Catholics, there is lingering discontent about racial inclusiveness in the church. Nearly one in four respondents felt that the Catholic Church as a  is racist against African-Americans.

More than 31 percent say they are uncomfortable because they are the only person of color in their parish, and about a quarter say that fellow parishioners avoid them because of their race,  that fellow parishioners reluctantly shake their hands and that they have experienced racial insensitivity from their priest.

The research team hopes that the information gathered in the survey will help the Catholic church respond more efficiently to the needs of parishioners.

"It is clear that moving forward, Church leaders should pay closer attention to the demographic shifts in society and understand that because of race, a multi-faceted approach would probably work best," Pope-Davis notes. "The forces that shape white Catholicity are different from the forces that shape African-American Catholicity."

(Photo: Mario Tama/GettyImages)

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