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Benedictions: The Pope in America

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is back in the news, delivering some fiery (the indispensible adjective with the Rev. Wright) rhetoric yesterday at the close of a meeting of the NAACP’s Detroit branch. Wright’s unrepentant talk and prophetic style are likely to make you smile if you are a black Christian or Hillary Clinton, and if they make you wince then you may well be Barack Obama or…Roman Catholic.
Yes, many have traced Obama’s difficulties in attracting blue-collar Catholic “Reagan Democrats” to his lack of working-class elan (that silver-spoon-fed Hillary can out-maneuver a community organizer from urban Chicago is a tribute to her political machine) or, more disturbingly, his race. The Pew Forum’s resident politics-and-religion mandarin, John Green, explores Obama’s uphill battle with white Catholics in this Q&A, noting that Obama lost the Catholic vote by more than 2-1 on Pennsylvania, and Indiana next week could be more of the same.
A couple points to make: One is that Obama is having trouble attracting all regular church-goers, which is odd given that he is the only regular church-goer among the three remaining candidates, a man who remains loyal to his congregation (where Wright was pastor until recently) and his denomination, the largely white UCC. But Green also turns the question around, asking whether Clinton has an “African-American problem” or an “unaffiliated problem”–two groups she’ll need to win the nomination, and the general election.
In that vein I would also ask whether the Catholic Church has an “African-American problem.” In other words, is part of the problem for Catholic voters that the Catholic Church is on the white side of the racial-religious divide–which Wright noted last night, an indisputable point–that marks American Christianity? There are just 2.5 million black Catholics out of more than 65 million American Catholics, and many of those are Caribbean or African immigrants with little in common with the Southern, Protestant, and slave-era heritage African-Americans of Wright’s congregation. Indeed, one reason there are so few black Catholics is that the American hierarchy, fearing a schism like those that afflicted other churches during the Civil War, did not speak out with one voice against slavery.
Black Catholics are a remarkable community, and one that could and should inspire the rest of the American church. Yet they are often overlooked in the focus on our enormous Latino growth, and they are often alienated by the shift back toward a more strait-laced, Old World liturgy. It is a shame that Pope Benedict could not have attended a black Catholic liturgy during his visit–now that is the holy rolling Spirit. Among other things, Hurricane Katrina also inflicted a devastating wound on the black Catholic community concentrated in New Orleans, an issue I explored, along with the history of black Catholics in the U.S., in this 2006 Wall Street Journal column.
In short, American Catholics find black Christian rhetoric completely “foreign” for all sorts of cultural and demographic reasons. They never hear this kind of preaching, and one wonders whether they should listen more closely; they might hear some familiar notes. Such as the insistence on communal spirituality and solidarity, one of the principal themes of Benedict’s own homilies this month. Or the focus on social justice–a tradition and teaching that has been so crucial to lifting up our own Catholic forebears. Or the powerful laments–jeremiads one might say–that characterize the preaching of our own Catholic leadership, albeit it in a different key.
For a good context, read Father John Kavanaugh’s insightful (and powerful) column on the two Jeremiahs (biblical and contemporary) in the April 14 edition of America:

The problem with much preaching in Christian churches is that we apply the prophetic indignation easily to our enemies, but rarely to ourselves, our church, our nation. But if we think Jeremiah and Jesus are not addressing us, we have nothing to learn from either—at our peril. Was the Reverend Wright speaking in this tradition when he gave his infamous talk after the evils of 9/11? I think so. His sermon was a commentary on revenge and the violence that returns to those who do violence, especially against the innocent. Wright recounted our national history of killing children, from the Sioux to the Japanese. All just causes, one might sincerely think. But all horrific. And this is where the preacher talked about the “chickens coming home to roost.” As Wright continued, he pointed out that violence and hatred beget violence and hatred. And then the preacher turned to something that possibly no one is aware of from the YouTube clips. Having been in New Jersey on that September day of “unthinkable acts,” Jeremiah Wright was drawn to examine his own relationship to God, his lack of prayer, his honesty. “Is it real or is it fake? Is it forever or is it for show?”

One needn’t agree with Wright, or like him, or his words, or his tone. But every Catholic could ask themselves why it is that so few African-Americans find a lasting spiritual home in our church. Pope Benedict urged the American bishops to continue the church’s educational mission to urban areas, where Catholic schools have been a lifeline to many black children. Yet those schools, like all Catholic schools, labor under severe financial strains. Even so, many African-Americans graduate from Catholic schools, and appreciate their education. But they don’t become Catholic. Why?
None of these questions will be answered in time to help Barack Obama, I suspect. But perhaps if he is the nominee, and if he wins the general election, Obama could build a bridge to the Catholic community based on the principles they already share. And perhaps Catholics could walk across it.
Two final suggestions for those who want to explore the issue more deeply: Check out this post (and subsequent vigorous discussion) at dotCommonweal by Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at Notre Dame, and a member of Obama’s National Catholic Advisory Council. Also check out this Bill Moyers interview with Wright, the pastor’s first since the brouhaha erupted.

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