This year’s session of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium is now underway in South Bend, Indiana, gathering scholars of Black Catholicism on the campus of the nation’s premier Catholic university, Notre Dame.
The event is now in its 31st year, having been founded in 1978 by the late Fr Thaddeus Posey, OFM and sponsored by the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus. That inaugural year featured such luminaries as Servant of God Thea Bowman; Sr Jamie T. Phelps, OP; the late Fr Cyprian Davis, OSB; and Dr. M. Shawn Copeland.
Thursday night’s opening lecture brought things full circle, featuring Copeland herself in a livestreamed public lecture on “#BlackLivesMatter as Public Theology”.
“The litany of the murdered dead honors and speaks the names of husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, cousins and fictive kin, lovers and friends,” she said during the riveting 45-minute presentation.
“My thesis is that Black Lives Matter is a performative public theology which through critique, organizing, advocacy, protest, and love, affirms and testifies to the lives, survival, flourishing, and beauty of Black human beings.”
Her talk came just weeks after a parish in Denver connected to the Black Catholic community was ordered by its bishop, Archbishop Samuel Aquila, to take down a BLM sign that he and the chancery criticized for its connection to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation.
(The sign was stolen just hours later and has not been recovered.)
Copeland is the co-editor of a new festschrift on Sr Constance Fitzgerald, OCD entitled “Desire, Darkness, and Hope”, covering Fitzgerald’s work as a contemplative and scholar, and also connecting her writings to the current crises of racism and corrupt government.
The other end of the Black Catholic ideological spectrum was represented on Friday night by BCTS member Bishop Edward K. Braxton, a Black prelate who retired from the Diocese of Belleville last year.
The lecture covered various perspectives on the origins and persistence of anti-Black racism in the United States, his own controversial definition of the term ‘racism’, and the outlook for the Church amidst its own struggle with prejudice.
“Most Americans are not racist,” he said to the assembled crowd, making note that in his framework, individuals harboring feelings of racial prejudice do not necessarily qualify.
“Instead, I use the broad expression ‘the racial divide’, of which racism is the most damning and egregious example. If even the smallest expression of racial bias, prejudice, and cultural insensitivity is an example of racism, then I am afraid we might need to not that we may as well call everyone a racist.”
His more centrist perspective contrasted with Copeland’s more forceful display, though he did acknowledge the Church’s shortcomings on the issues of anti-Blackness, slavery, and Eurocentrism.
He even delved into the topic of reparations—an increasingly fraught issue in the wake of recent movement on the HR40 bill in Congress, and the growth of the outspoken reparations advocates “American Descendants of Slavery” (aka ADOS, who also happen to be having their national conference this weekend).
“The Catholic bishops of the United States have never made a statement about [reparations],” Braxton noted, adding that some Protestant institutions—and Catholic religious orders—have begun to take steps in that direction.
“It has the potential of being address to some degree. When and to what degree, who can say?”
Overall, his broad-based, handout-diagrammed address engendered a lively Q&A, as could be expected during such a unique event, but also some critiques from the media.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).