July 27, 2012

Survey shows black Catholics are more engaged in their faith

Dr. Donald Pope-Davis, a sociologist and faculty member at the University of Notre Dame in northern Indiana, displays a copy of the 2011 National Black Catholic Survey during his July 19 presentation at the National Black Catholic Congress in Indianapolis. The historic national survey focused on how African-American Catholics express their faith as well as their feelings about inclusiveness in the Church. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber)

Dr. Donald Pope-Davis, a sociologist and faculty member at the University of Notre Dame in northern Indiana, displays a copy of the 2011 National Black Catholic Survey during his July 19 presentation at the National Black Catholic Congress in Indianapolis. The historic national survey focused on how African-American Catholics express their faith as well as their feelings about inclusiveness in the Church. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber) Click for a larger version.

By Mary Ann Garber

Black Catholics are more engaged in their faith than their white counterparts, according to a historic national survey conducted by two University of Notre Dame professors in 2011 which also found that culture and faith are closely integrated in the African-American community.

Dr. Donald Pope-Davis, a sociologist and one of the researchers, told National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC) participants on July 19 that key findings of the survey indicate that black Catholics express their faith with greater vitality, and 86 percent believe that integrating African-American religious expression into the liturgy is important.

Survey respondents also affirmed the desire by black Catholics to become more knowledgeable about the Catholic faith as well as the Church’s traditions and history, Pope-Davis said during his keynote presentation at the congress held on July 19-21 in Indianapolis.

“Faith Engaged: Empower, Equip, Evangelize” was the theme for the 11th national congress, which focused on the discussion and approval of a pastoral plan for black Catholics as its main task.

More than 2,200 participants—including bishops, priests, deacons, men and women religious, lay people and youths—represented dioceses from across the country.

“The energy has been very high here, which is a good thing,” Father Kenneth Taylor, pastor of Holy Angels Parish in Indianapolis and director of the archdiocesan Office of Multicultural Ministry, said during a break in the congress sessions on July 20.

“We are issuing a national pastoral plan at the end of the congress,” Father Taylor said, “and we’re going to need a lot of energy, motivation and commitment to implement it.”

Congress presentations began on a scholarly note with Pope-Davis analyzing the results of the extensive survey conducted with Notre Dame professor Darren Davis for the first time last year. Co-sponsors were the NBCC, the University of Notre Dame president’s office and the university’s Institute for Church Life.

There are significant “within-group differences” among African-American Catholics, Pope-Davis said, which reflect considerable diversity of experiences.

“This is good news,” he said of the findings. “Prior to this study, there were many people that thought our black Catholic community was in disarray.”

The survey found that “religious engagement of blacks is greater than among whites [59 percent to 35 percent],”

Pope-Davis said. “… By almost every measure of religious engagement, African-American Catholics are considered stronger in their faith than white Catholics. The levels of religious engagement, as we defined it in this study and were measured, include three distinct areas—spirituality, emotionality and social interaction.”

Black Catholics “have a history of using religious expression as a social and cultural way in which we engage in the community,” he said. “For many of us, going to Mass, participating in the sacraments and engaging in the life of the parish is also a social opportunity. This is an important finding because for us our faith is not just a religious conviction. It is also a cultural nuance that helps us think of the world in a particular way.”

Other important findings show that weekly Mass attendance is higher among African-American Catholics than among white Catholics by a ratio of

48.2 percent to 30.4 percent, Pope-Davis said, but many black Catholics who go to church regularly are not registered in a parish.

“One of the interesting things—and this may come as no surprise to you—is that one in four African-American Catholics perceive some form of racism in their parish,” he said. “… This is a concern because our Catholic faith tells us that we are one in the Body of Christ and we express our faith as a community.

“Yet, we know that in some of the communities and some of our parishes there is a perception of segregation,” Pope-Davis said. “This becomes a problem, and this is a key finding that we think needs to be addressed and will be part of the pastoral plan.”

Asked about the scope of racial inclusiveness in parishes, he said 31.5 percent of black Catholics indicated that they are uncomfortable at church because they are one of the few people of color in their parish and 25.9 percent of black Catholics think fellow parishioners avoid them because of their race.

About one-fourth of the black Catholics surveyed also said fellow parishioners reluctantly shake their hands, and they have experienced racial insensitivity from parish priests.

“This is a problem particularly given the centrality of priests and religious in the Church,”

Pope-Davis said. “If the shepherd marginalizes people, what should he expect from the community that he provides service to?”

Survey results can help improve the potential for growth in the Church, he said. “Thirty-six percent [of respondents] are satisfied with the targeting of black vocations. We want that number to be closer to 80 percent. … Forty-five percent are satisfied with the promotion of racial integration in the Church.”

Survey results are posted online at http://www.nbccongress.org/special-report/2011-black-catholic-survey.asp.

“All of the historical data that we have found indicates that cultural identity … is an important part of who we are,” Pope-Davis said. “… We know that education is a game-changer for us in our society, particularly in this economy.”

On a spiritual level, he said, “If Christ is the centerpiece of your existence, then how you see your faith will be informed by that foundation.” †

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