My props to WYCC (local Chicago PBS station) for airing Enduring Faith, a fascinating and unsettling documentary on the history of African-American Catholics. It's narrated by one of my faves, Andre Braugher (Homicide, Glory), who exudes even in his voice a shifty moral toughness in all the characters he plays that I think betrays a Catholic education. The documentary is remarkably fair for a film funded by the official church bureaucracy in DC, neither glossing over the sins of the Church nor demonizing the Church.
The struggle of Black Catholics and the Josephite order to hold fast to the faith despite widespread complacency and racism in the American hierarchy is nothing short of heroic. The question I kept asking myself is why any black Catholic would remain in such a hostile fold when his faith would have been so much more warmly received and supported by the black Protestant churches. If that's not evidence of the resilience of the Catholic faith, then Sts. Felicity & Perpetua were scardycats.
My parish (St. Thomas the Apostle) has thankfully been printing in each Sunday bulletin Cardinal George's pastoral letter on racism in commemoration of MLK's death. It's full of wonderful exhortations and insightful social analysis. But after seeing EF, I wish there was a more concerted effort by the American church to remember, in imitation of JPII's Jubilee call to penance for the Church's historical failures, her specific history of apathy and cooperation with the Jim Crow status quo.
The story of the Josephites should be held up as a model of moral witness to and within the Church. The documentary also illustrates the shaky political tightrope that drove visionaries like Frs. John R. Slattery and John J. Plantevigne to the point of spiritual collapse, caught in a schizophrenic limbo between Rome's admonitions for integration and the American church's spineless opposition to it. Modern-day tensions between Rome and the US can be traced genealogically to the Americanist controversies of the postbellum church. Our ignorance of this history only gives American Catholic stubbornness a stronger foothold against the authority of the Holy See. Read the unsung history of Black Catholics here and here.