Black Catholics, Slavery and the Fight for Racial Justice

By Tina M. Patterson, Esq.

November is a significant month in the year, particularly for political and policy making purposes. While the end of the month marks the onset of Thanksgiving and the holiday shopping season, the beginning of the month is dedicated to election season.

Here in Michigan, along with a critical midterm election for leadership of the state and representation in Washington, several proposals were on the ballot for the people to pass or reject. The most critical and controversial proposal this election cycle, Proposal 3, dealt with allowing an individual right to abortion.

With this hot button issue in the spotlight, the Catholic Church was ever present in its alleged quest to protect the right, dignity, and sanctity of life. The Church pulled out all the stops to defeat the passing of the proposal, including its public policy arm, the Michigan Catholic Conference, contributing $6 million to oppose the measure, and emails to Catholic worshippers, including Black Catholics such as myself, from the Archbishop of the Detroit Diocese himself, Archbishop Allen Vigneron, pleading the importance of defeating the proposal. He urged voters to “Vote No on Proposal 3, rejecting its destructive approach to human life.”

Despite these ceaseless efforts, the proposal passed, but that does not mean the Church gave up its fight. After its passage, Archbishop Vigneron called upon Catholics “to make reparations for the great sin of abortion in our midst.”

The choice of words could not be more historically ironic, as the Catholic Church has failed for centuries to make significant atonement or exert any serious and meaningful effort to make reparations for its role in the great, original sin of the nation, chattel slavery of African Americans.

The issue is fresh for debate considering that in addition to being election month, November is also Black Catholic History Month. However, the Church has exhausted so much effort into its war against abortion, that it has barely uplifted venerable Black Catholics on the road to sainthood, who have contributed to the Church despite battling racism themselves, including from within the Church.

Additionally, the Church has hardly reflected on or atoned for its own iniquities against African Americans through its direct, profitable engagement in slave labor in the United States. In fact, slave labor was used to fund Jesuit missions across the country and most notably, Georgetown University, the nation’s first Catholic institution of higher learning, was effectively rescued from bankruptcy by the sale of enslaved men, women, and children.

While the Jesuit order has recently recognized its shameful role in this evil endeavor, its efforts to atone have largely been lip service. Despite a $100 million pledge announced in 2021 to atone for its participation in the American slave trade, the Jesuits had only raised $180,000 by August 2022. Yet, the Michigan Catholic Conference donated $6 million to defeat Michigan’s abortion proposal in the third quarter of 2022 alone. The extreme contrast in these figures demonstrates that the Catholic Church does not seem to have any serious intent or commitment to rectify its actions against African American human beings who also had a right to life.

Further evidence of the lack of demonstrable commitment to address racial justice beyond mere symbolic public pronouncements is found in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism. An ad hoc committee, by definition, is temporary in nature. Thus, nationally, the Catholic Church appears to be signaling that it has no permanent or serious policy making efforts to rectify the sin of racism or to advocate for policies that combat racism, such as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. If the Church was indeed truly committed to eradicating racism, it should be one of the biggest supporters of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and work earnestly with U.S. Senators across the political spectrum to see through its passage.

Instead, the silence from the Church is deafening, particularly when it paints itself as a protector for the sanctity of life. Well, the sanctity of life also includes the right for African Americans to live through a police encounter, which we routinely see deprived, just as the world witnessed in May 2020 with the public execution of George Floyd.

The sanctity of life also includes the right to go to the grocery store freely without fear of hateful killing, such as the horror we saw unfold in Buffalo, New York this past spring, when innocent African Americans were purposefully killed in a racist attack during routine weekend grocery shopping.

The sanctity of life also includes the right to seek opportunities for higher educational learning, particularly at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which have founding roots in providing opportunities for Black students when other universities denied admissions simply based on skin color. In 2022, we see threats against HBCUs on the rise, and the Catholic Church has been dormant in combating these threats.

Finally, the sanctity of life also includes the right to worship freely in church without fear of attack. If anything, the church is the ultimate safe haven, the edifice of sanctuary. Yet, Black churches have historically come under attack, including the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and in 2015, the racial massacre at Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Throughout these atrocities, the Catholic Church, the world’s largest Christian denomination, with its expansive reach and influence, has failed to rise to the occasion in leading the charge against these racial injustices.

Yet as a Black Catholic, I believe hope springs eternal, and this has been witnessed with current Pope Francis’ historic visit to Canada, when he publicly apologized and sought forgiveness for the Catholic Church’s abusive history toward the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

In this same light and spirit, this Black Catholic History month, the Church can begin its long road to redemption for its maltreatment of African Americans in this country. In his email to Catholic worshippers prior to Election Day, Archbishop Vigneron quoted that famous passage from the book of Esther “for such a time as this,” to inspire voters to reject the proposal.

Indeed, we are always living in this moment for “such a time as this,” including the need to fight for racial justice, which is also an issue of paramount importance to protecting the inherent, God-given dignity of all people. It’s long past time for the Church to match its efforts in the right to life for the unborn to the right to life for African Americans in this country.

Attorney Tina M. Patterson, a racial justice advocate and former federal government attorney for the Social Security Administration, is the President and Director of Research at The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s national independent anti-poverty think tank. She is also the Principal Attorney at the Patterson Justice Counsel PLLC. 

For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson , the Executive Dean and Editor-in-Chief of The PuLSE Institute at 

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