Catholics Confront Race & Racism

“Human life is sacred and inviolable. Every civil right is based on the recognition of the first, fundamental right, the right to life, which is not subject to any condition, of a qualitative, economic and certainly not of an ideological nature.”[1]

Pope Francis

When it comes to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, the Catholic Church played a rather unclear and complicated role. While trying to become increasingly involved in the struggle for black freedom, the American Catholic Church was being torn apart from the inside out, with growing divisions forming between Catholics all over the nation. The efforts of the American Catholic Church during the modern Civil Rights Movement can be compared and contrasted to the changes and continuities that have occurred over time into contemporary American society. With examples like Father Pfleger and his congregation at the Faith Community of Saint Sabina, we can effectively discuss the Catholic Church’s presence in the fight for civil rights then and now.

We cannot discuss American Catholics and their confrontation of the issues of race and racism without mentioning the climate of the church during the modern Civil Rights Movement. While American society was shifting its focus on racial issues that were overwhelming the country, the Catholic Church was refocusing its purpose in the world and Vatican II was born in an effort to redefine the conceptions of the church and its community. As John T. McGreevy states in his article “Racial Justice and the People of God: The Second Vatican Council, the Civil Rights Movement, and American Catholics”, “For American Catholics interested in racial issues, three themes proved central” of the Second Vatican Council. The first was that “the bishops reframed conceptions of the nature of the church” by describing it “using a biblical image, the ‘people of God'”. The second was that “the bishops repeatedly. emphasized that a truly Catholic Church would awaken its members ‘to the drama of misery and to the demands of social justice made by the Gospel and the Church'”[2]. And the third theme was a suggestion for “the formation of a global church”.

As Amy DeLong states in her article “Change from the Inside out: The Contribution of Memphis Catholics in Civil Rights Activism, 1961-1968”, “among the most dramatic changes were shifts towards greater involvement of laypeople and an expectation that the individual take greater responsibility for the direction of his or her spiritual life”[6]. Terms such as “preconciliar” and “postconciliar” were formed to describe Catholics before and after Vatican II and the goals it set out for the Church. A “preconciliar Catholic is concerned with authority and obedience…Postconciliar Catholics, on the other hand, are likely to put more stress on freedom and responsibility”[6]. This shift in perspective and focus for the Catholic Church brought with it enormous repercussions, particularly for the relationship between religious and civil discussions throughout the world.

Vatican II
Catholic World Report’s image of Vatican II

So where does Vatican II come into play with the racial issues and discussions that were popping up all over the nation, and how does this involve individual American Catholics? Well, to say the least, the Vatican Council led to an entire restructuring of American Catholic culture. In the Church’s effort to become a “global church”, one of the first obstacles it faced in America was the relationship between Catholicism and African-Americans. Older structures within the church did not seem to fit well with inner-city life, which often happened to have a larger African-American population. As a result, the Church needed to restructure its approach in reaching more individuals in inner-cities and possibly in the neighborhoods surrounding them.

Even with a push to integrate African-Americans into the Catholic Church, there still seems to be issues with their integration, and as a result, discussions of discrimination in the Church began to arise. African-American Catholics were pushing for the establishment of new institutions and new instruction that didn’t make them feel like “visitor[s] at another parish, afraid to do more than just attend Mass”[2]. But the Church still struggled with changing its structure and policies to meet the demands of its African American parishioner. As McGreevy mentions, one Chicago priest stated that “had [he] limited [his] attention to merely that 5% [who were Catholic], [he felt] that [he] would have been doing [his] Church a dishonor”[2]. This kind of struggle between the Church wanting to have a stronger position in communities where it previously did not and such communities desiring change in fundamental Catholic institutions, spread all over the country into more and more inner-city areas. American society, especially for the African American population, was evolving at a rate that the Catholic Church had difficulty keeping up with, as the Church continually tried to build a “community without walls”[2], but faced potential segregation within the Church due to a lack of assimilation from the African American community.

To get more specific, let’s look at how Catholics contributed to the Civil Rights in Memphis. Although Catholics were sparse in Memphis around the 50s and 60s, Catholicism was still well-established and reputable for its work within the community. “Because it was a minority church with significant and noticeable ministries in the city, the Catholic Church in Memphis was in a unique position to enter into the Civil Rights Movement”. One thing that was unique to the Catholic Church in Memphis was the structure in place that allowed the organization of racial justice groups across parish and diocesan lines, allowing for more individuals to have membership in several parishes, and overall increasing the Church’s potential to reach a greater number of followers. However, as mentioned previously that the Church struggled to abandon its traditional teachings and institutions to adapt to a changing world, American bishops had opinions on race that varied as much as those of American citizens. On one end, there were “older clergy who had been raised in the Jim Crow South [who] held a more conservative view…while others with a wider scope, possibly influenced by the social teaching of the Second Vatican Council, were more focused on eradicating the social injustices of a segregated culture”[6]. This difference in ideology would be fundamental in the struggle for racial and social justice among Catholics in Memphis.

Left to right: John N. Popham, Mr. Wingfield, Joseph Leppert, and Bishop Durick

At the forefront of the Catholicism’s dance with the issues of race in Memphis was Father Joseph Leppert. Father Leppert was the pastor of St. Therese of Little Flower Church, a church that also had a middle school that became critical in the fight for integration of Catholic schools. St. Therese of Little Flower Elementary School became the first school to have integration of African-Americans into white classes in 1967. Father Leppert was not only a proponent of the integration of schools, but favored a “faster and more intentional integration”[6]. As such, Leppert decided to ingrate his church in 1965, something that was considered beyond radical as it was the first time a Catholic church was intentionally integrated in Memphis. This was not the only time Leppert had taken steps to integrate blacks into the church, as he was “constantly finding small, yet meaningful ways to break down racism within his own congregation”[6]. He later went on to found the Memphis Catholic Human Relations Council, which was created for the “integration of church institutions, improvement of human relations in the city of Memphis, and education to bring about understanding, including ecumenism”[6]. The Memphis CHRC pushed for many changes in the Tennessee church during the 1960s, and became so influential in which both religious and secular groups across the nation began mirroring the efforts that the CHRC took to bring racial and social equality to the church. As radical as he was, Father Leppert pushed for the CHRC and continual change in the church in Tennessee from the inside out, and the climate of the Catholic Church in Tennessee would not be the same today without him. His efforts and radicalism can compared to someone today who is rather close to home in Chicago: Father Michael Pfleger.

Father Pfleger, as the New Yorker describes him, is “a militant white priest [fighting] for his black parishioners on the South Side”[3]. I had the pleasure of seeing Father Pfleger during a trip to his parish of the Faith Community of Saint Sabina this past week. I was just recently baptized and confirmed into the Catholic Church around two years ago, and I have accustomed to the very traditional Catholic order of Mass. To my surprise, Father Pfleger runs his congregation quite differently. I had not known anything about Saint Sabina’s previously, and was surprised to see that he preaches with, as the New Yorker describes it, “an eight-piece band, a choir, and a troupe of dancers, all arrayed beneath a painting, twenty feet tall, of a young black Jesus wearing a white robe”[3].




To say that Father Pfleger and his Catholic Church had difficulty assimilating the African-American population into it could not be more incorrect. Saint Sabina’s is Chicago’s largest African-American Catholic Church, with its neighborhood being 98% black. Even though Pfleger is an older, white man, he is more in tune with the African American community than anybody else I know. Not only does he preach to a predominantly black congregation, he is famous for integrating himself into protests in support of racial and socioeconomic equality for black Chicagoans. In recent months, Chicago has been dealing with a crisis involving race and justice in the case of Jason Van Dyke. Dash cam video released several years ago showed Jason Van Dyke, a white Chicago police officer, killing black-teenager Laquan McDonald by firing 16 shots after he was called to investigate a suspected car break in, when Laquan was spotted walking away with a knife in hand. The video contradicted police reports, igniting discussions of a potential coverup for Van Dyke. The Justice Department has been investigating the incident and the respective conduct of Chicago Police since the incident occurred, and the case just came to a close this past Friday, October 5th. Watch Pfleger’s commentary on the case below:

With the entire city watching and awaiting this moment, Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, and taken into custody Friday evening. Reaction to the case was enormous, with millions of Chicagoans gathering in the streets protesting Van Dyke and his actions years ago. The reaction over this case from the city exposed deep-rooted issues in the conduct of the police department, the way it responds to citizens’ complaints, and its (however rare) punishment of inadequate officers. Pfleger has made it his duty to stand up for the African-American community in Chicago, and take the necessary steps to confront politicians and institutions that are putting South Side residents at a significant disadvantage. He has been doing marches and protests in support for African-Americans in Chicago who cannot get their voices heard for years. Although not as recent as the Van Dyke case, Pfleger got involved in a protest this past summer with thousands of anti-violence protestors that shut down the inbound Dan Ryan expressway with their presence. Pfleger’s actions in support for the disadvantaged black population of Chicago can be summed up by quoting himself: “Today we got their attention, now we want action”[5].

It is quite a sight to see and is much more of an expansive topic than I have discussed here, but Father Pfleger is the exact opposite of the issues the Catholic Church was facing with the black communities after Vatican II. Not only has he integrated himself into a primarily black community and built a congregation centered on love and community around it, he also dedicates himself to fight for causes in favor of black Chicagoans. His type of ministry would have been unheard of before Vatican II, and it really shows just how far the Catholic Church has progressed in its fight to become a more global church and reaching those who were once unreachable.

Demonstrators and Chicagoans react Oct. 5, 2018, after Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke is found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery for the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014.
(Chicago Tribune)

It isn’t that often when you get to first-hand experience the topics that you hear about on the news or discuss in history class. Visiting Saint Sabina’s and hearing Father Pfleger preach to his congregation was something I never would have imagined myself doing, and not only did I learn a lot about him and his parishioners, I was able to directly connect that to the issues that the Catholic Church was facing during the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s and the era of Vatican II and the changes the Church wanted to implement into itself and the communities it was involved in.


[1] “Pope's Quotes: A 'Throwaway' Culture.” National Catholic Reporter, 7 July 2014,

[2] Mcgreevy, John T. “Racial Justice and the People of God: The Second Vatican Council, the Civil Rights Movement, and American Catholics.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, vol. 4, no. 2, 1994, pp. 221–254., doi:10.2307/1123850. 

[3] Osnos, Evan. “Chicago's Political Priest.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 1 Sept. 2017, 

[4] Crepeau, Megan, et al. “A Historic Murder Conviction of a Chicago Cop - and a City's Sigh of Relief.”, 6 Oct. 2018, 

[5] Hinton, Rachel, and Manny Ramos. “Anti-Violence Protesters Shut down Inbound Dan Ryan: 'The People Won Today'.” Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Sun-Times, 7 July 2018, 

[6] DeLong, Amy. “Change from the Inside Out: The Contribution of Memphis Catholics in Civil RightsActivism, 1961-1968.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 2, pp. 124–127.

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