Black Theology, the Catholic Church in America, and Communion Ecclesiology


o ecclesiology can be referred to as authentically Christian in America that does not acknowledge the significance of white racism and the resulting white privilege in American society and the American Church. To remain silent about the deadly consequences of white racism and the unjust white privilege that exists in the modern world invalidates any church’s claim to a Christian identity.  This includes the Catholic Church in America.

Nearly thirty-five years ago, progressive Catholics sponsored a conference entitled “Voices of Justice: The Challenge of Being Catholic and American in the 1980s.”  One of the keynote speakers, James Cone, issued a “theological challenge” to the Catholic Church.  He stated:

What is it about the Catholic definition of justice that makes many persons of that faith progressive in their attitude toward the poor in Central America but reactionary in their views toward the poor in black America? … It is the failure of the Catholic Church to deal effectively with the problem of racism that causes me to question the quality of its commitment to justice… I do not wish to minimize the importance of Catholic contributions to poor people’s struggles for justice, but I must point out the ambiguity of the Catholic stand on justice when racism is not addressed forthrightly.[1]

Bryan Massingale, explains Cone’s comments. He states, “[Cone’s] contention is that there are critical faults and deficits in Catholic reflection on racism. He adduces this from an apparent disparity between Catholic concern regarding issues, such as poverty and the sanctity of life, when compared to the Church’s peripheral attention given to the endemic racism of American society.”[2]

Cone’s reservations concerning the adequacy and effectiveness of American Catholic reflection on racism also has been expressed by official voices within the Catholic Church. In 1989, the US Bishops’ Committee on Black Catholics issued a statement commemorating the tenth anniversary of the national conference’s pastoral letter, Brothers and Sisters to Us: US Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Racism in Our Day.  Written in 1979, Brothers and Sisters to Us was the last pastoral letter devoted specifically to the subject of racism issued in the name of the entire national body of Catholic bishops. However, this anniversary committee found little worth celebrating. Instead, it concluded that:

The promulgation of the pastoral letter on racism was soon forgotten by all but a few. A survey… revealed a pathetic, anemic response from archdioceses and dioceses around the country… The pastoral letter on racism had made little or no impact on the majority of Catholics in the United States… In spite of all that has been said and written about racism in the last twenty years, very little—if anything at all—has been done in Catholic education; such as it was yesterday, it is today.[3]

Two years later, at a symposium celebrating the centennial anniversary of modern Catholic social teaching, Joseph Francis, an African American bishop, declared that the lack of attention given Brothers and Sisters to Us made it “the best kept secret in the church in this country.” He concluded by voicing sentiments very like those expressed by Cone:

Social justice vis-a-vis the eradication of racism in our church is simply not a priority of social concern commissions, social concern directors and agencies. While I applaud the concern of such individuals and groups for the people of Eastern Europe, China, and Latin America, that same concern is not expressed, is not incarnated for the victims of racism in this country… The question is, Is the quality of our mercy strained when black people are concerned?[4]

More recently, in 2004, twenty-five years after Brothers and Sisters to Us, the US Catholic Bishops commissioned a study to discern its implementation and reception.[5]  The commission’s results paint a disheartening picture of the Church’s relationship with the black community. For example, since the Brothers and Sisters to Us was first promulgated, only 18 percent of the American bishops have issued statements condemning racism, and of those very few address systemic racism found in America; rather, they address personal attitudes of direct racial malice. In addition, the commission notes that many diocesan seminaries and ministry formation programs are inadequate in terms of their incorporation of the history, culture, and traditions of the black community.  Most disturbing is the commission’s report that white Catholics over the last twenty-five years “exhibit diminished—rather than increased—support of government policies aimed at curbing racial inequality.”[6]

These official statistics details the significant lack of compliance of the Church with its own recommendation contained in Brothers and Sister to Us. While racism is America’s most persistent sin, it appears that the Catholic Church has continued to be virtually silent about its significance in its seminaries, churches, and every other segment of the larger Catholic society in America. It prompts the question: Is Brothers and Sister to Us simply a “dream deferred”? Or stated another way, can the ecclesiology of the American Catholic Church be adapted in such a way that acknowledges the black American’s experience? Furthermore, what part, if any, does the black theological community have in reaching this end?

I will argue in this essay that the primary means of reconciling the relationship between the larger black community and the American Catholic Church must revolve around the shared significance of community between black theology and Catholic communion ecclesiology. Through a close reading of various Catholic Church documents, we will first review the Catholic Church’s emphasis on communal ecclesiology. This will be followed by a detailed look into the development of black theology, how racial injustice caused its emergence, and how it was the basis of a theological focus on the unity of the black community.  I will conclude with identifying four essential characteristics of black theology, identified by James Cone, and demonstrate how these same characteristics are identified as essential in the Catholic Church’s definition of an authentic communion ecclesiology, thus providing a foundation to build a spirit of reconciliation between the black community and the American Catholic Church.

Communion Ecclesiology

Some twenty years after the closing of Vatican II, the International Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops stated that “the ecclesiology of communion is the central and fundamental idea of the council’s documents…it is the foundation for order in the church and especially for a correct relationship between unity and pluriformity in the church.”[7] In a later document, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith elaborated further that communion was a “two-dimensional concept.” The document states,

If the concept of communion, which is not a univocal concept, is to serve as a key to ecclesiology, it has to be understood within the teaching of the Bible and the patristic tradition, in which communion always involves a double dimension: the vertical (communion with God) and the horizontal (communion among men).[8]

Jamie Phelps explains, “The vertical dimension, one’s union with the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit, is largely invisible, but is made visible by ‘the communion in the teaching of the Apostles, in the sacraments and in the hierarchal order’ within the Church.”[9]  Thus, the Church is a visible sacrament of the invisible communion of God with human society.  However, a close examination of one of the prominent documents of the Second Vatican Council; namely, Lumen gentium, reveals that while the Church is clearly identified as a visible sacrament of God’s communion with humankind, the concept of the Church as communion among men is more pervasive.  Phelps points out four specific passages in the introduction of the document,

As often as the sacrifice of the cross in which Christ our Passover was sacrificed, is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried on, and, in the sacrament of the eucharistic bread, the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ is both expressed and brought about. All men are called to this union with Christ, who is the light of the world, from whom we go forth, through whom we live, and toward whom our whole life strains.

The Church, which the Spirit guides in way of all truth and which He unified in communion and in works of ministry, He both equips and directs with hierarchical and charismatic gifts and adorns with His fruits. By the power of the Gospel He makes the Church keep the freshness of youth. Uninterruptedly He renews it and leads it to perfect union with its Spouse. The Spirit and the Bride both say to Jesus, the Lord, “Come!” Thus, the Church has been seen as “a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His Holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all.

At all times and in every race God has given welcome to whosoever fears Him and does what is right. God, however, does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another… So, it is that that messianic people… is nonetheless a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race. Established by Christ as a communion of life, charity and truth, it is also used by Him as an instrument for the redemption of all, and is sent forth into the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth.[10]

These passages of Lumen gentium identifies the nature and mission of the Church succinctly—the Church is a communion of all those who profess belief in Jesus Christ.  The Church’s mission is to create a community of believers who grow in union with God, to be a transformative agent in a divided community of believers, and be a transformative agent in a world divided by sin and injustice.  In short, the Church’s mission is essentially directed toward the formation of community transformed by faith and made whole by its healing message of the Gospel.

Papal and episcopal documents following Vatican II made more explicit the mission of the Church being community, and it did so my connecting social injustice with its ecclesiology of communion. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum progressio noted that the social question “tied all human beings together.” The Church must work to address social inequities by “building a human community where men and women can live truly human lives, free from discrimination on account of race, religion or nationality, from servitude to other men or women . . . where liberty is not an idle word . . . where the needy Lazarus can sit down with the rich man at the same banquet table.”[11]

Octogesimo adveniens, Paul VI’s apostolic letter on the eightieth anniversary of Rerum novarum, rejected the domination that still characterized some human relationships within an urban industrialized world. The need for greater justice and sharing of responsibility among workers was emphasized. Attention was focused on need to recognize the place and dignity of marginalized groups such as “the handicapped and the maladjusted, the old, and different groups . . . on the fringe of society.”[12] Octogesimo adveniens particularly noted the sufferings of victims legally discriminated against because of their race, origin, color, culture, sex or religion.[13]

The document of the 1971 Synod of Bishops, Justice in the World, underscored that social justice directed both toward the transformation of the world and relationships within the Church was an essential dimension of the Church’s mission, echoing the spirit of Lumen gentium. Furthermore, it made the assertion that economic growth had contributed to the increase of “marginal persons” bereft of food, housing, education, political power, and responsible moral agency.  These conditions of injustice placed a mantle of responsibility on the Church to develop paths toward justice in the world.[14] Like Christ Jesus, the Church’s actions and teachings must unite in an indivisible way, the relationship of human society to God and to one another. Like Jesus, the Church faithful must be willing to give their total lives for the liberation of men and women by defending the dignity and fundamental rights of the human person.

This survey of the Catholic Church’s teachings on communion is admittedly incomplete, but this brief synapsis indicates a strong ecclesial tradition that understands that the Church’s mission to proclaim the gospel occurs through a two-fold action; namely, the creating of community and addressing issues of social justice; thereby, embodying Jesus’ call to liberation and communion. This provides a foundation that can serve as a bridge between the black American community and the American Catholic Church.  However, first let us develop an understanding of how community is reflected in the black experience in American and its relationship with black theology.

African American Value of Community

The emphasis on community has been a primary religious value of black Americans that emerged early on from the influence of the first African slaves brought into America. John Mbiti, an African philosopher, notes:

Traditional [African] religions are not primarily for the individual, but for the community of which he is part. Chapters of African religion are written everywhere in the life of the community, and in the traditional society, there are no irreligious people. To be human is to belong to the whole community, and to do so involves participating in the beliefs, ceremonies, rituals and festivals of that community. A person cannot detach themselves from the religion of his group for to do so is to be severed from one’s roots, one’s foundation, one’s context of security, one’s kinships and the entire group of those who make a person aware of their own existence. . . To be without religion amounts to a self-excommunication from the entire life of the society, and African peoples do not know how to exist without religion.[15]

The African inclination toward community was not destroyed through the Atlantic Slave trade. African slaves desired the intimacy of the family. To satisfy this desire, black slaves forged an extended family as well as a new culture from the diverse African cultures that were fused during slavery. Peter Paris tells us that when African American slaves and their descendants referred to themselves using the terms “African”, “negro”, and “colored”, they were reconstituting themselves into a new tribal unity or community. Through this community, they sought to preserve their dignity and self-respect, even though the same terms were used by the white culture to denigrate and oppress Africans.[16] They therefore adhered to “the primary goal of African moral life [which was] the preservation and enhancement of the community.”[17] When the “slave appropriated the formal features of their slave holders’ Christianity, with respect to ritual practices, language and symbols, they invested each of them with new meanings… [Community remained] the paramount moral and religious value among African peoples.”[18]

The concept “black community” became the appellation used to regard their community as an extension of family that was not restricted to blood relatives but included neighbors and friends. Even in the contemporary black community, the use of family titles such as brother, sister, and cousin to refer to playmates, family friends, and neighbors, regardless of actual familial ties, is commonplace. This essential concept of community is the basis upon which black theology and was built.

The Evolution of the Black Church

The black struggle for liberation and community within church and society has an interrelated history. Both the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in the America compromised their authentic Christian identity by imitating within their own structures the same racial division characteristic of the surrounding society. Black members were subjected to the same segregation, marginalization, and devaluation within the Church as they were accorded in society. The churches uncritically adopted the prevailing racist ideology and relegated the Christian principle of the unity of humankind exclusively to the spiritual realm.

Historically, white supremacist ideology and an uncritical ethnocentrism led to the relegation of Blacks to the back pews of white churches. In Protestant communities, excluded from slaveholding congregations or denominations, separate Black Protestant denominations began to be established in 1750.[19] The first Black Protestant denominations arose out of the desire of Blacks to overcome the structural oppression of the white “Christian” churches whose social and religious practices denied the full humanity of its Black members and thus their identity as person made in the image of God.

In separate churches, black Protestants could nurture and sustain their God-given identity, dignity, and culture as well as to experience community as a spiritual and visible reality. The use of the adjective “African” suggests that these separate black Protestant churches sought to adhere to the cultural value of community within their new churches in a manner that characterize their African ancestors and the authentic Christian tradition.

In Catholic churches, black Catholics, in their attempts to hold fast to the Christian tradition of class and racial inclusion, initially resisted the formation of separate parishes. They chose to establish “colored Catholic” organizations and fraternities. These groups focused on three activities simultaneously. First, they provided the spiritual nurture and affirmation of their full humanity and dignity denied to them in mixed congregations. Secondly, they combated the mistreatment of Blacks within Church and society. Finally, they struggled for inclusion by active participation within the mission and ministries of the Church as religious women, ordained men, and active laity.[20]

The perceived assumption, by both Catholic and Protestant white churches, of black intellectual or moral inferiority clouded their full acceptance and integration within these ecclesial communities. This marginalization denied the Black American legitimate inclusion as full participants in community which, due to their inherited African roots, was essential to their identity. This caused the emergence of their own theology; a black theology.

The Emergence of Black Theology and the Modern Black Church

The origin of black theology has two significant contexts—the civil rights movement and the appearance of black nationalism.  It is by no accident that those who directly influenced the development of black theology in the twentieth century were also deeply involved in the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.  Black theology did not come into existence from graduate study in seminaries or religious universities; rather, it emerged out of the struggle for black persons to be treated with human dignity by society and the Church. Initiated by the segregated Black Church, black theology was understood “as Christian theological reflection upon the black struggle for justice and liberation.”[21]

As is commonly known, the most prolific activist theologian and spiritual leader of the twentieth century was Martin Luther King, Jr. His writings emphasize the consistent centrality of community in the African American ethical tradition and the integral relationship of justice, and community within that tradition. King’s leadership in the civil rights movement, although public, was never political; rather, it was a theological and ethical movement grounded in a notion of community. King’s dream of the future for America and the world was expressed in his concept of “the beloved community,”

Contrary to current reverence for his work, King was not well received by the white American church establishment.  Because blacks received little or no theological support from white churches, King had to search deep within his own history to find theological basis for their civil commitment to liberate black people. When King investigated into his religious history, he was reminded that the struggle of the black community did not begin in the 1950s with his Montgomery Bus Boycott, but had its roots stretching back to the days of slavery. To forge a theological witness to this knowledge, King, and later others, initiated the development of a black theology that rejected racism and affirmed the black struggle for liberation.

Thus, King’s activism included strategic principles for the achievement of political and civil rights, but the purpose of that achievement was ultimately the establishment of an inclusive human community rooted in the Judeo-Christian love ethic. King once noted: “It is true that as we struggle for freedom in America, we will have to boycott at times. But we must remember… that a boycott is not an end …the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.”[22]

Most remember King for his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in August of 1963. However, the integration theme in the black community began to lose ground after the march on Washington. It was replaced by the black nationalist philosophy of Malcolm X.[23] The riots in the ghettoes of US cities were evidence that many blacks agreed with Malcolm’s contention that America was not a dream; rather, a nightmare.[24]  After Malcolm’s assassination in 1965, the term “black power” began to replace the term “integration” among many civil rights activists.  This rise in black power had a profound effect upon the appearance of black theology.

James Cone defines black power as “an attitude, an inward affirmation of the essential worth of blackness.”[25] For the black community, the black power statement was the beginning of the conscious development of a black theology in which black ministers separated their understanding of the Gospel of Jesus from white Christianity, and identified it with the struggles of the oppressed, marginalized, and poor black community.  The was a distinct detraction from prior understandings within the Black Church.  Although black Christians contended that the racist behavior of white churches were wrong, they assumed that the theology of whites was essentially correct.[26] The black clergy in response to black power, was suggesting for the first time that white Christianity and the theology that justified it were empty.  Black church leaders soon openly denounce white racism as the antichrist and would become unrelenting in their attack on its demonic presence in white churches.  It was in this context that the term “black theology” emerged.


Inspired by these developments, James Cone attempted to confront the silent complicity of Christian theologians and the churches in the continued perpetuation of racism. His initial work called for a profound paradigm shift in theology as well as within ecclesial structures and social patterns of relationship. Such a shift required an examination of the limits of the prevailing interpretations of Christology and ecclesiology that had legitimized ecclesial and social racism.

Examining the meaning and mission of the Church from the perspective of black theology can both strengthen and challenge the theological understanding of “communion.” Black ecclesiology, according to Cone, insists

The Church is that people called into being by the power and love of God to share in his revolutionary activity for the liberation of man. . .  The Church . . . consists of people who have been seized by the Holy Spirit and who have the determination to live as if all depends on God. It has no will of its own, only God’s will; it has no duty of its own, only God’s duty. Its existence is grounded in God.[27]

Therefore, the Church of Christ is not bounded by standards of race, class, or occupation. According to Cone, the Church is not a building or an institution, nor is it determined by bishops, priests, or ministers; rather, the Church is God’s suffering people. Cone has taken very literally the words of Ignatius of Antioch, “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church.”[28]

Cone reminds us that the Church is not defined by those who faithfully attend Sunday worship. As he says, “Christ was not crucified on an altar between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves…he is not in our peaceful, quiet, comfortable churches, but in the ghetto fighting”[29] suffering and injustice. Here, Cone is articulating the first of five characteristics of the Church; namely, the Church must suffer with the suffering—including the black community. In addition to this essential characteristic of the Church, Cone identifies three more distinguishing characteristics of the Church that require its orientation to be toward the black community.

In the New Testament, the Church has essentially three functions: preaching (kerygma), service (diakonia), and fellowship (koinonia).  Preaching (kerygma) means proclaiming to the world what God has done for man in Jesus Christ.  The Church’s mission is to tell the world about Christ’s victory over the alien hostile forces.  Through Cone’s lens, we can compare Christ’s work on the cross to warfare.  Through this lens, the task of the Church is to tell the world that the decisive battle in the war has been fought and won by Christ. Translated into the modern black experience, Christ has set the black community free from the enslavement of white power and privilege.  This means the Church’s task is tell the oppressed, including the black community, that the powers that have oppressed them, that of racism and white privilege, has been commuted.  Stated more precisely, the Church must proclaim the kerygma of liberation to the black community.[30]

Furthermore, the Church not only preaches the Gospel of liberation, it must also join Christ in the work of liberation.  This is the diakonia or service of the Church. Though the decisive battle has been fought and won against injustice, the war is not over. It is the work of the Church to join Christ in the fight against evil. Cone cites Thomas Wieser this way,

The way of the church is related to the fact that the Kyrios Lord himself is on his way in the world…and the church has no choice but to follow him who precedes.  Consequently, obedience and witness to the Kyrios require the discernment of the opening which he provides and the willingness to step into this opening.[31]

Christ Jesus has made the opening, and the Church must follow. In the twenty-first century, where does he lead his people? He leads them to the black community.

Through the preaching of the Gospel, the Church calls the world to be responsible to God’s act in Christ, and through its service it seeks to bring it about.  But according to Cone, “The Church’s preaching and service are meaningful insofar as the Church itself is a manifestation of the preached Word.”[32] In this way the Church is also fellowship (koinonia). The Church must be in its own community what it preaches and what is seeks to accomplish in the world.[33]

Ultimately, the Black liberation ecclesiology of James Cone has emphasized that the Church as the Body of Christ must exhibit four characteristics: 1) it must suffer with the suffering; 2) it must proclaim the kerygma of liberation to Blacks as the liberating message of God’s reign; 3) it must join in the struggle for liberation against the political, economic and social systems that contradict the Gospel of Jesus’ liberating activity; and 4) it must be in its own community what it preaches and what it seeks to accomplish in the world, it must be a visible manifestation that the gospel is a reality.

Black Theology and the Catholic Church—Broadening their Theological Horizons

In his 1998 apostolic letter, Tertio millennio adveniente, Pope John Paul II declared that the year 2000 was to be a Jubilee Year during which Catholics were called to embrace the joy of repentance and conversion, a joy based upon the forgiveness of sins.[34] Foremost on John Paul’s mind was disunity within the Christian Church, intolerance, the use of violence in the service of truth, and religious indifference. Because those sins that “have been detrimental to the unity willed by God for his people” are among those which require a greater commitment to repentance and conversion, the Church has been invited to become “more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel and instead of offering to the world the witness of life inspired by the values of faith, they indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal.”[35]

In his apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America, summarizing the Synod of America held in late 1997, John Paul also stressed this call for repentance and conversion.[36] He urged Catholics in America to engage in a new evangelization. He emphasized that conversion is possible only if it is rooted in one’s encounter with Jesus in the New Testament, in the liturgy, and in the “real and concrete situation” of the complex reality of America.[37] Only by being reconciled with God can we be “prime agents” of “true reconciliation with and among [our] brothers and sisters.”[38] The Catholic Church, which “embraces men and women of every nation, race, people and tongue” is called to be ‘in a world marked by ideological, ethnic, economic and cultural division,’ the ‘living sign of the unity of the human family’.”[39]

John Paul called the Church in America to a communion within and beyond itself. Commitment to communion is integrally connected to a commitment to black liberation. A social historical appropriation of communion ecclesiology in the context America will require a radical conversion by which the Church acknowledge the sinful nature of the systems of oppression within its ecclesial institutions and society which divide the human community. Acknowledgment of its complicity in the social sins that divide American society is only the beginning of the conversion. The Church must seek the forgiveness of those whom she has victimized by her past injustices; including the black community. Finally, both parties must work together toward human solidarity rooted in their shared emphasis of communion.

Within the Church, this reconciliation must be manifested in the development of more inclusive patterns of relationship between the black Catholic faithful and the Church. These patterns must allow the full participation of faithful black members of the Church in decision making, ministerial and social actions of the Church according to their capacity. Outside the walls of the Church, the call to communion resonates within both the larger black community and the Church.  They both possess a deep desire for liberation of the most vulnerable from dehumanizing patterns of relationship. This is where the emphasis must be placed.

Posing the question of what it means for a local church to live in “Pentecost communion,” Richard Marzheuser suggests that a local parish must “welcome all [Christians] … regardless of their nation, people, tribe, or language… In the triumph of Pentecost ‘there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and free, but Christ is all in all’ (Colossians 3:11).”[40] In view of the history of oppression within the America, Marzheuser’s interpretation regarding the ideal of Pentecost communion provides the perfect picture of Christianity, but I assert that such a reality between the black community in American and the Catholic Church is possible only if both engage in the process of reconciliation based on community outlined in this essay.

The Christian social justice tradition, as illustrated in the life of Christ and evident in his Gospel, impels the Catholic Church in America to break her silence about the marginalization, devaluation, and, systemic oppression of blacks and other groups within the ecclesial, social, economic, and political institutions of this nation. The Catholic Church must begin to engage the new theological voices that have emerged in the last half of the twentieth century associated with black liberation theology. Likewise, black theological voices must continue to mature and deepen as they engage Catholic theologians whose cultural, class, and religious traditions differ from their own. Such a theological dialogue will reveal areas of continuity and discontinuity. While new questions will be raised, new understandings of God, Christ, and the Church will undoubtedly emerge. Both black liberation theologies and Catholic communion ecclesiology compel each to engage in a rigorous dialogue with scholars from diverse cultural contexts within this nation as we search the images and metaphors for God and God’s mission that embody the truth and justice of those who desire to live in communion with God.

Cone’s early experience made him initially less optimistic then King about the possibility of white American Christians transcending the boundaries of racism and the other systems of oppression that mitigate against the full historical embodiment or visible manifestation of communion in our ecclesial communities. Still he held fast to the image of King’s beloved community and urged the black churches to engage in the ongoing conversion and transformation that will signal the full realization of this vision of communion in its broadest and most inclusive manifestation in our world. Cone insists, with Malcolm X, that the distinct contribution of the black experience and scholarship including black theology must become primary agents of both liberation and communion. Cone asserted, “We were created for each other and not against each other. We must, therefore, break down the barriers that separate people from one another. As we seek the beloved community of humankind.”[41] Cone’s vision is faithful to that of the Church understood as communion. Fidelity to that vision will lead black theologians and the American Catholic Church to broaden their horizons and embrace the whole human community through intra-ecclesial dialogue. Such a broadening of theological horizons will lead to commitment to the realization of a just Church and society in which the Catholic Church and the black community dwell together in the communion of love.


Black liberation theology and Catholic communion ecclesiology are not opposing theologies. One presupposes the other. No one can enter into full communion if one’s relationship to the other is marked by indifference or oppression. As the Church enters the start of the third millennium, she has an opportunity to acknowledge their past individual and social sins, to ask forgiveness of one another, and to commit themselves to the living in communion as the people of God that Jesus envisioned at the end of his earthly sojourn. One can become one with others only if one can speak the truth of one’s sinful past, asking and granting forgiveness, and reaching out to one another in a spirit of reconciling love and solidarity. Community is the pattern of communion manifest in the Triune God. This oneness can serve as a model of ecclesial and human communion. Only when the American Catholic Church speak and live in truth can she become a Church whose patterns of relationship become a sacrament of radical unity in diversity. To get to that truth one must break silent complicity with the social evil that has marred the past and continues to mar the present reality of black Americans.

Today, many question the relevance of black theology. I believe that black theology will cease to be necessary when and only when all men and women are free of sin and all that oppresses. Only then will all be embraced into the oneness for which Jesus prayed in fulfillment of his mission to lead all creation back to the fullness of communion with God, with one another, and with all creation; black and white.



Bibliography and Works Consulted

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Cannon, Katie G., Black Womanist Ethics. Atlanta: Scholars Publishing, 1988.

Costen, Melva Wilson, African American Christian Worship. Nashville: Abingdon, 1993.

Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2011.

_____A Black Theology of Liberation: Fortieth Anniversary Edition. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2010, original 1986.

_____God of the Oppressed. Revised edition. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1997, original 1975

_____Black Theology & Black Power. Revised edition. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1997, original 1969

_____Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1991.

_____For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1984.

Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion, accessed April 15, 2017;

Congress of Colored Catholics of the United States, Three Catholic Afro-American Congresses. New York: Ayer Company Publishing, 1980.

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_____Tertio millennio adveniente, accessed April 15, 2017;

Massingale, Bryan N., Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2010.

_____”James Cone and Recent Catholic Episcopal Teaching on Racism,” Theological Studies 61, 2000, 700-732.

Mbiti, John S., African Religions and Philosophy, 2nd Edition. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinmann, 1990.

Paris, Peter, The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search for a Common Moral Discourse. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.

Phelps, Jamie T., “Communion Ecclesiology: Implications for Ecclesial and Social Transformation in the Black Catholic Community,” in Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience, edited by M. Shawn Copeland. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2009.

_____”John R. Slattery’s Missionary Strategies” in US Catholic Historian 7, 1988, 202-236.

Pinkey, Alphonso, Red, Black, and Green: Black Nationalism in the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

X, Malcolm and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballentine Books, 1992, original 1965.

[1] Bryan N. Massingale, “James Cone and Recent Catholic Episcopal Teaching on Racism,” Theological Studies 61 (2000), 700.

[2] Ibid., 702

[3]  Bishops’ Committee on Black Catholics, For the Love of One Another: A Special Message on the Occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of Brothers and Sisters to Us (Washington DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1989) 39, 41.

[4]  Bishop Joseph Francis, “Revisiting Five Bishops’ Pastorals: Justice for All,” Origins 20 (1991) 659 as cited in Massingale, Theological Studies 61 (2000) previously cited.

[5] Bryan N. Massingale, Racial Injustice and the Catholic Church, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books), 68-70.

[6] Ibid., 70

[7] Jamie T. Phelps, O.P., “Communion Ecclesiology: Implications for Ecclesial and Social Transformation in the Black Catholic Community,” in Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience, edited by M. Shawn Copeland (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books), 116

[8] “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion,” Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, accessed April 15, 2017,

[9] Phelps, Uncommon Faithfulness, 117

[10] Ibid., 117-119, emphasis added.

[11] Jamie T. Phelps, “Communion Ecclesiology and Black Liberation Theology,” Theological Studies 61(200), 675.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 675-677

[15]  John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1990), 3.

[16] This is prevalent in the black community today, particularly among movie screenwriters, hip-hop musicians, and athletes who frequently use what is common referred to as “derogatory terms” to signify their continued connection to the impoverished black community.

[17] Peter Paris, The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search for a Common Moral Discourse (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) 63-72.

[18] Ibid., 89

[19] Melva Wilson Costen, African American Christian Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 78; A complete listing of separate Black Protestant congregations and denominations founded between the years 1758 and 1908 is found on pages 83–86, but its inclusion is beyond the scope of this essay.

[20] Three Catholic Afro-American Congresses (New York: Arno, 1978). These 19th-century lay congresses sought to combat the impact of racial prejudice on blacks within the Church. They also provided a space where Blacks could act as agents of their own mission and evangelization in collaboration with white priests, religious women and men, and others engaged in Catholic ministry among blacks. I also consulted, though not cited directly, Jamie T. Phelps, “John R. Slattery’s Missionary Strategies,” U.S. Catholic Historian 7 (Spring1988), 202–5. In this work, Phelps reveals that black Catholics often argued against separate churches since this accommodated racial prejudice rather than combating it. Slattery argued for separate churches for blacks.

[21] James Cone, For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1984), 7

[22] Martin Luther King Jr as quoted in Katie G. Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics (Atlanta: Scholars, 1988), 173

[23] See Alphonso Pinkey, Red, Black, and Green: Black Nationalism in the United States, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) for a detailed study of black nationalism. The best source for an introduction to Malcolm X’s nationalist views is Alex Hailey’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, (New York: Grove Publishing, 1964).

[24] For the impact of the riots of the US ghettoes on the civil rights movement, see Vincent Harding’s The Other American Revolution, (Los Angeles: University of California Center of African American Studies, 1980).

[25] James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1969), 8.

[26] Before the rise of black theology, black churches accepted uncritically the theology of white churches, using their doctrines and creeds as if racist behavior of whites had no impact upon their view of the gospel.

[27] Cone, Black Power, 63-65

[28] Ignatius of Antioch, The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, accessed April 22, 2017;


[29] Ibid., 66

[30] Ibid., 67 and James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1986), 131

[31] Ibid., 68

[32] Cone, Black Power, 70.

[33] Genuine black liberation theology, according to Cone, would include embracing a “Black Jesus.” If the Church is a continuation of the Incarnation, and if the Church and Christ are where the oppressed are, then Christ and the Church must identify totally with the oppressed to the extent that they too suffer for the same reasons. In America, blacks are oppressed for their blackness; therefore, liberation could only be realized by Christ and the Church becoming black. See James Cone, For My People, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1984) pgs. 53-96

[34] John Paul II, Tertio millennio adveniente, No. 31; accessed April 15, 2017;

[35] Ibid., 33

[36] John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, No. 3; accessed April 15, 2017;

[37] Ibid., No. 12-13

[38] Ibid., No. 32

[39] Ibid.

[40] Richard Marzheuser, “The Holy Spirit and the Church: A Truly Catholic Communio,” New Theology Review 11 (1998), 63–64.

[41] Ibid., 318

Author Profile

Cary Dabney, MDiv
Mr. Cary Dabney is the Director of African American Ministries for the Diocese of Cleveland.

Cary is a graduate of Youngstown State University with a BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies, along with a minor in Classical Greek Studies. He has also received a Masters of Divinity from Harvard University, and a Catechetical Certificate from the Theological Institute for the New Evangelization at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts.

In addition to his parish responsibilities, Mr. Dabney is currently an adjunct faculty member at Walsh University in Canton, Ohio, as well as working on his doctorate in systematic theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Cary is happily married to his wife, April, and they have been blessed with six children and four grandchildren.