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  • Cyprian Davis and the Black Catholic Intellectual Vocation
  • Bryan N. Massingale

Theological reflection is an intellectual activity whose questions and modes of analysis are conditioned by the cultural resources and social interests of those who engage in it. Paraphrasing an insight of the African American theologian, James Cone, a people’s social and cultural environment in a large measure determines the kinds of religious questions they ask.

The historical circumstance which most decisively affects the theological and ethical intellectual endeavors of African Americans is the reality of racism, that is, the existence of an unequal distribution of power, privilege, and prestige based upon race—and the beliefs used to justify and defend such disparities. Racism has constantly and consistently stymied the quest of black Americans for justice, acceptance, and equal access to social, political, and economic opportunity.

My assertion that black intellectual pursuits are influenced by the reality of racism is not meant to deny either the diversity of the black community or the pluralism present in the black experience. That is, many other factors also influence or condition African American perceptions of reality, not the least of these being gender and class. Such factors notwithstanding, the experience common to all visible African Americans is the rejection, humiliation, and otherwise pejorative treatment which stems from the dominant culture’s insidious, pervasive, albeit largely unarticulated, belief that most blacks are intellectually, culturally, and morally inferior to whites.

This essay seeks to articulate—even excavate—the experience of being Black, Catholic, and scholar of religion.1 How does such the “Black Experience,” that is, the experience of contending with the crushing ordinariness of daily assaults upon one’s [End Page 65] talent, beauty, character and intelligence—qualify theological work so that it makes a distinctive contribution to the Church’s understanding of faith and what it requires? What unique insight does this cultural experience provide to the craft of religious scholarship? Why should this experience matter to the rest of the Church? And on a more personal level, but more existentially relevant especially for the Black Catholic faithful: Given the history and continuing reality of the Catholic Church’s complicity in white racial privilege, why would a black man choose not only to belong to it, but also to serve it as a scholar and minister?

Cyprian Davis’ contribution to Catholic historical scholarship is well-known. His award-winning and seminal explorations of the African American presence and contribution to the Catholic Church are classic texts and examples of the historian’s craft. But Cyprian2 is not only the “dean” of black historical scholarship. Through his labors, example, and mentorship, he has also been a pioneer and a foremost practitioner of Black Catholic intellectual life in the latter part of the twentieth century. Yet this aspect of Cyprian’s vocation has not been well studied or noticed. This essay seeks to rectify this oversight and attempts to discern how Cyprian’s work and ministry illuminate the distinctive characteristics of Black Catholic intellectual life.

My goal, then, is to situate the vocation of the Black Catholic religious scholar within the context of both African American intellectual life and Catholic theology. I will structure my remarks by first reflecting upon the vocation or self-understanding of the black scholar; then, of the Catholic theologian; and then of the Black Catholic theologian. I will conclude with some reflections on how Cyprian’s life work illustrates what might be considered as the marks of the Black Catholic intellectual.

Prolegomenon: The Compounded Marginality of Black Catholic Intellectual Life

Before undertaking this project, it is necessary to consider the marginality of black Americans in accounts of U.S. intellectual life, the omission of religious intellectuals in accounts of black intellectual life, and the absence of Black Catholic scholarship in U.S. and black accounts of intellectual life. This helps us to better appreciate the import and originality of Cyprian’s vocation and the genuine contribution he makes to American and Catholic scholarship.

Clarence Taylor’s conclusion to his path-breaking study of black religious intellectual life puts the matter directly and without varnish: “Intellectual history in the [End Page 66] United States usually has been described as...


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