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  • Black Catholicism
  • Edward E. Curtis and Sylvester A. Johnson


This roundtable features six scholarly assessments of the historical and theoretical challenges that emerge when we consider the participation of African and African-descended peoples in the Catholic tradition. The subject of Black Catholicism is garnering new attention from researchers for several reasons. Although the presence of Christianity in West-Central Africa is usually associated with European conquest and colonialism, it is instructive to consider that the Kingdom of Kongo voluntarily adopted Christianity—specifically Catholicism—in the early 1500s as its official religion. In fact, the Kingdom of Kongo became an official diocese, operating under the auspices of Lisbon. From that point on, Catholicism played a central role in shaping the social fabric of Kongolese life by introducing novel religious practices and material cultures, by opposing or affirming preexisting cultural systems through ideology and institutions, and by participating in transnational networks of affiliation, travel, and intellectual formation.

Scholars have also begun to appreciate that a significant minority of Blacks arrived in the Americas from West-Central Africa as Christian-identified peoples. Because Spanish and Portuguese colonialism proceeded under the official auspices of Catholicism, these colonizers organized civic and disciplinary institutions that frequently imposed Catholicism to one degree or another on free and enslaved Africans. For instance, the largest [End Page 244] population of free Africans in the Americas during the seventeenth century lived in New Spain. There the Spanish monarch had instituted an inquisition that exerted control over the lives of Africans enslaved and free with considerable efficacy and often ironic consequences. We now know that many Africans manipulated the inquisition’s requirement that subjects participate in heteropatriarchal marriage to create legitimate familial connections—their marriages were recognized in law and practice. In St. Augustine, the oldest colonial city in North America, Catholic Africans maintained an army devoted to making perpetual reprisals against British plantations in the Lowcountry. And in Brazil, African-descended peoples loyal to the expansive religious system of Orisha devotion have for centuries identified as loyal communicants of Catholicism. Although most Africans under Atlantic slavery were not converted to Christianity, those who did convert were overwhelmingly affiliated with Catholicism. This means it is not Protestantism but Catholicism that constituted the majority of Black Christian experience in the Americas, a pattern that still holds true today.

There is at least one other major area of inquiry for which this roundtable has implications: the issue of Catholicism in the Americas or as a transatlantic phenomenon. Throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, during and after the period of Atlantic slavery under the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese empires, most of the people who have lived their lives under the sign of Catholicism have been Native American and African descended, not European. Researchers will need to consider whether this fact requires any particular methodological or theoretical changes in the study of American Catholicism more broadly. As some of our roundtable authors explain, for instance, simultaneous participation in multiple religious traditions has been the rule and not the exception for African-descended people’s historical involvement with Catholicism. This might have important implications for how scholars recognize what constitutes the Catholic tradition.

We are pleased to offer this roundtable, and we invite our readers to consider the important questions and observations the authors offer for understanding the form and substance of Black Christianity in its global context. [End Page 245]



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pp. 244-245
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