Catholicism in the Americas

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Catholicism in the Americas


Numbering some two billion in all, one of every three people in the world today is Christian, half of them Catholic. Fifty percent of all Catholics live in the Americas, where the three countries with the largest Catholic populations in the worldBrazil, Mexico, and the United Statesare located. In all, more than sixty percent of the population of the Americas is Catholic, with the highest numbers of African-descended Catholics being found in Brazil (forty million), Colombia (fifteen million), the Dominican Republic (eight million), and Haiti (six million). In all, eighty million of the five-hundred million Catholics in the Americasor roughly sixteen percentare of African descent, with three-fourths of this population residing in Latin America and the balance residing in the Caribbean and North America.

However, these figures are to some degree misleading, as millions of other blacks in the Americas practice African-derived religions such as Vodou, Santería, and Candomblé, which draw considerable symbolic and ritualistic substance from Catholicism. Therefore, Catholic influence in the Americas, among both African-descended and indigenous peoples, extends far beyond the confines of formal parish membership and dogmatic obedience. It is also important to take into account the complicity of the Roman Catholic Church in the epic horrors of the transatlantic slave trade that made the region the major part of the African diaspora that it is, for many slaves never embraced Catholicism sincerely, just as many of their descendants are concerned with the faith's healing potential rather than with being the kinds of orthodox believers that the Church hierarchy would prefer. Nevertheless, the vast majority of black Catholics in the Americas are (and always have been) sincere in their faith and find abundant meaning, solace, and hope in belonging to the world's largest religious community.

Bulls, Sacraments, and Slavery in the "New World"

Christianity's long acceptance of slavery received its most momentous doctrinal sanction in the form of a series of papal bulls, beginning with Romanus pontifex, which was promulgated in 1455 to legitimate the plunder of the West Coast of Africa by the kingdoms of Portugal and Castile. The bull states that "The Roman pontiff seeking and desiring the salvation of all, wholesomely ordains and disposes upon careful deliberation those things which he sees will be agreeable to the Divine Majesty and by which he may bring the sheep entrusted to him by God into the single divine fold, [bestows] favors and special graces on those Catholic kings and princes, who not only restrain the savage excesses of the Saracens and of other infidels, but also vanquish them and their kingdoms and habitations, though situated in the remotest parts unknown to us." Thirty-eight years later, Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas would drive the Vatican to promulgate other bulls that would have immense influence and forever shape this "New World," in large part by legitimating the transatlantic slave trade and requiring the baptism of African slaves into the "single divine fold." The most important of these pontifical documents was Inter caetera, promulgated by Pope Alexander IV in 1493. This document drew a line of demarcation from the Arctic Pole to the Antarctic Pole, passing between the Azores and Cape Verde, with all "islands and mainlands remote and unknown and not hitherto discovered by others" west of the line to Spain, and those east of the line to Portugal, "to the end that you might bring to the worship of our Redeemer and the profession of the Catholic faith their residents and inhabitants."

As early as 1502, Africans were shipped to the island of Kiskeya, which the Spanish had claimed and renamed Hispaniola. The first enslaved Africans in the Caribbean were imported from Latin Europe's slave market, which was already over half a century old in Portugal. Soon, the island became the first Catholic seat of power in the Americas, home to the New World's first Catholic church, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in the capital city of Santo Domingo. In addition to Christianity, the

spanish also brought forced labor and disease to this and other American colonies, which triggered a staggering spike in the morbidity rate for the indigenous populations. Some clerics, like Bartolomé de Las Casas, were horrified by this and argued for the rights of local victims of Euro-Catholic plunder. Others, like Juan de Sepulveda, countered that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were "a thick, servile people created inferior by God, who could legitimately be constrained for the benefit of the more evolved nations" (Bien-Aimé, pp. 564-565). After several decades devoted to the Amerindian's rights and liberation, Las Casas pleaded personally before the Spanish throne, and finally, in 1542, legislation was passed that banned the forced labor of indigenous peoples in the colonies. A similar law would be codified for Portugal's American colonies in 1570.

It is altogether regrettable that this missionary who devoted the better part of his life and talents to the humanitarian concerns of the Amerindians was among the first to endorse the large-scale importation of enslaved Africans as replacement labor for the decimated indigenous population. However, it is stretching the point to suggest, as some commentators have, that Las Casas was chiefly responsible for initiating the transatlantic slave trade, for the Jeromite Fathers were also then petitioning for Africans to be enslaved and brought to the Americas. King Carlos I of Spain, moreover, had sanctioned the direct importation of slaves from Africa to New Spain as early as 1518, and by the 1530s there were already African slaves toiling in Brazil.

Despite such ecclesial promotion of slavery, many Africans quite ably managed to appropriate Catholic saints to bolster their resistance to the injustices of slavery, viewing the saints as new manifestations of the powerful spiritual beings they had known, venerated, and counted on in Africa. In Brazilian maroon communities (quilombos ) such as Palmares, for example, statues of Catholic saints were featured in redoubt shrines in order to spiritually empower the antislavery resistance struggle. The most significant Maroon community in Colombia, meanwhile, took Saint Basil as its patron (Palenque de San Bisilio ), while Maroon raiders in the early stages of the Haitian Revolution (e.g., Makaya and Romaine-la-Prophétesse) appealed to Catholic saints and biblical figures to bolster their charisma and chances on the battlefield. One of the most influential leaders of the Mexican independence struggle, furthermore, the Afro-Mexican Catholic priest José María Morelos y Pavon, saw his cause to be in large part a endeavor to raise oppressed Afro-Mexicans to positions of social and political equality. By 1812, Morelos's ultimately victorious army was comprised mostly of blacks and mulattoes. Also worthy of mention concerning Catholic resistance to slavery in colonial America is the contribution of some European Catholic missionaries, especially Jesuits, to the subversive cause, which was surely a key reason for their banishment from the Catholic New World in 1762.

Despite the Catholic Church's complicity in the brutality of the Atlantic plantation system, there were Catholic clerics who represented to enslaved Africans the compassionate side of Christianity in a heroic, and even saintly, manner. In 1610, the Spanish Jesuit Peter Claver arrived as a missionary in Cartagena, where he began a thirty-three-year ministry to African slaves, and where he became a rare abolitionist voice in one of the New World's busiest slave ports, declaring himself "a slave to the Negroes." His ministry extended onto plantations, and Claver is said to have converted 300,000 Africans to Catholicism. Around the same time, an Afro-Peruvian Dominican, Martin of Porres, demonstrated similar compassion in his establishment of an orphanage and children's hospital for Lima's poor. He also created a shelter for stray cats and dogs. Claver was canonized in 1888, and Porres in 1962, the first-ever black American saint.

While their contributions have been muted by the patriarchal and racist biases of much historical scholarship, black Catholic women in the Americas have also exhibited genuine saintliness. In spite of the evils engendered by the institutional Catholic Church on their people, both during the slave trade and during the institutionalized racism that followed in most of the Americas after abolition, these women successfully aspired to embody the true love of neighbor demanded by Jesus Christ in the Gospels. Mother Theresa Lange is one significant example. Born during the Haitian Revolution in Saint Domingue, her family fled the violence then raging in the French colony, settling for a time in Cuba before eventually immigrating to Baltimore. There, in 1828, Mother Lange, a nun of the Oblate Order, founded the first black Roman Catholic order in the United States, the Oblate Sisters of Providence. The Order established the St. Frances of Rome Academy, the oldest continuously functioning black school in the United States, and it later founded similar educational institutions in other cities.

Until the 1570s, most African slaves in the Americas toiled in Peruvian and Mexican mines. The development of plantation economies, first in Brazil, and later in the Caribbean and in the United States, would change this. By the 1780s the French (as well as the British and Dutch) had established lucrative plantations so aggressively that Saint Domingue (the western third of Hispaniola, which was ceded to them by the Spanish in 1697) had become, in the words of historian Philip Curtin, "the pinnacle of achievement of the South Atlantic system as a whole" (Curtin, p. 75). Although Dutch and British colonies would likewise draw tens of thousands of slaves in this same period, among the northern European nations it was only France that would join Spain and Portugal in shaping the Catholic foundation of the Americas, including, of course, its African and African diasporic populations and dimensions. These three imperial powers brought about sixty percent of the approximately ten million African slaves who survived the Middle Passage and arrived in the New World.

In French and Spanish colonies, a series of legal codes obliged slave owners to deliver religious instruction to their slaves. In Brazil, meanwhile, the Portuguese never codified any parallel document to regulate the treatment of slaves, though even there the application of papal bulls, at least in theory, meant that all slaves should have been indoctrinated in the Catholic faith. For the French, the most significant of these documents was le Code Noire, which was promulgated at Versailles by King Louis XIV in 1685. The first eight articles of le Code Noire dealt specifically with religion, stipulating that slaves could practice no other religion but Roman Catholicism, and that they could only be baptized, married, and buried as Catholics. Modeled largely after the le Code Noire, a series of Spanish codigos culminated with the Codigo Negro Carolina, promulgated in Santo Domingo in 1784. Reflecting Europeans' clear grasp of Catholicism's great utility as putative divine sanction for the unspeakable injustices of New World slavery, Codigo Negro Carolina labeled Africans "superstitious and fanatics inclined to poisonous acts," and explained that Catholic indoctrination was crucial to "assure internal and external security of the island because [Catholicism's] powerful influence has preserved Spanish colonies in the past."

Thus, slave owners in Spanish, French, and Portuguese America were doctrinally and legally bound to baptize into Catholicism, at the very least, roughly six million Africans and their descendants (more than half of all slaves in the New World) over a period of more than three hundred years. Yet, more often than not, the baptism of enslaved Africans was a nominal gesture. More often still, slaves who sought baptism of their own accordand many did so on numerous occasionsunderstood the sacrament in decidedly African terms as a healing ritual rather than as any sacramental demarcation of religious conversion. Moreover, most planters were loathe to expend their own and their slaves time and energy in seeing to Africans' religious instruction, and thus the Catholicism of Africans and their descendants in the Americas developed in a climate that was abundantly fertile for the development of Afro-Catholic religious syncretism, especially in Brazil, Saint Domingue, and Cuba, where emerged the great African-derived religions of Candomblé, Vodou, and Santería, respectively.

African Catholics and African Innovation in New World Catholicism

Soundly understanding the origins of black Catholicism in the Americas demands focusing some careful attention on the presence in the New World of Central Africans (who were already Catholic prior to being enslaved). The late-fifteenth century introduction by the Portuguese of Catholic saints in the kingdom of Kongo, and the baKongo's subsequent appropriation of the saints over the next quarter millennium, is, as much as any European Catholic culture, a taproot of Catholicism in the Americas. Given the strength and nature of the indigenous Kongolese ancestor and bisimbi (spirits of the soil and terrestrial waters) cults and the cosmology in which they were framed, Catholic saintswho, like ancestors, were white and would have to traverse waters (nzadi ) were they ever to visit the world of the living (nza yayi )resonated quite harmoniously with traditional Kongolese religious notions. Once Kongolese people learned about the lives of Catholic saints, they quite logically identified them with the ancestors. Ancestor/saint assimilation, furthermore, readily explains why in Kongoand in Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, and elsewhereAll Saints' Day and All Souls' Day remain so wildly popular to this day. Although accuracy in estimating the number of Kongolese Catholic slaves who arrived in the Americas is elusive, it is safe to claim that tens of thousands were, if not ardent Catholics, quite exposed to Catholicism long prior to their enslavement. These Africans, in effect, were the first significant black Catholic community in the New World, and their influence remains far greater than scholarship has heretofore shown.

Perhaps nowhere was the Kongolese Catholic influence greater than in Saint Domingue, where more than half of all slaves imported during the last half of the eighteenth century were from Central Africa. Given that the Kingdom of Kongo had been exposed to Catholicism for roughly a quarter-millennium by this time, thousands of these slaves had been born, baptized, and raised Catholic prior to their enslavement. In effect, this meant that much of the development of popular Catholic devotions in Saint Domingue were in large part extensions of Kongolese Catholic traditions, and to this day in Haiti the most popular saints in the precolonial Kingdom of the Kongothe Virgin Mary and Saint James the Greaterremain the most popular saint cults in the modern Caribbean nation. Furthermore, just as in the Kongo there was an acute shortage of ordained Catholic priests to administer the sacraments, forcing the Church to rely largely on catechists as its leaders, so too in Saint Domingue were Kongolese catechists instrumental in carrying on the faith in a religious field where orthodox sacerdotal leadership was scant and often dubious. As one colonial administrator in Saint Domingue remarked in 1761, it was "not uncommon to find them [African Catholics] acting as missionaries and priests." The value of such forms of initiative in sacerdotal Catholic leadership among Africans and their descendants was amplified, furthermore, during the decades following Haitian independence in 1804, as the Vatican refused to recognize the new republic, and thus declined to send it any priests until a concordat was signed with Port-au-Prince in 1860.

Enslaved Catholics from Central Africa also played significant roles in the origins of New World black Catholicism in the most important Portuguese and Spanish plantation colonies, namely Brazil and Cuba. According to legend, King Galanga (later named and recalled as "Chico Rei"), the leader of one small community near the mouth of the Congo River, was enslaved around 1720 and brought to Brazil. In time, Galanga managed to secure his freedom and began to build Igreja Nossa Senhora Efigenia no Alto Cruz (Church of Our Lady of Saint Efigenia of the High Cross), dedicated to one of the emergent patron saints of slaves. In Brazil, the mark of Kongolese Catholicism is also prominent in the vastly popular cult of Our Lady of the Rosary (whose feast some believe was initially established by Galanga), to whom African slaves once composed and sang hymns to the Marian icon as "Queen of the Kongo" and "Queen of Angola." Similarly, throughout Brazil, black religious societies (irmandades ) have long fused Catholic devotions with memorial feasts for ancestral Kongolese kings, the first on record occurring in 1760.

Elsewhere, African religious societies were also a major influence on the development of black Catholicism in the Americas. Usually consecrated to a particular saint, these "brotherhoods" organized feast day processions and, as much as anything else, shaped the nature of popular Catholicism in places like Brazil and Cuba. Certain black saints, like Benedict of Palermo, Our Lady of Czestochowa, and Santa Ephigenia, gained much prominence on the popular level in this way, as did the Feast of the Magi throughout the Iberian New World. Black religious societies were perhaps most germane to African innovations in New World Catholicism in Cuba, where they were called cabildos or cofradías. Sanctioned by the Cuban Catholic Church and organized according to African ethnic origins as of the mid-seventeenth century, the primary religious function of the quasi-autonomous cabildos was to indoctrinate Africans into the Catholic faith, with saint veneration taking center stage in this regard. Besides nourishing black devotion to Catholic saints, cabildos also served as mutual aid societies for slaves and free blacks alike, providing health and burial services and sometimes managing to purchase manumission. But their lasting legacy for black religion in Cuba and beyond was their fertility for Afro-Catholic syncretism. With its belief in a single creator God and a pantheon of spirits and ancestors who intervene in their lives in the here-and-now, traditional West African, and particularly Yoruba, religion was structurally resonant with Catholic understandings of spiritual beings and ritual paraphernalia, such that Catholicism, far from being adopted by Africans merely as a mask to perpetuate their ancestral traditions, was quite fluidly adapted and adopted by them. Out of the cabildos, as a result, emerged the rich (and now global) Afro-Cuban religion of Santería.

From 1804 to 2004

Beginning with Haiti in 1804 and ending with Cuba in 1888, American nations with large African-descended populations gained political independence from their respective European colonizers. The true independence of local Catholic hierarchies from European control, however, would in many places take much longer to be realized, as light-skinned archbishops and bishops from São Paolo to San Juan allied themselves with the economic and political elites that replaced European administrators. For much of its post-independence history in the Americas, the Catholic hierarchy has thus played a legitimating role for the elite and the status quo, providing invaluable religious sanction for the ravages of classist and racist oppression. Cognizant of the important role that African-derived religion played in the Haitian Revolution and in slave rebellions elsewhere, the Catholic hierarchy, whose local clergy were now under the authority of Rome rather than regional sees, soon became an agent of religious persecution against practitioners of Candomblé in Brazil, Santería in Cuba, and Vodou in Haiti. This often tragic trend would generally continue until after the Second World War, further alienating blacks from the institutional Catholic Church.

Father Charles Randolph Uncles

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1859, Uncles was baptized as a Roman Catholic at the age of sixteen at St. Francis Xavier's Church, founded in 1863 by Archbishop Spalding for the exclusive use of blacks. Uncles attended Baltimore Normal School and taught in the Baltimore County Schools from 1880 to 1883. Unable to gain admittance to local Roman Catholic colleges and seminaries because of his race, Uncles traveled to Canada in 1883 to matriculate at St. Hyacinthe's College in Quebec. He graduated with honors in 1888 and returned to Baltimore to attend St. Mary's Seminary, whose all-white student body voted unanimously to allow him to enter.

On December 22, 1891, Uncles became the first black to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest in the United States. (Previous African-American priests had been ordained in Europe.) The ceremony took place in Baltimore Cathedral and was conducted by His Eminence James Cardinal Gibbons. After his ordination, Uncles served as a professor of English, Latin, and Greek at Epiphany Apostolic Church in Walbrook, Md., transferring to Newburgh, N.Y., when the college moved there in the 1920s. He was recognized as a Latin-language expert and published a Latin grammar. The Rev. Charles Uncles was a member of the Josephite Brothers, a society founded in England in 1871 with the specific purpose of serving as missionaries to emancipated blacks in the United States. He died in 1933.

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The resultant sociocultural imbalance and irrelevance of the Catholic hierarchy, along with the Eurocentric ritualism of the Latin Mass, eventually caused many Catholics

in the Americas, especially those of the underclasses, to feel disenfranchised by their church. This opened the door for the extraordinary spread of Protestantism in the Caribbean and Latin America during the second half of the twentieth century. At the peak of the Protestant explosion in the 1970s and 1980s, several thousand Catholics were leaving their mother churchoften for Pentecostal sectsevery day. Obviously, from the Catholic standpoint, something had to be done to stem this massive outflow of apostates, and the changes in liturgy and doctrine forged at the Second Vatican Council (19621965) offered the means by which to resolve this crisis. In seeking to make the Catholic Church less archaic and alien to its global flock, and to bring it up to date (aggiornomento ), the Council empowered local churches to enculturate Catholicism in ways that would help keep people in their pews. In Brazil this meant that the Mass was said in Portuguese, while in Colombia and the Dominican Republic it was said in Spanish, and in Haiti in French and Haitian Creole. Even more important for New World Catholics of African descent, cultural and even religious expressions rooted in African traditions were integrated into communal rites, and thus the drums of Candomblé, Vodou, and Santería are beaten regularly in Catholic Masses today, from rural Colombian and Venezuelan parishes to the national cathedrals of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Also inspired in part by the Second Vatican Council and subsequent regional episcopal conferences in Medellín, Colombia (1968) and Puebla, Mexico (1979), liberation theology began to inspire Catholics throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to embody a more sociallyengaged form of Catholicism, one rooted in a "preferential option for the poor." The appeal of liberation theology to the disenfranchised masses of the region was powerful, as thousands of Catholics joined base church communities (communidades eclisiales de base, or CEBs) in response to a fresh commitment among many priests and theologians to ensure Catholic action on behalf of social justice for the downtrodden. In Brazil, where the Catholic left had been productive in social activism as early as 1959, some CEBs became important bases for black unity and consciousness. Although liberation theology would take root there somewhat later than in Brazil or Central America, nowhere were its fruits more impressive than in Haiti, where CEBs led a popular protest movement in 1986 that toppled the thirty-five-year dynastic Duvalier dictatorship. In 1990 a liberation theologian and Catholic priest, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was elected president in one of the largest margins of victory in any fair national election in the history of the Americas.

However, for all of its admirable accomplishments and its success in making the Catholic Church more concretely relevant to the poor of the Americas, liberation theology had lost much of its force by the end of the twentieth century, in part due to political repression and the fruitless martyrdom of many of its adherents. A slightly newer Catholic movement would also contribute to the decline of liberation theology in the Americas: the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Being definitively Pentecostal in its theology, ecclesiology, and practice, the Renewal encourages rebirth in the Holy Spirit and inward spiritual transformation, rather than political engagement and street protests, as the means to improve the lives of the poor. Paralleling certain principal forms of ecstatic ritual and religious experience of traditional African religion and its New World manifestations, such as speaking in tongues, faith healing, and spirit possession, it is not surprising that millions of African-descended Catholics are finding the comfortable space for free spiritual expression in the Renewal that is lacking in most other forms of communal Catholic ceremony. Attracting throngs of adherents through its formidable blend of Pentecostal spirituality and Roman Catholic tradition, today the Renewal in Latin America could count roughly twenty-five million members, or approximately half of the world total, in the early twenty-first century. Some observers would argue that these figures fall far short of the actual reality, noting that in Brazil, for example, fully half of all Catholics are now Charismatics. Statistical concerns aside, there is no doubt that the Charismatic Renewal, having overtaken the CEB movement, is currently the most impressive and dynamic movement in the contemporary Latin American, Caribbean, and North American Catholic Church. Its revivals fill soccer stadiums from Lima to Caracas, while the annual National Charismatic Congress in Haiti draws over 100,000 believers, making it the second largest gathering in the country, after carnival.

Besides the resonance of the Renewal's animated and ecstatic rituals with traditional African spirituality, another factor surely helps explain the movement's extraordinary success in the course of merely three decades. For the poor of all ethnic backgrounds, it became increasingly apparent that for all of its activism and strides in consciousness, the CEB movement ultimately failed to achieve the kind of concrete liberation that they were so longing for. The CEBs, furthermore, never offered the parallel spiritual liberation or faith healing that is central to the Charismatic Renewal. For Charismatics, the promise of liberation lies not in street protests, voter registration, or literacy campaigns, but in direct ecstatic rebirth in the Holy Spirit. For the millions of African-descended Catholics in the Americas, most of whom can be counted among the region's marginalized, the solace, hope, and solidarity that Charismatic spirituality brings is certainly to be welcomed. However, CEB enthusiasts have lamented the Renewal's social agenda as being weak and misguided. This suggests, if history indeed unfolds in dialectical processes, that a synthesis of Charismatic spirituality with the social and political agenda of the CEB movement could well amount to the greatest triumph of black Catholicism in the Americas. Indeed, concrete signs suggest that something momentous could be on the verge of happening, half a millennium after Roman Catholicism first reached the shores of the New World, as more and more Charismatics seem to be rekindling their interest in social and political reform. For black Catholics throughout the region, so much will depend on such a synthesis, as noted so eloquently by Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the first-ever African-American president of the United States Catholic Bishops Conference, in his 2004 address to the Black Caucus of the United States Congress: "For us religious leaders to deliver a message of hope is crucial, because it will be a defeat for our nation if a new atmosphere of fear and mistrust were to choke the oxygen out of the God-given concern that each of us must bear for one another, especially the underprivileged and the deprived; a commitment that we Catholics call 'Christ's preferential love for the poor'."

See also Candomblé; Oblate Sisters of Providence; Protestantism in the Americas; Religion; Santería; Slave Religions; Toussaint, Pierre; Voodoo; Yoruba Religion and Culture in the Americas

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