“To be Christian is to be Catholic.”
I’m sure there was a time when this was uncontroversially true. Perhaps not now, but it’s a considerable thought to ponder.
Even today, to be Christian is to be inextricably linked to Catholicism, like it or not. Historically, theologically, geographically, ministerially, even adversarially—however you slice it, the Christian’s roots are somehow in the Councils, in the Creeds, and in the Catholic (“universal” or “all-encompassing”) Christian faith.
But in the Christianity of 2019, few things are more controversial than that truth, at least among those who care to think about it.
Especially in the American Christian discourse, there is a running undercurrent within Protestant thought that says, “Catholicism is pagan.” How different groups parse out that belief can vary, but the influence of such thinking on our country is clear. Where I grew up was no exception.
Evansville, Indiana, situated on the banks of the Ohio River, is not exactly Midwestern, but not exactly Southern either. But as it is, both the Midwest and the South tend to skew Protestant, culturally and theologically. This plays out in common terminology (“Are you Catholic, or Christian?”), common practice (*staying the heck away from each other’s’ faith communities*), and common misconceptions (“Catholics worship Mary, you know. And bow down to statues. It’s just not Biblical!”).
And that’s before considering race relations.
If the Average Joe Protestant is uninformed on the basic facts of Catholic belief and practice, what do you think goes on in the African-American community, the most systemically underserved, marginalized, and undereducated group in America? Black people in America may be the group in America least-informed on—and thereby least-interested in—Catholicism, and one can hardly blame them. Restricted access to education, resources, public dignity, and equality for 400 years will do that to a people.
It was into this context that I was born.
During the first 27-odd years of my life, I attended exactly two Catholic Masses. Both were attended very reluctantly and without much comprehension or appreciation. Both were also attended after I left Evansville for and graduated from college.
I hated Catholicism. I also knew almost nothing accurate or true about it. It was no wonder: I had only a handful of Catholic friends, and I only discussed Catholicism with one of them—to compel him to leave it behind, using a variety of outrageous and fallacious sources to convince him.
I figured pretty much everyone I was close to disliked Catholicism. Besides, Catholicism was for White people; I thought there were basically no Black Catholics in Evansville. To be frank, what was not in town and not Black could not be very important to me. Going to college in Los Angeles would change that mindset slightly, but it was only upon coming to a logical understanding of Catholicism that these untruths about the world around (and within) me fully unraveled.
It started with a Christmas service at an Eastern Orthodox Church last year. Then a meeting with the priest there. Then another. And another. Eventually, I cut ties with my Protestant congregation. Or rather, they cut ties with me. In the end, it was mutual.
Then came some reading. No, a lot of reading. Soon enough, I realized that Protestantism was no longer an option for me. I had simply seen too much.
Eventually, I concluded that the Church had to subsist in either the Eastern Orthodox Church or the Catholic Church. But only one of them had retained the centralized source of dogmatic power from the early Church’s days and used it to great effect—not caving on things like divorce/remarriage and birth control, and continuing to develop dogmas and have ecumenical Councils into the modern era. History had also uniquely led them to cross paths with nearly every tribe and tongue on earth, including the African slave communities in America. My people. So I had my theological reasons as well as my socio-historical reasons. I committed to becoming Catholic.
Then came the surprises. Not that abandoning the theology of my youth (and adulthood) was expected in any way, but upon discovering that I wasn’t going to be the first African-American Catholic in history, I took on a whole new field of personal research: discovering my place in the Catholic Church, as a Black man in America, a descendant of slaves. A member of a group marginalized in America and largely in the Church as well, a group looking for a home in Heaven and a Home on earth.
Apparently African-Americans had been making their home in the Catholic Church for a long time (and Africans in general for even longer—basically since the beginning). Apparently Black Catholics teamed up with Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers in 1960s Chicago to pressure the bishops for recognition and equality—namely Black priests and Black Church liturgical practices in their parishes.
Apparently there had been a Black Catholic parish in my hometown since the 1940s, spearheaded by a progressive bishop who fought racism tooth and nail in a time when that was—to say the least—an unpopular move. Apparently my mother’s adoptive father, a pastor, did joint services and a weekly TV program with a Catholic priest in her hometown. Apparently my mother’s biological parents and grandparents were themselves Catholics. Apparently all of her siblings were baptized into the Church on the same day, at a parish a few miles from my childhood home. Around the corner from my dad’s workplace. Across the street from my doctor’s office.
It’s one thing to say, “Small world.” It’s another thing entirely to discover that your own family’s heritage existed right under your nose your entire life, unbeknownst to you, until exactly the moment you were ready to see it.
This isn’t a fairy tale, by any means. I didn’t know my maternal ancestors because my mom was almost killed by her parents when she was an infant. Fear, silence, and secrecy reigned in my family for a long time, and to an extent still does. My mother’s family is not the Catholic bulwark of the (Irish- or Italian-)American stereotype. And the larger story of Black Catholicism is not pretty, free of America’s racism, or quite yet fully realized.
But I’m glad to know now that it’s my story. My hope. My dream. My goal to reach for and claim, alongside Black saints, Black popes, and regular old Black Catholic nobodies who simply long for the “universal ideal.”
When I committed to joining the Catholic Church—to wanting not just the uncontroversial basics of Church history and theology, but the substance and source of it—I didn’t know I would find so much Black history within it. But it only makes sense. The Catholic Church is catholic.
Because of this truth, everyone who calls themselves “Christian”—not just in the Midwestern sense of “Protestant,” but in the sense of believing in the risen Lord Jesus Christ for salvation and sustenance—needs to do their due diligence in researching Catholicism. Stay off the polemical blogs and 90s-era HMTL sites that so easily entangle, and read something from a Catholic perspective. Or even a secular history book. Whatever it is and however you do it, you must seek out the truth about the religion that originally birthed your most basic doctrines, traditions, ecclesiology, and terminology. You owe it to yourself. Really.
So many converts to Catholicism—including myself—have the oh-so-simple story of just daring to seek clarity. That’s all it took. They didn’t need radical persuasion, an unbelievable epiphany, or a sign from God. Just a logical explanation of the Catholic faith, plain and simple—which unfortunately is often a far cry from what passes for “Catholicism” in the minds of many (if not most) popular Protestant thinkers and organizations. Most Protestants have no idea that they have no idea about Catholicism.
Granted, the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism are significant in many ways, and I’m not saying that adequately understanding Catholic beliefs will automatically make them all acceptable and easy to believe. But one ought not to oppose what they do not fully comprehend. So many of my friends, now that they know I’m Catholic, are asking 21 Questions about the faith and thereby admitting that they don’t really know what Catholicism is at a dogmatic level. Which for me begs the question: “Why, then, are you Protestant?”
If you can’t answer, you have work to do. It’s worth it.
Featured image: Newly-confirmed Nate Tinner-Williams and his parish priest, December 8, 2019
Nathaniel "Nate" Tinner-Williams is a co-founder and editor of the Black Catholic Messenger. He is also a theology grad/nerd and loves to engage in the New Evangelization through the internet. A lifelong Christian and newborn Catholic, he is always looking to discover just how deep and wide the Church truly is.