Through the Prism of Race: The Post-Vatican II Era in Detroit and Baltimore

“…Catholic church in the nation? What was lost and what was gained in this turbulent period, and how should this calculus inform pastoral policy today? ”

Team Members/Contributors

Leslie W Tentler Catholic University Contact Me

About this award

My hope in this grass-roots look at the post-Vatican II period in the archdioceses of Baltimore and Detroit is to help create a usable past for today’s Catholic leaders. Few of them, in my experience, have much sense of the extent to which the racial politics of the period intersected with, and helped to shape, reception of the Council’s reforms or the new understandings of ecclesial authority that emerged in these difficult years. Even disputes over sexual discipline, such as birth control or remarriage after divorce, not infrequently had a racialized sub-text. I have chosen Detroit and Baltimore as “test cases” both because of their prominent progressive leadership and the severity of their racial tensions. Both cities experienced pronounced deindustrialization in the post-Council period and dramatic population decline. And in both cities, the principal racial battles of the post-Council years pitted white Catholics against African-Americans.

If the Catholic Church in the two archdioceses experienced decline in an institutional sense after the mid-1960s, these same years also witnessed a growing consciousness among Catholics of the universalist ethic at the heart of Christianity. They became a less parochial people, measurably less racist in their views and far more open to ecumenism. By telling the story of the post-Council years in two particularly turbulent locales I want not only to embed the Catholic story more firmly in a larger American narrative but also to complicate that story. Today’s Catholic leaders, whether at the local or national levels, cannot solve the considerable problems of their church without a more sophisticated understanding of its recent past.