This is why limiting this conversation to Flannery O’Connor constitutes a failure of imagination. It’s much bigger than her. It is well documented, for example, that Chloe Anthony Morrison converted to Catholicism as a preteen and chose St. Anthony of Padua as her baptismal patron, which is how she came to be known as Toni. Yet in her work, Morrison does not evoke Catholicism in the obvious ways, such as through the religious practice of her characters, but rather through the imagery she employs: bloodied, lynched bodies in Beloved, and immense physical sacrifice made for love and the absence of other options in Sula—imagery that also calls to mind a particularly Catholic view of the Crucifixion. Sula is an especially powerful example of how nuance can actually expand our Catholic imagination. One of the characters, Helene, is a Black woman and faithful Catholic, yet when she comes to the Black town of Medallion, Ohio, from her native New Orleans, there is no Catholic church for her to attend. So she chooses to join “the most conservative black church” instead. I first read Sula as an undergraduate student, only a few years after Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature. Encountering a character in literature who was a Black Catholic woman, even a relatively minor character like Helene, was joyously expansive to my own imagination. It was truly a revelation! The way Morrison tells us the Catholic Church did not have the infrastructure to minister to Helene in her new home was also a revelation, and not a joyous one. In a single sentence she makes a major statement about the Catholic Church’s failure to serve its Black members.
Louise Erdrich, winner of the National Book Award and two-time winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, does something similar in examining Catholicism’s impact on Native American communities in the Midwest. The character Sister Leopolda, who appeared in Erdrich’s debut novel, Love Medicine, features in much of her earlier work, and even haunts The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, which takes place after her death and as her cause for canonization is investigated. Sister Leopolda is abusive, violent, and destructive, and by extension represents the domineering, even cruel, institution of which she is a part. There is also Father Damien, the main character in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, who is beloved by those on the reservation where he lives and serves, even though he promotes Catholicism at the expense of traditional Ojibwe practices. Erdrich’s depiction of Catholicism is not as corporeal as Morrison’s, but it’s no less painful.
These two writers, from the two most marginalized communities in the United States and in U.S. Catholicism, present us with an institution that wounds those already wounded by the broader society. Could that be why they’re not readily identified with the Catholic literary imagination? Yet, this is exactly what we need the broader Church to be—an institution that is willing to fully acknowledge and articulate the ways it has hurt its members. And we have to be imaginative enough to embrace the possibility of that.
Not long before her death, Sr. Thea Bowman addressed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:
What does it mean to be Black and Catholic? It means that I come to my Church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it? I come to my Church fully functioning. I bring myself, my Black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become, I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as a gift to the Church.
Bowman said this after having survived a pattern of racism and racialized abuse from her own religious community that probably would have compelled others to turn away not only from their vocation, but also from the Church entirely. Her biographers describe how she was often treated as a novelty instead of a person, and recount how at the age of sixteen she was told by older sisters in her community that “Black people go to nigger heaven together with the dogs and other animals.”
We all need to be reminded of Sr. Thea Bowman’s witness and her work—those of us who bear the wounds of racism and those who inflict them. It matters who we choose to honor in public spaces, both as a society and a Church. It matters who we choose to celebrate. Currently, there are no Black saints from the United States. That could change, and it needs to: Bowman is one of several Black Americans under consideration for canonization. Naming a building for her and championing her cause for canonization solidifies her legacy and ensures that she is known not only among Black Catholics, but also among all Catholics. Better still, it extols the bravery required to unwind the racism that is woven into our Church.
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