In this pre-pandemic file photo, Joanne Pereira sings the closing hymn during Sunday Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Alexandria, Va. CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec
In this pre-pandemic file photo, Joanne Pereira sings the closing hymn during Sunday Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Alexandria, Va. CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec

WASHINGTON – When a 176-page report is issued on a subject that hasn't been addressed comprehensively in more than a generation, it's tough to compress its findings into a few short paragraphs.

The Pew Research Center's "Faith Among Black Americans" is one such report, released Feb. 16.

The center conducted online and mail interviews of 8,660 Black Americans from fall 2019 into the early part of last summer to learn how U.S. Blacks manifest their faith. What it found will validate how some feel about their own faith. In some instances, it may provoke soul-searching.

"Millennials and members of Generation Z" – those born after 1996 – are less likely to rely on prayer, less likely to have grown up in Black churches and less likely to say religion is an important part of their lives," Pew said in the report. "Fewer attend religious services, and those who do attend are less likely to go to a predominantly Black congregation."

But 9% of Generation Z reported being Catholic, a higher percentage than the 6% across all other age groups.

Among Black Catholics, 17% said they attend a mostly Black parish, 42% said they worship at a mostly white parish, and 40% said they go to a multiracial church.

Majorities of over 60% said that historically Black congregations should diversify, and that if they're looking for a new church home, its racial makeup should be either not too – or not at all – important.

Of Blacks attending a Catholic church, 41% said they had heard a homily on racism; 39% said they had heard a sermon on abortion – 11 percentage points more than any other Protestant subset interviewed by Pew; 31% said they had heard one on voting or political engagement; and 25% said they had heard a priest speak on criminal justice reform.

If the United States is a nation of immigrants, then the Catholic Church in the United States is likewise a denomination of immigrants. Compared to 6% of all U.S. Blacks, 15% of Caribbean-born Blacks identify as Catholic, as do 20% of African-born U.S. Blacks.

The Pew report said, "African immigrants also are more likely than other Black Americans to say religion is very important in their lives, to report that they attend religious services regularly, and to believe that people of faith have a religious duty to convert nonbelievers."

Music is pretty much a given across Black Christianity. Among Black Catholics surveyed, 82% said their Masses have music, compared to 86% of Black Christians overall. Sixty-five percent of Black Catholics who go to Mass at least a few times a year say there is a gospel choir at their church, compared to 73% of all Black congregants, and 42% of all U.S. congregants.

Brevity also has its place, as 62% of Black Catholics report Mass is about an hour long, well more than double the length reported by 23% of all survey respondents. Another 25% of Black Catholics said Mass lasted about 90 minutes, 8% reported two hours and 3% said it lasted longer than two hours – all numbers much lower than the other survey respondents.

Despite the U.S. Church's reputation for large parishes, 24% of Black Catholics said their Masses have fewer than 50 in attendance. A majority of 57% said their Mass had between 51 and 250 worshippers, while 14% said their Masses' attendance numbered between 251-1,000 in size. Only 3% said their Mass attendance was bigger than 1,000. By comparison, about a third of Black Protestants said their congregation numbered 50 or less.

Eighty-one percent of Black Catholics said God "has power to control what goes on in world"; 80% said God "judges all people"; 65% said God "determines what happens in their life all/most of the time"; and 36% responded that God "talks to them directly." These numbers are three to seven percentage points higher among Black Catholics who attend Mass.

Black Catholics, by a 54%-44% margin, said it was not necessary to believe in God to be moral. Among those who go to church, 51% said it was indeed necessary, while 47% said it was not. Churchgoing Black Catholics' views are close to that of all Black believers, while all U.S. adults, by a 2-to-1 margin, said it was not necessary to believe in God to be moral.

Asked what is essential to their faith, Black Catholics said, in descending order of importance, opposing racism, 77%; opposing sexism, 75%; believing in God, 73%; attending religious services, 26%; opposing abortion, 22%; and avoiding sex before marriage, 16%. Belief in God was the top essential among Black Protestants, at 84%, and 30% said avoiding sex before marriage was essential; otherwise, their answers closely paralleled those of Black Catholics.

A slight majority of all Black adults say it is their duty to convert others to their faith, but 36% of Black Catholics overall, and 43% of churchgoing Black Catholics, say the same.

Black Catholics rarely play a leadership role in their own parish, with just 10% saying they participate in leadership, compared to 24% of all congregants. Older members are more likely to participate in leadership, evidenced by the 39% of "Silent Generation" Black Catholics who preceded the baby boom cohort.

Without question, nearly all Blacks said they believe in God or a higher power, with percentages of 90% or more – often closer to 100% – when broken down by category. Even 63% of Blacks who profess to be atheist or agnostic said they believe in God or a higher power.