Date of Award

May 2022

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Joe A Austin

Committee Members

Neal Pease, Joe Rodriguez, Sam Hamstra


African-American religion, Civil Rights, racial justice, Roman Catholicism, Vatican II


The Second Vatican Council convened between October 1962 and December 1965. In the years immediately following, American Catholics, as well as co-religionists the world over, were left to interpret and navigate an event and literary corpus which had fundamentally recalibrated not only the dominant theological method for the Church, but also redefined its posture toward the world and social issues. The established traditions of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) as well as the paroxysms of Vatican II, figured prominently in the Milwaukee iteration of the Civil Rights Movement/Black Freedom Struggle, in which one of the most visible figures was progressive priest Rev. James E. Groppi (1930-1985). Employing nonviolent protest and preaching, Groppi pursued common cause with Milwaukee legislators like Lloyd Barbee and Velvalea “Vel” Phillips. However, the concept of Catholic thought and praxis as sympathetic to, and even a vehicle for, pro-Black racial activism angered many white Catholics in Milwaukee and often provoked rancor and obfuscation from episcopal authorities. Ultimately, the divergent rhetorical and theological/social deployments of Catholic dogma within the microcosm of Milwaukee point to Roman Catholicism as a massive historical entity unable to speak univocally to racial justice. Rather, the Roman Catholic tradition is complex and ambivalent, lending putative support to polarized social agendas, from the radical and progressive to the conservative and institutional.