Latinos and the Transformation of U.S. Catholicism

Latinos constitute more than one-third of U.S. Catholics, one-fourth of newborns in the United States, and one-fifth of schoolchildren. But numbers alone do not define the significance of the Latino presence.
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Latinos constitute more than one-third of U.S. Catholics, one-fourth of newborns in the United States, and one-fifth of schoolchildren. But numbers alone do not define the significance of the Latino presence. Even more crucial is how the U.S. context, the U.S. Catholic Church, and Latinos mutually transform one another. Latinos' attempts to celebrate their faith and bring it to bear on the everyday realities of their lives have shaped Catholic parishes, apostolic movements, leadership, ministries, worship, social activism, and much more. At the same time, the lives and faith of Latino Catholics are being dramatically refashioned through forces like the multiple pressures of assimilation, the upsurge of Pentecostal and evangelical religion, growing secularization, civil rights struggles, conservative political movements, and ongoing controversies over immigration and clergy sexual abuse.

Various examples reveal Latinos' impact on the political involvement of U.S. Catholics. Among Catholic bishops, immigration is the social issue that draws the most consistent public response across regions and theological perspectives, complementing the bishops' more frequently noted stance on the right to life. Latinos also exert a noteworthy impact on the overall profile of Catholic voters. The long association of Catholic voters with the Democratic Party continues among many Latinos, the noteworthy exception being Cubans. Latino Catholics' Democratic preference - overall they favor Democrats over Republicans by a margin of three or even four to one - offsets gains Republicans have made in recent decades among white non-Latino Catholics.

A striking illustration of Latino impact within U.S. Catholicism is nothing less than an historic structural shift in the central institution of U.S. Catholic life, the parish. A century ago when the flows of European immigration were at their zenith, numerous national parishes catered to a particular language or cultural group. Suburban parishes largely comprised of the descendants of these European immigrants grew in number with the rise of U.S.-born generations and greater economic prosperity after World War II. But today an increasing number of U.S. parishes - currently some 30 percent, more than 5,000 in all - have significant contingents of at least two language or cultural groups. The participation and sheer number of Latino parishioners is the leading cause for the ongoing evolution of the U.S. Catholic parish from the ethnic enclave to the multicultural congregation. For good or for ill, intercultural encounters in these parishes alter the day-to-day congregational experience of numerous Catholics, Latinos and non-Latinos alike.

In the half century since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), many Euro-American Catholics have emphasized concerns like liturgical reform, the role of the laity, dissent or obedience to sexual ethics and other church teaching, the proper exercise of authority, the question of who is called to ordination. The focus on these issues has produced debates along a liberal-conservative continuum, at times so stridently that they are deemed the "Catholic culture wars." Conversely, Latinos have been more inclined to accentuate concerns like funding for Latino youth initiatives, outreach efforts, and leadership training and formation programs, as well as an increase in Spanish Masses, celebrations of feast days that are part of their Latino traditions, efforts to promote immigration reform, and culturally sensitive formation programs for seminarians and other ecclesial leaders. Such efforts are primarily intended to equip the church to serve and accompany its Latino members in their faith and daily hardships. In a word, while Latino Catholic leaders frequently perceive the U.S. Catholic Church as a significant institution that could do much to uplift their struggling sisters and brothers, Catholic leaders of European descent tend to be more concerned with issues of authority and the adaptation of the church to the U.S. milieu or, conversely, with the alarming worry that U.S. Catholics already embrace societal norms far more than they do fundamental Catholic teachings.

Latinos' concerns reveal that, besides the widely-discussed split between the right and the left, another prominent divergence in U.S. Catholicism is one along class and cultural lines. From perspectives on parish life to immigration policy, Latinos' viewpoints are more akin to those of European immigrants of yesteryear than to those of many present-day Euro-Americans. Latinos are a rapidly expanding group that advances their cultural and working-class perceptions in a church whose membership is still significantly Euro-American and middle class, and whose leadership is overwhelmingly so. As the late Joseph Fitzpatrick, S.J. so aptly put it, they comprise the "Hispanic poor in a middle-class church." The seismic demographic shift summarized in this turn of phrase underlies Latino perspectives and modes of participation that are altering the landscape of U.S. Catholicism. These changes and the immense and often competing challenges they produce will intensify over the coming decades as the transition from a Euro-American to a majority Latino church continues to unfold.

Timothy Matovina is author of 'Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America's Largest Church.'

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