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The First Pilgrims

AS YOU ENTER the narthex of Baltimore’s Basilica of the Assumption, the self-guided tour brochures welcome you to “America’s First Cathedral.” The church opened in 1806, having been designed by Benjamin Latrobe, one of the architects of the U.S. Capitol. It is truly one of the most beautiful churches in the country, a rare ecclesiastical masterpiece of Federalist architecture. The Basilica was recently restored and should rank on anyone’s list of the most important, and aesthetically pleasing, architectural achievements in American history.

But, alas, it is not “America’s First Cathedral.” The Cathedral of St. Louis in New Orleans was built as a parish church in the early eighteenth century and consecrated as a Cathedral on Christmas Eve in 1794. And while the United States did not acquire Puerto Rico until the Spanish-American War, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in that city was begun in 1521. Most of the church building was destroyed in a hurricane in the nineteenth century, but two gothic chapels in the back that survived are among the only truly gothic structures in the United States. St. Patrick’s in New York and the National Cathedral in Washington are Gothic Revival, constructed thusly to recapture some sense of the Age of Faith. The cathedral in San Juan is Gothic because that is how they built churches in the early sixteenth century, ninety-nine years before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth.

The mission churches of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California were churches, not cathedrals, but they also stand as monuments to the earliest spread of the Christian Gospels in those regions. The first “Thanksgiving Day” in what is now the United States was not at Plymouth but in El Paso, and not in 1621 but in 1598, an event still commemorated with an annual picnic. In addition to the mission churches, various private shrines and public parishes have been in continuous use since colonial times. Long before Manifest Destiny brought Bible-toting Protestants to the West, Latino Americans were worshipping the Christian God in San Antonio, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara.

The historical experience of Latino Catholics was, in some ways, the reverse of what later European immigrants experienced. The nineteenth-century Irish and German immigrants left their homelands to come to America, but according to Timothy Matovina “the first large group of Hispanic Catholics became part of the nation during that same era without ever leaving home, as they were incorporated into its boundaries during U.S. territorial expansion into Florida and then westward.” Additionally, when restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s closed the doors to Europe, the Mexican Revolution initiated the first large-scale immigration of Latinos across the border into the United States. In the post-World War II era, “waves of Hispanic immigrants have comprised an increasingly significant portion of what was purportedly an established, Americanized, post-immigrant church.”

In his new book on Latino Catholicism, Matovina argues that American Catholics must reclaim this Latino Catholic history not only because it is true, but also because understanding it will help the Catholic Church come to grips with the enormous demographic fact facing it today: according to the most recent national survey, 45 percent of all Millennial Catholics, those born between 1979 and 1987, are Latino. The largest archdiocese is no longer New York or Chicago, but Los Angeles with four and a half million Catholics. Indeed, if you created an archdiocese that only included the three million Latino Catholics of Los Angeles, it would still be the largest in the nation. Within a very few years, the Catholic Church in the United States will be majority Latino.

Matovina gives a detailed examination of the different pastoral approaches that have been adopted to deal with the influx of Latino immigrants, with some advocating the need to assimilate quickly to American ways and others preferring to focus on preserving the religious and cultural heritage that the immigrants have brought with them. The division between the two approaches is not absolute. Matovina highlights the work of Silvano Tomasi on the development of pastoral approaches for Italian-Americans to make the point: “While Italians and other immigrant groups labored to found national parishes as enclaves to preserve their language, culture, and ethnic expressions of faith in a new land, over time these segregated congregations enabled their descendants to integrate into U.S. society and ecclesial life from a position of strength.” The careers of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (B.A. and J.D. from St. John’s), forensic scientist Joseph Gormley (Bachelor’s and Master’s from Boston College, J.D. from Georgetown) and Tomasi himself (Ph.D. from Fordham)—he is now an Archbishop and the Vatican ambassador at Geneva—demonstrate the point. The subculture of the ethnic ghetto was safe but vibrant, and it created its own excellences. Alumni of the Catholic parochial schools, Catholic colleges, and graduate schools at Fordham, Boston College, and Notre Dame found success in the world beyond the Catholic ghetto.

The debate between the two approaches mimics the late-nineteenth-century debate between the “Americanizers” in the hierarchy, mostly Irish bishops, and the mostly German and conservative bishops who were suspicious of assimilation. (Similarly, there are ideological and ethnic divisions within the Latino community. Mexicans have different religious practices, to say nothing of different economic and legal opportunities, from Cubans. Or, as one Latino friend said to me, “Only gringos use the term ‘Hispanic.’ I am a Puerto Rican and I often feel I have only my language in common with a Mexican.”) The Americanizers did not exactly win that debate, but they laid the groundwork for the flight to the suburbs by white ethnic Catholics after World War II. For a generation, the accoutrement of the ghetto went with them: the parochial school, high Mass attendance rates, plenty of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. But over time assimilation took its toll, as the materialistic identity of the multidenominational and multicultural suburbs minimized or bracketed the religious and mono-cultural identity of the Catholic community.

Latinos, and increasingly all Catholic leaders, do not really want to see a repeat. Catholic leaders have become suspicious of modern culture in ways the previous generation was not. Most people associate Pope John Paul II’s language about the “culture of death” with abortion and euthanasia, but in 1997 the American bishops penned a document that applied the term “culture of death” to mainstream American culture.

And indeed, the situation of immigrants in the early twenty-first century is different from that of their forebears. Thanks to Skype, cell phones, and the internet, contact with the mother country is not broken. Also, the Church must compete with the entertainment industry in shaping the cultural values of the immigrants. Today’s immigrants may face similar economic challenges, but their legal status is an additional hurdle that previous generations did not have to overcome. And finally, unlike the immigration in the nineteenth century, the Church today has boatloads of sociologists, cultural theologians, catechetical experts, and other academics who provide concrete data and analytical tools for studying the issues surrounding immigrants. I am not sure that this last difference has necessarily improved matters: in the nineteenth century, the only way a bishop could find out about his immigrant flock was to talk to them and there is much to be said for that method.

Virgilio Elizondo of Notre Dame, one of the outstanding Latino theologians in the United States, rejected the assimilationist model of Western Europeans, preferring instead to look to the concept of “mestizaje,” which Matovina describes as the “dynamic and often violent mixing of cultures, religious systems, and peoples” that characterized the historic meeting of the culture of the Spanish conquistadors with the native Indian cultures of Mexico, Peru and all points in between. Mestizaje is neither assimilation nor isolation, but a combination of the two in which newcomers both change and are changed by the encounter.

The most obvious religious symbol of mestizaje in Catholicism is the now continent-wide devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Virgin Mother of a Galilean Jew who appeared to an Indian boy on a hill outside Mexico City in 1531. Elizondo’s theory was a direct rebuttal to Samuel Huntington’s book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, in which he expressed his fear of an “America with two languages and two cultures [that] will be fundamentally different from the America with one language and one core Anglo-Protestant culture that has existed for over three centuries.” Mestizaje has existed for almost five centuries: one wishes that Huntington were still alive to attend Mass at San Antonio’s Cathedral of San Fernando to see how cultures can blend in ways that are creative, not debilitating.

Matovina catalogues different aspects of the recent pastoral history of Latino Catholicism. The Cursillo movement, which organizes weekend retreats designed to provide a short intensive training in the basics of Christian doctrine, began in the New York archdiocese among the Puerto Rican community, but it has now spread throughout the Latino community (and also to many Anglo parishes). In San Antonio, the Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) became the first Latino faith-based community organizing group. This and other such Catholic organizations worked closely with Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), but they brought a distinctively Catholic flavor. “While Alinsky took a rather utilitarian view of churches as repositories of money and people to be mobilized,” writes Mark Warren in a study of IAF groups in Texas, “the modern IAF developed a close collaboration with people of faith, fusing religious traditions and power politics into a theology of organizing.” Cesar Chavez fused his labor organizing with a profound devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe (and made Bobby Kennedy a liberal in the process!).

Increasingly the ethnic parish became what it was for previous immigrant groups: the dominant vehicle for pastoral care of Latinos, complete with an array of social service agencies, schools, and day care centers. Sometimes, an ethnic community and an Anglo one share the parish facilities, but they are mostly kept distinct. When a pastor in California tried to merge a Latino youth group with an Anglo one, a Latino teenager said, “I have to suffer in this brown skin all day at school, and you want me to feel the same way at church?”

Matovina also gives a detailed account of the national Encuentro meetings, which began in 1972 and have been held every few years since, bringing bishops, clergy, theologians, and laity together to discuss what is working and what is not. And Matovina identifies key continuing challenges, especially the lack of Latino vocations to the priesthood and the lack of financial resources the U.S. bishops can dedicate to Hispanic ministry after years of expensive settlements in sex abuse cases.

It is unfair to criticize Matovina for failing to write the book I wanted to read. Still, I wish he had focused not only on the devotional practices and beliefs that Latinos bring with them, but on the different cultural situation of the Church in the cultures from which the immigrants came. Those devotional practices suggest a faith unstained by Calvinistic impulses concerning worldly achievement, as well as an allergy to exalted notions of human autonomy inherited from the Enlightenment. But perhaps what is most different about Catholicism south of the American border is that it has never had to adopt the defensive posture towards the ambient culture that has been such a staple of religiosity in the United States. The “jeremiad” is unknown to them. In many ways Latino Catholicism is the ideological, and temperamental, antithesis to Tea Party libertarianism.  

The bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States have been prominent in the public square this year, insisting that religiously affiliated institutions be exempt from certain mandates for health coverage of procedures and prescriptions the Catholic Church finds morally objectionable. It remains unclear how much attention, and how much money, the bishops will devote to the political effort to roll back those mandates. But, one thing is clear: if the bishops spend gobs of money on a public campaign about contraception, and do not spend such time and resources on the fight for comprehensive immigration reform, Latinos will notice.

The latter issue is not just highly symbolic. It is also existential. The American bishops should consider the short-term and long-term consequences of making immigration reform the centerpiece of their election-year efforts. A couple of years ago, just after the census data was released, I asked a bishop from Texas if it seemed probable that his state would be Democratic blue within twenty years. He replied, “Ten.” If the bishops find a way to keep Latinos within the fold, spending money not only on voter registration and education, but on scholarships for outstanding Latino students to attend Catholic colleges and Catholic law schools, they could create in the Southwest a wing of the Democratic Party that is decidedly more receptive to Catholic concerns.

But first those bishops must understand what has and has not worked at meeting the pastoral needs of these newest members of their flocks, what issues remain problematic, and how to strike a balance between assimilation into American culture and preserving the cultural values Latinos bring with them. That California teenager who felt that he “had to suffer in this brown skin all day at school” must find in the Catholic Church a place of refuge and safety, where he can acquire the confidence and the skills for flourishing in mainstream culture and, as Catholic leaders hope, bring his Catholicism to bear on that mainstream culture in ways the Catholics in the “Greatest Generation” failed to do. Matovina’s book should be mandatory reading for all bishops, clergy, and lay leaders, and for anyone else who wants to understand the future of American Catholicism.

Michael Sean Winters is the author of God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right, recently published by Harper One. He writes and blogs for the National Catholic Reporter.