Immigration, Latinos & the New Evangelization

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday’s conference on the Church and Immigration at Catholic University was fascinating in every regard. Robert Royal raised an important point that we who advocate for immigration reform are sometimes a bit to dismissive regarding the breaking of law, although I think it must also be said that it is incumbent upon legislators to draft laws that are just, and our current immigration reform have, as one participant put it, all the moral force of laws against jaywalking.

Actually, when you jaywalk no one is on the other side of the street winking at you and begging you to cross, as is the case with our immigration laws. Still, Royal had an important point.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski, responding to Royal, pointed out that America is beset by what he called a “secular Calvinism.” I have not heard this phrase before but I suspect Wenski is on to something and I hope he will find the occasion to elaborate on what he means by the phrase.

One of the most interesting subjects touched upon was the relationship between immigration, especially that of large numbers of Latino Catholics, and the New Evangelization. Fr. Virgil Elizondo, professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology at the University of Notre Dame, pointed out that we are called not just to evangelize individuals but to evangelize the culture. He pointed to the way such evangelization of the culture had occurred during the Spanish settlement of Latin America, which produced a new culture that was, if you will, born from the church.

In the United States, of course, the idea of evangelizing the culture has not made much of an impression. The more standard posture to the culture has been one of defensiveness. Think of the Legion of Decency, which censored films in the 1930s and 1940s. Think of the ethnic Catholic ghetto of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. That ghetto was one part inculcating the faith and two parts creating a wall to protect Catholics from the ambient culture. Think of Bill Donohue.

There were good historical reasons for this defensive posture. The mainstream culture really was hostile to Catholics and Catholic concerns through much of American history. Groups like the Temperance Societies and the YMCA were designed specifically to inoculate against the supposed depredations of Catholic culture, to say nothing of the Know-Nothings and the KKK and other more explicitly anti-Catholic organizations. And, there is Paul Blanshard whose 1950 tomes against Catholicism were best-sellers.

But the adoption of a defensive posture against the culture was also a participation in a distinctly American religious stance. In 1675 the General Court of the Colony of Massachusetts adopted a set of moral reforms, drafted by a committee of Puritan ministers, to invoke God’s protection during King Philip’s War against the Native Americans -- a war in which one in every sixteen men of fighting age in the Bay State died.

Closer to our own time, the Moral Majority evidenced a Fundamentalist version of the Legion of Decency, combating pornography as well as abortion, and urging Americans to turn to God and godly ways. The modern megachurch is the socio-cultural equivalent of the ethnic Catholic parish of the nineteenth century ghetto, a place where congregants can get cradle-to-grave social services in a specifically Christian environment and avoid contamination with the forces of evil in the ambient culture.

For Latinos, whose culture was born from the church, this defensive posture is nonsensical. Even in Mexico, a country that was torn apart by religious strife and anti-clerical sentiment and more than sentiment, by aggressive government policies directed against the clergy, the culture was never seen as hostile. Woe to the Mexican of any political leanings who attacks the Virgin of Guadalupe and all that she stands for!

In 1995, the NCCB as it was then known -- now the USCCB -- adopted a document entitled "The Hispanic Presence in the New Evangelization in the United States."

That document contained the most trenchant criticism found of American culture ever penned by a group of religious leaders:

In our country, the modern technological, functional mentality creates a world of replaceable individuals incapable of authentic solidarity. In its place, society is grouped by artificial arrangements created by powerful interests. The common ground is an increasingly dull, sterile, consumer conformism -- visible especially among so many of our young people -- created by artificial needs promoted by the media to support powerful economic interests. Pope John Paul II has called this a ‘culture of death.’

In the Holy Father’s words, ‘this culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency....A life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another....’

In such a culture, ‘society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds.’ The New Evangelization, therefore, requires to the Church to provide refuge and sustenance for ongoing growth to those rescued from the loneliness of modern life. It requires the promotion of a culture of life based on the Gospel of Life.

Oftentimes, when you hear people talk about the "New Evangelization" it becomes clear that no one is exactly clear what is being talked about. This is what is being talked about. It is not a defensive posture: Critique is a form of engagement after all.

And what the 1995 bishops' document points to is not a culture war but a Catholic Renaissance, the creation of a culture that drinks deeply from the wellsprings of our Catholic traditions.

In a different context, Catholic University’s President John Garvey called for a similar approach in his magnificent inaugural address in January.

Catholics must discern ways to evangelize the culture by creating narratives and analyses that present the Church, and Christ Himself, as we have encountered Him -- as the center of history in Whom we find our truest selves, our most secure freedom, and the fulfillment of our deepest desires.

Only when we stop the scolding can we achieve this. Only when we abandon our defensive habits of mind can we achieve this. And only when we turn to our Latino brothers and sisters and learn from them will we find how to take the first steps towards creating a Culture of Life.

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