Communion theology deepens multiculturalism

by Marian Ronan

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By Brett C. Hoover
Published by New York University Press, $49

It's virtually a truism these days that Latinos are the future of the U.S. Church. According to various Pew surveys, one-third of all U.S. Catholics were Hispanic in 2013. And younger Catholics are much more likely to be Hispanic than are Catholics over 50 (44 percent versus 21 percent).

Yet even as statistics reflect the extent of these shifts, they do not show the profound changes in daily life that undergird them. It is precisely these gaps that Brett Hoover addresses in his significant new book, The Shared Parish.

Hoover, an assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, explores the complex relationship between groups of Latino and Anglo Catholics in the Midwestern parish of "All Saints" in the "diocese of Port Jefferson" (both pseudonyms, in the interest of privacy).

Based on 10 months of ethnographic work conducted in 2007, the book uses sociology, Latino/Latina studies, ethnography, and theology to explore the specific ways those two groups do and do not interact, and why that matters. The resulting analysis offers insights not only into current U.S. Catholic realities, but also into those of other religious groups and society more broadly.

The first three chapters of The Shared Parish examine in depth the historical development and contemporary life of All Saints, with particular attention to the changes brought about by immigration. Hoover divides this history into four phases:

  • A tiny English-speaking Catholic parish in a small Protestant town (1860-1940);
  • A comprehensive "social parish" offering many services (1940-80);
  • A hybrid parish in an increasingly decentralized culture (1980-95);
  • An ethnically mixed, Latino/Anglo parish (1995-2007).

Hoover then explores the "toolkits" that Anglo parish members use to deal with the perceived "Latino identity threat," and the toolkits that Latino members use to cope with their own lack of power. Such strategies include Anglo enforcement of norms like library and parking regulations, Latino adaptation of popular religious practices like the posada, as well as each group's assertion of identity in the celebration of their respective language Masses.

Chapter 3 considers the distinct perspectives the two groups and their various members bring to the widely used language of "unity" and "what these perspectives on unity say about the struggles of each cultural community to adapt to the sharing of the parish." One of the most moving sections of The Shared Parish is Hoover's description of the profound impact on the Latino community of the Anglo pastor's washing his Chicano concelebrant's feet during the Holy Thursday liturgy.

The last two chapters situate this study of All Saints in the wider context of contemporary social science. In Chapter 4, Hoover explains his need to create the term "the shared parish": "De facto congregationalism," the sociological term usually applied to U.S. churches, isn't adequate for understanding the multicultural interactions in Catholic worship communities. Catholic parishes are not only voluntary gatherings of believers, as Protestant churches often are, but are also characterized by a centralized authority structure and participation in a worldwide communion.

This centralization causes members to join a Catholic parish because they are Catholics, which in turn leads to interaction and negotiation between groups and reduced ethno-racial homogeneity.

Finally, Chapter 5 examines visions and practices that move distinct communities beyond what sociologists call "cultural encapsulation." For white, English-speaking Americans, the framework of assimilation undergirds such encapsulation, with "others" required to merge into the American "melting pot" as quickly as possible.

In pastoral letters and statements, U.S. Catholic bishops have attempted to replace this ideology with a more expansive one, multiculturalism. But even multiculturalism invites only minimal tolerance, while erasing cultural specificity in favor of abstract notions such as "diversity."

Instead, Hoover proposes that parish leaders draw on the theology of communion as a potentially transformative framework. Within this framework, parish members can, for example, understand that they are celebrating the same Eucharist despite doing so in different languages and with different cultural expressions.

Such a transformation involves not just cognitive change, but leaders' modeling of different feelings, rights and obligations. Multilingual Masses, parish picnics, and multicultural festivals reinforce this communion theology.

The Shared Parish will be useful for a wide range of readers. Pastors, parish administrators, lay ministers and Catholics in the pews will learn a good deal from the first part of the book. Students in American Catholic studies, Latino/Latina studies, theology, and the sociology of religion will find Chapters 4 and 5 similarly useful.

But I would encourage even grassroots Catholics to read those last two chapters. When they do, they may be inspired, as I was, to realize that analysis of the kind of parish many of us belong to is actually expanding the sociology of religion, and that the concept of communion adds suppleness and depth to multiculturalism itself.

[Marian Ronan is research professor of Catholic studies at New York Theological Seminary. She blogs at]

A version of this story appeared in the May 8-21, 2015 print issue under the headline: Communion theology deepens multiculturalism.

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