Catholicism's changing face and the dangers of denial


Officially, the theme of the major annual gathering of Catholic theologians this week is “generations,” but another sort of transformation took center stage this morning: the demographic revolution in American Catholicism, with Hispanics now representing almost 40 percent of the country’s Catholic population, and Catholics of non-European origin already a clear majority.

Another striking statistic, which confirms the way the winds are blowing: According to the U.S. bishops, a startling 71 percent of the growth in the Catholic population in the United States since 1960 is attributable to Hispanics alone.

Yet mainstream Catholic attitudes and awareness in the United States, several speakers warned, haven’t caught up to what’s happening on the ground.

“There is a strange kind of denial going on,” warned Jesuit Fr. Allan Figueroa Deck, executive director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity for the U.S. bishops. “We assert the reality, but insulate ourselves from the practical consequences.”

“Inexorably, U.S. Latino theologies, and kindred spirits such as Black and Asian theologies, which were once sideshows, will become the main attraction,” Figueroa said. Theology directed primarily at a “fading European-American audience,” he said, risks becoming irrelevant.

Figueroa and Maria Teresa Davila of Andover Newton Theological School spoke this morning to a plenary session of the Catholic Theological Society of America, meeting in Miami, Florida. Both are American-born Hispanics, with Figueroa coming from a Mexican family and Davila from a Puerto Rican background.

Davila argued that Hispanic theology in the United States is characterized by an emphasis on daily experience, or Lo cotidiano, especially the suffering and violence faced by poor and immigrant people. In that context, she offered what is likely to be one of this meeting’s most memorable sound-bites, describing a “history of violence” beneath the American myth of the melting pot.

American reality, Davila said, is that “there are those who are stewed, and those whose power and relationship to the center allows them simply to stir the pot.”

Davila critiqued what she sees as the marginalization of Latino and other “minority” voices in Catholic theology in the United States, often presented under the rubric of “contextual theologies.”

“The academy has treated contextual theologies as elective or ornamental,” Davila said, “not pertinent to the substance of theological education, and nonessential for the business of serious theological reflection.” The assumption, she said, is that “theologies from the margins hold relevance only to the groups that originated them.”

Davila said that too often, Latino and other minority perspectives are treated as “primitive, exotic or cute.” Many institutions have made efforts to be more open, she said, but added that she’ll take this seriously when graduate students can base dissertations on the works of Latino theologians “without being harassed about a lack of rigor in their choices.”

In addition to Lo cotidiano, Davila said that other characteristic accents of Latino theology in the United States include:

•tTeologia en conjunto, seeing theology as a community enterprise;
•tReligión Popular, taking grassroots faith and practice seriously, some of it well outside the liturgical and devotional norms of the institutional church;
•t Mestizaje, or the history of suffering and violence experienced by Latinos and other groups in America;
•tThe “preferential option for the poor” initially developed by liberation theology in Latin America.

Figueroa said that trends in the United States need to be situated in the context of global Catholic demographics, with nearly two-thirds of the world’s Catholics now living outside Europe and North America. Quoting Gambian scholar Lamin Sanneh of Yale, Figueroa warned that Western Catholics, perhaps especially liberals, may be “suspicious” of forms of Christianity not shaped by the Enlightenment. Though he didn’t unpack the point, Figueroa likely had in mind features of Christianity across the global South such as a lively belief in miracles, wonders and healings, along with deep currents of moral conservatism and Biblical literalism.

In that sense, Figuero cautioned, changing demographics in the church may challenge a “prescriptive commitment to liberalism” in some quarters that “competes with the finality of the gospel.”

On the other hand, Figueroa said, traditional ambivalence within Catholicism about some features of the modern world may make the church a valued conversation partner with the global South, where there are also deep reservations about modernity – especially the way that modern political and economic systems are perceived to disadvantage non-Western cultures.

Figueroa said that a recent decision by the U.S. bishops to create a 42-member Committee on Cultural Diversity, with a majority of member bishops having non-European origins, reflects an effort to catch up to changing realities, but that "there's still a long way to go."

Davila called upon Hispanic theologians to recover a critical edge, especially the capacity to challenge militarism and what she called the “sacred cow” of capitalism.

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