Latinos “the leading indicator” of American Catholicism’s future

Sociologists of religion Robert Putman and David Campbell recently shared with me some initial findings about Latinos and the Catholic Church from their massive study of religion in the United States still in progress. Their closing remark was: “Just as financial observers often speak of ‘leading indicators’ to gauge the state of the economy, we would recommend that the United States Church consider Latinos to be the leading indicator of American Catholicism’s future.”

If it is not obvious by now, it ought to be that the U.S. Catholic Church is in for an age of growing diversity in terms of several factors: ethnicity, cultures, social classes, generations and migration – to name just a few.

In an age of globalization characterized by the movements of people across all kinds of boundaries due to migration, commerce, cyberspace and the modern culture of mass media, what we need to plan is ongoing change. In this connection, I believe that pastoral ministers are often ill-prepared and even uncomfortable with this rapidly changing reality.

In my years of ministry, I have noticed what I call a tendency toward univocal thinking that is the expectation that if there is a challenge or a “problem” there must be a single solution. Such a way of thinking is illogical but quite common.

This lack of pastoral imagination may be a function of what David Tracy calls the dialectical imagination of a fundamentally Protestant and Nordic culture that does not like ambiguity or incoherence of any sort. U.S. Catholics have been tainted more than a little by this either/or mentality.

In contrast, in the real world context in which pastoral ministers move today, the Catholic analogical imagination ought to be a most useful resource. The Catholic analogical imagination can deal with diversity, with gray zones and ambiguities. It can live with a range of solutions adapted to the diversity of situations and is comfortable with “both/and” approaches. The Catholic Church is catholic precisely because it can bring about unity in the context of many cultures rather than in a deadening and dull uniformity. As Archbishop Wilton Gregory reminded us in a recent article in “Origins,” “To speak of a multicultural church is … a redundancy. Is there any other kind of church in our Catholic tradition?”

A factor affecting the ability of pastoral agents – priests, deacons, religious or laity – to relate successfully to the mounting diversity of our times is the prejudice against the relationship between theory and practice in the area of theology. It is especially questionable in an age of diversity when the sources of Catholic faith need to be inculturated in multiple contexts if this heritage is to carry any weight at all in the real lives of Hispanics or anyone else.

Another related factor is the approach to lay ecclesial movements. Slowly but surely the significance of lay ecclesial movements for ministry in the United States, including for Hispanic ministry, is dawning upon us. The rising influence of these movements, the resistance they get from some pastors and bishops as well as Rome’s growing support and interest in them, is a complicated subject but it is particularly relevant to Hispanic ministry. The Pew Hispanic Center’s recent findings regarding the major influence of the Charismatic Renewal on U.S. Latinos confirms what many of us in the field have known for years: that the charismatic renewal is very important and yet pastoral leaders in the church have simply refused to come to terms with it. While researchers can argue about exactly what percentage of Latinos are or have been profoundly influenced by the charismatic renewal, it is rather obvious to those who work in the field that it is a major reality that we ignore at our own peril. Other movements, including the Cursillo or Marriage Encounter also play major roles in Hispanic ministry and deserve serious attention by pastoral leaders.

Indeed, these are times of dramatic changes in the life of church and society that require intelligent responses from all those concerned. Reading the signs of the times was not a one-shot response for the church limited to the decade of the 1960’s. Rather, it is a never-ending task. We need to keep reading those signs and responding as best the Spirit guides us.

Jesuit Father Allan Figueroa Deck is executive director of cultural diversity in the church for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.